As CWS launched its appeal for the island of Vanuatu, devastated on March 13 by Tropical Storm Pam, my heart went out to the people of this small island nation. The cyclone decimated dozens of villages. Thousands have been left homeless. Root crops – a staple of the national diet – have been stripped from arable land. Some 3,000 persons are now in evacuation centers and up to 200,000 people – entire families and many children whose parents lost their livelihoods – will be dependent on humanitarian support in the short term.
This was an all too familiar story.
Thanks to churches and faith based community groups, cyclone affected families and communities will not be alone: in the weeks and months to come, the response provided by Church World Service’s appeal will provide urgent food, water and support to the communities and families of the stricken island. This is a much needed role that Church World Service is exceedingly well poised to play. Having grown up in the Caribbean myself, I know only too well the devastating impact of tropical storms on poor countries. Every year, we prepared for the 6 month long hurricane season; some islands were hit every year. From both personal and professional experience, I can personally attest to fact that the first line of support given by faith groups working with affected communities has a profound impact how quickly and smoothly they bounce back after large-scale disasters.
All the same, I cannot help but consider the challenges now faced by places like Vanuatu and the Caribbean. All countries today are affected by Climate Change, but small islands especially so. A unique set of characteristics make them especially vulnerable; size, location, geography and the scale of their economies, for starters. In addition, small islands have traditionally faced serious challenges in accessing the technology and finance they need to establish warning systems and maintain sophisticated risk reduction systems. Moreover, the hurricanes of the 21st century are not those of my childhood: Even if scientists may still hotly debate whether or not the recent intensity and frequency of hurricanes are directly the result of Climate Change, what they don’t argue about is that global warming has increased storm surges and these, in turn, are what cause most of the damage when hurricanes make landfall.
Recognizing this fragility, in 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development designated islands into a special grouping, called Small Island Developing States – better known as SIDS. And more recently, AOSIS – the Alliance of Small Island States – was established specifically to address Climate Change’s overwhelming impacts on their membership. Such high level support does not mean, however, that binding international decisions have been decided about how to deliver this help to the SIDS. These very issues generated much debate at the recently concluded 3rd UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan. The concluding Sendai Framework agreed that reducing loss of life and damage to infrastructure, while increasing resilience by 2030, were among their highest common objectives. But disagreements emerged, sometimes heatedly, about how the money and technology needed to realize these goals should be delivered to the world’s poorest and most Climate affected countries.
Similar arguments exist , closer to home, about what level of financial contributions the United States should make to assist poor countries adapt to Climate Change. Here, the Green Climate Fund is what is being contested. The GCF – the core purpose of which is to help developing countries fund technological solutions to adapt to Climate Change and lower their own carbon emissions – is the most transparent and accountable mechanism established yet to date, designed precisely to help vulnerable countries such as Vanuatu and the Caribbean. Current pledges to it are in excess of $10 billion; the US Administration itself has already committed US$3 billion of that, and has requested a further $500 million for next year. But if some Climate Change deniers on Capitol Hill have their way, Congress may block President Obama’s 2016 pledges to the fund. This week, together with other Climate colleagues in Washington, I shall begin a round of meetings to convince key Members of Congress to support, not obstruct, the President’s pledge, and to secure urgent US leadership on this issue. I shall argue that helping countries to invest in prevention and risk reduction is more strategic an approach for the US government than providing international aid once the disaster has struck. I expect that battle to be an important, but arduous one.
Speaking just days ago about cyclone Pam, President Baldwin Lonsdale said “It is a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu…all the development that has taken place has been wiped out. Yes, climate change is contributing to this. I am very emotional”. I can fully understand him. As the people of Vanuatu pick up the pieces, I read that the 2015 hurricane season will be the most active of the last 3 three years, that anywhere between 3 and 8 hurricanes could hit the region, and that the forthcoming years may be the most dangerous in a decade. No doubt CWS with its dedicated network of supporters and local partners will be there to help with emergency response; no doubt this will be a lifeline for communities. Yet it is also our role to advocate for additional funding to help countries prepare at the very same time as we help them respond and rebuild.