Real disaster relief is about building long-term resilience, argues Caribbean philanthropist

Eruption Plumes of ash billow from the La Soufrière volcano on the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines which started erupting on 9th April. The volcano had been dormant since 1979, it started spewing smoke and actively rumbling in December 2020. La Soufrière erupted last Friday 9th April 2021, blanketing Saint Vincent in a layer of ash and forcing some 16,000 residents to evacuate their homes to cruise ships and safer parts of the island.

A month on from the devastating eruption of La Soufriere volcano in St Vincent & the Grenadines, Carribean community leaders are looking to build back better.

Environmental disasters tend to dominate global headlines in the days immediately after they
unfold, but can often be forgotten soon after.

Media and social media attention does well to highlight the plight of the affected populations, often serving to enlist valuable support from far afield, but in the long-term, smaller countries need more than short-term disaster relief. That’s the view of a Caribbean businessman and philanthropist one month on from the devastating eruption of La Soufriere volcano in St Vincent & the Grenadines.

Dr Adrian Fox, whose education and disaster-relief charity the Fox Foundation provided support to civilians in The Bahamas after the islands were struck by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, says that while the short-term impact of environmental catastrophes is always the most eye-catching, in the long-term more attention must be paid to the infrastructure of small economies often vulnerable to their dependence on tourism.

Last month’s eruption in St. Vincent is estimated to have cost the country around half of its GDP. Relief efforts from neighbouring countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Montserrat assisted evacuation and resettling efforts and provided much needed essentials for those people affected on the ground.

Two years on from Hurricane Dorian, Dr Fox knows from experience that natural disasters in the Carribean have a lasting impact. The devastating Category 5 Atlantic hurricane has become the costliest disaster in Bahamian history – estimated to have left behind a total of $5.1 billion in damage. The country has had to borrow extensively to meet the damage of the disaster, with growth projections further compounded by the impact of the pandemic on inbound tourism.

Just weeks before the eruption in neighbouring St Vincent, Dr Fox had argued in the pages of The Parliament Magazine that Caribbean countries had to build long-term resilience into their
economies, after the European Commission announced its intention to commit €17m in
humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable in Haiti and the Caribbean, stating that “it is important for Caribbean countries to join the global effort to ‘build back better’ by investing in education and economic diversification.”

Following the volcano’s outburst, Dr Fox wrote in The Jerusalem Post of how “the pain of the La Soufriere eruption is felt deeply by all Caribbean people… with the entire Caribbean already reeling from the effects of the COVID crisis, this latest disaster is truly a crisis within a crisis.”

Dr Fox says that rebuilding will be a long-term project, “given the economy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is heavily dependent on agriculture, the volcanic eruption has not just destroyed its short-term economic health, but its long-term economic regeneration prospects.”

According to the country’s Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the country’s agricultural sector has completely gone from many of the country’s key regions, and his warnings that residents will have to rebuild from scratch when they return to their homes paints a bleak picture.

Natural disasters such as La Soufrière or Hurricane Dorian can wipe out the entire backbone of a country’s economy. Even before this tragic disaster struck St. Vincent, the World Bank warned that the country was in need of a “blue growth agenda” to prevent it from being vulnerable to natural disasters such as hurricanes, the effects of climate change and rising sea levels. Such an agenda requires “building on natural assets, reinforcing climate resilience, strengthening fiscal buffers and ensuring macroeconomic stability”, it said.

When the World Bank approved its $40 million in financing to strengthen St. Vincent’s disaster preparedness, it could not have predicted that two disasters would strike in such quick succession. Dr Fox also stated, “the COVID-19 pandemic and La Soufriere eruption are two horrific reminders that lightning can strike twice, causing unthinkable damage when they eventually do.”

In his view countries such The Bahamas and St. Vincent need to cultivate local skills and educational aspiration as well as foreign direct investment in order to develop long-term resilient industries that will help their economies to weather future disasters.

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