Hoping is not enough
The Caribbean rethinks hurricane preparedness
Across the storm-tossed Caribbean, farmers, fishers, government officials and donors are brimming with ideas about how to be better prepared for the next big hurricane. It is a natural topic of conversation. The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons were two of the most destructive on record, both in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
Not only were there more hurricanes (authorities ran out of listed names for them in 2005) but many islanders, especially poorer ones, increasingly live in degraded or exposed environments like steep hillsides that are susceptible to landslides, flooding and high winds.
"Even a tropical storm can cause deaths. The vulnerability has increased in the Caribbean, that's for sure," says Daniel Ureña, Caribbean coordinator for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department.
In the Caribbean and Central America since 1995, donors have funded US$21.4 million worth of hurricane relief, rehabilitation and preparedness assistance from FAO. This includes the provision of hundreds of tonnes of seeds and fertilizer, fruit trees, poultry and goats, farm and fishing equipment and emergency machinery like chainsaws, all carefully chosen by FAO experts, in consultation with local authorities, for suitability for the intended beneficiaries and local conditions.
"FAO is the premier organization in emergency response in agriculture," says Cecil Winsborrow, Chief Agronomist in the Grenadian Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Forestry and Fisheries. "After Hurricane Ivan, we profited from its technical expertise and coordination role. FAO has a presence here in the ministry with a consultant just down the hall from me."
Agriculture, fisheries and forestry provide livelihoods for around nine million people and their non-working dependants in Caribbean countries and territories – about 18 percent of the total population. Although the Caribbean is often thought of foremost as a tourist destination, as Grenadian farmer Ken Campbell puts it: "Tourism is fragile – think of hurricane scares and terrorism – so we don't want to depend on it. Anyway, the tourists won't come if we can't feed them fresh food."
At the request of Caribbean governments, FAO is now developing a disaster preparedness programme for agriculture within its technical cooperation programme – so that good ideas for coping with the next big storm can be turned into action. The interviews in this feature, gathered in Haiti and Grenada, let farmers, fishers and officials explain in their own words how disasters have touched their lives and their ideas for being better prepared next time.
Inside the problem
“We can put an alert on the radio, tell farmers to put their livestock in a safe place and hope for the best. What happened two years ago in Gonaives showed that hoping was not enough,” says Emmanuel Prophete, an agronomist in the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, referring to the flash floods in September 2004 that killed over 2 000 people and most livestock in Gonaives, Haiti.
"Prevention costs a lot, but it costs less than rebuilding. It is just that we don't have the money," says Roosevelt Compere, Prevention Coordinator at the Haitian Civil Protection Directorate. He says he wants to learn from the experiences of other countries in the region. Cuba, for example, has a reputation for thorough preparations, including post-disaster seed reserves, livestock evacuation routes and disaster simulation exercises.
Sometimes all that is needed is a timely warning. For example, in northern Haiti, villagers living along a steep valley lost all their livestock because they left them outdoors to fend for themselves, not believing that torrential rains would cause the river to rise as high as it did. As local farmer Pierre Joseph, who lost 12 animals, put it, "I would have brought them into the house if I had known."
Staff from the Civil Protection Directorate in Haiti, when they attend an upcoming FAO regional workshop on disaster preparedness in agriculture, may well learn how to establish a system to alert villagers to rising waters.
After workshop participants share "best practices" with counterparts from other hurricane-affected countries, they will return to specially chosen communities in their own countries. They will hold community meetings to discuss community ideas and the adaptability of other countries' experiences to their own circumstances. Finally, a further workshop will bring policy makers together to hear what specialists and rural communities have to say and discuss how to better incorporate agriculture into preparedness planning and so bring truly effective systems into being.
FAO intends to follow up the workshops with projects to assist disaster-prone countries with technical advice and materials to build such preparedness systems.
29 September 2006
What donors are saying
Donors have strong opinions on how best to support Caribbean agriculture.
e-mail this article