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Climate change, natural disasters and personal responsibility

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RECENTLY a number of our former national footballers from the famous 1979 team which put SVG firmly on the regional map were honoured for their contribution. Among them was one goalkeeper by the name of Dorian Phillips.

Who would have thought then that the name Dorian would not be just on the lips of Vincentians but would reverberate worldwide, albeit for very tragic reasons, so much so that it will go down in history as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to affect the western hemisphere?

The worst effects of that deadly storm were felt in the northern islands of the Bahamas, Abaco and Grand Bahama in particular. It has left in its wake a trail of death and destruction unprecedented in Bahamian history. The tasks of relief to assist the thousands affected and rehabilitation to try and put those communities on the road to recovery are gargantuan in nature and well beyond the capacity of the Bahamas alone.

As happens after all major natural disasters, the international community has stepped in, many countries near and far providing assistance. This includes the Caribbean community of which the Bahamas is a member.

Our own country provided US$100,000 and has pledged to facilitate relief efforts of non-governmental organisations.

One of the Bahamas’ neighbours, Cuba, has already sent a team of medical and educational personnel to assist both in the relief effort and the task of assisting in the restoration of the health and educational services.

Unfortunately our media, regional and international does not give Cuba the credit it deserves for its selfless help to disaster- stricken countries, in spite of its resource limitations and the continuing effects of US sanctions.

Yet Cuba is always in the front rank of assisting such hard-hit nations. When the deadly ebola virus struck West Africa and even African nations were hesitant to send in their own medical personnel, it was Cuba which sent in doctors and nurses as it has done all over the world with little credit.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Venezuela has offered aid which has not been accepted as yet by the Bahamas. If this is true it would be a tragedy of another sort, leaving people to suffer for political reasons. We saw this right here in SVG in 1979 after the volcanic eruption. The Milton Cato government initially refused a Cuban offer of medical personnel and supplies, the then Deputy Premier Hudson Tannis, ridiculously claiming that “there was no need for more doctors here”. It took political pressure before the government relented and in June, two months after the volcano first erupted, finally accepted a shipment of 20 tons of Cuban relief supplies.

One of the unfortunate by-products of natural disasters is the tensions created in society. The frustrations, deprivations and inconveniences bring with them impatience on the part of those suffering.

Often those with responsibility do not understand and there is also tensions which arise between needs and expectations on the one hand and capacity to deliver on the part of the other. In the Bahamas such tension stands a high risk of exacerbation because many of those affected are Haitian migrants and the situation must be carefully managed to avoid the rise of narrow nationalism.

Above all though, Dorian’s devastation is another brutal reminder of the very real threat of the impact of climate change.

When Dorian passed the Eastern Caribbean it was a moderate tropical storm with predictions of possible weakening. By the time it reached the Bahamas it was unrecognisable from the one which by-passed us – a monstrous hurricane destroying everything in its path.

We have to take note of the climate change warnings – that storms will not only occur more frequently but with greater intensity. We have not generally, as a people been taking this seriously enough. In particular there is this myth of SVG being “a blessed land”, not likely to be hit by any rampaging storm. “Blessed” or not, we have to PREPARE for the worst. One can never, ever safeguard against a beast like Dorian, but:

lWe must take climate change and its negative impacts very seriously.

l Policy and implementation is an important part of this, including possible legislation against gross irresponsibility which can endanger the national good.

lWe need to step up on education, not just from NEMO but in, and from, all responsible social organisations. This includes littering, garbage disposal, the use of plastics and even be integrated in our road-cleaning programmes. Thus, are the people involved in such programmes made environmentally aware.

l Penalties for offenders must be introduced where absent, increased where insufficient and implemented if we are serious.

We like to wait until disaster strikes to point fingers. Personal responsibility is as much part of the solution as any grand effort by NEMO and government. Let us all play our part.

l Renwick Rose is a community activist and social comm entator.

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