News Date: July 19 2016
For more than 38 years, farmer Jorge Rivera raised cattle in the small mountain municipality of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. On his ranch, he had over 200 cows, mainly of the small, dairy producing Jersey breed. That was until last summer when the drought hit. With the rangeland grass withered, Jorge was forced to spend thousands of dollars on hundreds of kilos of cattle feed. He put buckets of water mixed with mineral salts in strategic points throughout the ranch. He also reached out to the government for assistance, but budget limitations, administrative orders pending approval and excessive protocol meant that help would not arrive in time. The drought ultimately claimed 14 of his cattle.
Unfortunately, Jorge is not the only one. He is one of more than 6.2 million people that were affected by the severe drought in the Caribbean.
A new report issued by the United Nations states that the effects caused by droughts in the Caribbean are expected to increase in intensity and frequency due to rapidly accelerating climate change.
Normally, when the region experiences drought-like events throughout the year, the consequences are offset by the following wet season. But projected increases in mean temperatures, evaporation and declines in annual rainfall means that the Caribbean is likely to experience more intense and frequent droughts, often impacting agriculture and water sources due to low water availability and a significant number of bush fires.
The Caribbean, already known to be a region vulnerable to climate-related hazards such as floods, hurricanes and storms, is also facing a weak economy. Poor national coordination, policy-making and strategic planning to deal effectively with drought issues have left the society’s must susceptible groups and sectors exposed. During 2015, the farming sector lost more than $1 million in crops as well as tens of thousands of dollars in livestock.
Exacerbated by El Niño, a natural climatic phenomenon which causes a shift in global weather patterns, climate change and droughts have caused disastrous results for the Caribbean economy. In Guyana, the largest food producer in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the desperation for water led some farmers to pump saline water onto about 60 hectares of rice lands even though they knew the potentially grave long-term consequences of such actions.
Over the past decades, the Caribbean has experienced several droughts, particularly so in years with El Niño events. Notable periods were 1957, 1968, 1976-77, 1986-87, 1991, 1994, 1997-1998 and 2009-2010. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that, based on intensity, geographic extent and economic impact on agriculture, two of the most severe Caribbean droughts occurred in 1997-1998 and 2009-2010. During the latter period, Jamaica recorded the lowest precipitations since 1941, causing over $8m in agricultural losses.
It is estimated that, between 1970 and 2000, the Caribbean region suffered direct and indirect losses estimated between $700m and $3.3bn due to natural disasters associated with weather and climate events.
The Many Faces Of Drought
The 2009-2010 the dry season revealed the society’s most vulnerable groups and sectors. The drought had visible effects not only among farmers but also the poor, children, rural and indigenous communities, downstream users and the economically important tourism industry.
During the same time, the Caribbean, as well as the rest of the world, were still recuperating from major economic declines following the 2008 financial crisis. The drought threatened to push countries into further economic contraction. For instance, in Dominica, by March 2010, banana production had declined by 43%, compared to the previous year, causing greater problems in exports and foreign exchange.
An Opportunity To Take Action
The Caribbean accounts for seven of the world’s top 36 water-stressed countries. Barbados is in the top ten. Now that most of the effects of the most recent drought are over, the Caribbean community has an opportunity to adopt a holistic approach to addressing the concern. Many organisations have developed a regional framework for tackling the issue in a strategic way.
Earlier this year, St. Lucia announced a $20m investment that will guarantee its people a reliable source of water until 2033.
Where national coordination is failing, international organisations such as the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) have assisted in better ways. The entity announced that it would be contributing €13.9m to help the Caribbean cope with droughts effects in 2016. Out of the whole amount, Haiti received €12.2m, the Dominican Republic €1.1m, and the remaining €600,000 were allocated to Cuba.
But despite best intentions, the same programs that are eager to help the region have identified critical barriers. The FAO indicates that key barriers such as weak enabling environments in the areas of legislation and institutional frameworks, poor national coordination, lack of capacity at every level and poor access to financing sources constitute notable obstacles to achieving the necessary transformation.
Some barriers are at the individual level. Merlyn Compton, the hotel manager at Casa del Vega in St. Lucia, where more than 90% of the surface water has already dried up, has taken measures to survive the drought. Compton has opted for turning the guest’s room water off on some days, in an effort to save some water although, even though there is a drought, “guests are not sympathetic to that”.