The Atlantic hurricane season of 2017 was one of the deadliest in recent history, causing almost $300 billion worth of damage, and claiming over 3,000 lives.
But it is not just in the Caribbean that natural disasters — largely linked to climate change — are rising in number and intensity. In widely varying communities and environments around the globe, we see the scars of droughts, freak storms, hurricanes, cyclones, floods, mudslides, and rising sea levels. In 2018 alone, natural disasters claimed more than 5,000 lives globally and resulted in 28.9 million people needing to receive emergency assistance or humanitarian aid, according to data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
These events have brought far deeper awareness of the issues at stake, triggering street protests, generating new hashtag trends, and prompting widespread popular concern and urgent debate in parliaments. When Commonwealth heads of governments met in April last year, it was evident that everyone around the table recognized climate change as a serious threat.
Seeing the impacts first hand
If you have ever crawled into the space above your ceiling to escape rising flood waters in your home; watched your roof ripped off like sheets of paper; swum for your life in a swirling deluge, littered with your TV, sofas and other belongings; or searched through body bags for a missing loved one, then you will understand what it feels like to live in a climate-vulnerable part of the world. This is not fiction or the plot of a Hollywood movie. This is the lived experience of the people in the Bahamas islands today. And before them in Mozambique and before them in the Pacific and other Caribbean islands.
It has been almost two years since I sat in a security plane flying over the once familiar, but then almost unrecognizable, terrain of Dominica — the country of my birth. I was on my way from Barbuda where Hurricane Irma had caused unimaginable destruction, forcing a complete evacuation of the island. It is hard to describe the gut-wrenching effect of watching acres of utter devastation unfold before my eyes. Hurricane Maria’s ferocity had claimed lives, demolished the country’s GDP and completely changed landscapes, turning villages into wastelands, bulldozing mountainsides, and even stripping the bark from trees.
Not only did Dominica cry out for assistance but also neighboring Caribbean members who saw first-hand the destruction it caused. The Commonwealth received collective calls for support, and in tandem pushed for the international community to come together to lend their assistance. Such destruction and damage cannot feasibly be financed by one country or institution — it takes an international effort.
With the Atlantic hurricane season again upon us, countries are bracing themselves for the possibility of disaster and considering strategies to withstand or mitigate the impacts of the escalating climate crisis. Yet, with heavy question marks hanging over commitment to multilateral collaboration, there are added threats to the ability of the governments that need it most to effectively leverage the full benefits that international cooperation brings.
The range of perspectives and collective support that intergovernmental organizations bring to the fight against climate change can too easily be taken for granted, and the transformational opportunities they are able to unlock — particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalized — tends to be overlooked.
One example of this is the facilitating of financing for climate action.
There are billions of dollars earmarked for initiatives related to climate change, including for ocean preservation projects, to have fewer CO2-emitting vehicles on the road, and for boosting renewable energy options. Many Commonwealth members are eager to take advantage of these funding streams, but are finding it difficult to cut through the red tape and comply with the onerous criteria and conditions tied to the funding.
However, since the Commonwealth Secretariat launched the Climate Finance Access Hub in 2017, an initiative which deploys specialists to ministries to assist with funding applications, it has helped countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific to access $27.2 million, with a further $500 million in the pipeline.
There has also been increased focus on how to help countries make the best use of development assistance. Preliminary research by the Commonwealth shows that between 2010 and 2016, small states failed to utilize an estimated $4.5 billion of development assistance made available.
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In fact, there are myriad examples of unused funds being returned to donors because small and vulnerable member states were not able to draw down and use them, mainly because of lack of capacity and coordination for the implementation of development projects.
The issue is one of the most challenging obstacles facing the smaller and less-resourced member states, and is a powerful example of the key role multilateral organizations have in helping member countries to address climate change. Intergovernmental bodies such as the Commonwealth Secretariat are able to serve as “consultants of choice” for member states, offering cost-effective access to in-house expertise.
Experts have also created a number of “DIY” resources in the form of implementation toolkits. Along with the Commonwealth training programs, these help countries build the skill sets they need to create strong and effective programs that satisfy donor requirements. One such tool is the Commonwealth Disaster Risk Finance Portal, which is currently under development. The portal is designed to help member states navigate the complex and growing provision of disaster finance. As well as helping governments to find what disaster finance instruments are available, the portal will assist them with identifying those that are most suited to their particular needs and circumstances.
The Commonwealth approach has always been to cooperate in exchanging among regions and at all levels of development experience gained through practical action, through various ministerial and heads of government meetings, for example. To assist in this, we issue technical papers to update small states on case studies and responses that have or have not proved to be effective in strengthening disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.
In 2018, the Commonwealth Secretariat undertook a comparative analysis of the experience of Dominica and Vanuatu with disaster risk reduction and management, particularly in the cases of Cyclone Pam and Hurricane Erika. Both countries embody similar geographical, social, and economic characteristics and vulnerabilities.
Three main lessons learned from this analysis reinforced the importance of strong macroeconomic foundations; mainstreaming and implementation of disaster risk reduction and management strategies; and having provisional financing arrangements in place. Several international bodies including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations are working with countries to improve these elements.
IMF has developed a climate readiness tool and the United Nations, which is the main body for disaster risk reduction, has created a framework of actions to guide the international community toward better disaster preparedness. The Commonwealth’s disaster finance portal will also help direct countries to appropriate financing mechanisms.
Deeper awareness of how our action or inaction will affect the future of our planet is now firmly embedded in engagement at every level. This was clear when member governments adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter last year, which includes commitments to rid the ocean of plastic and to ensure its resources are used in ways that do not cause further damage to sea life.
By taking coordinated collective action, the nations of the Commonwealth can accelerate the mobilization of international efforts that are the only hope if we are to prevent further detrimental human impact on the delicate natural balance of our planet. It is our duty to ensure that our children and our children’s children have clean air to breathe, can benefit from a healthy ocean, and are able to live sustainably and in harmony with a diverse and thriving range of animal and plant life in our ocean and on our common earth.