In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan raged through my parent’s homeland of Grenada. The powerful Category 5 storm devastated the tiny island and left 60% of the country’s 100,000 residents homeless.[i] Located just north of Venezuela, Grenada usually escaped the Caribbean late summer storm season because it fell below the region’s hurricane zone. However, scientists believe that climate change has contributed to increased hurricane intensity in the Caribbean since 1995, leaving countries such as Grenada particularly vulnerable. As climate change continues, scientific models expect hurricane activity to further intensify in coming years.[ii]
Island nations such as Grenada view climate change as an economic and existential crisis. Over half of all Caribbean residents live within 1.5 kilometres of the coast.[iii] Climate change threatens these islands’ marine and coastal ecosystems, fresh water supplies, and shorelines. Such damage would severely impact the tourism, agriculture and forestry sectors.[iv] Thus Caribbean countries worked together to create the non-profit organization “Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre” (CCCCC) to coordinate the region’s climate change action plan. Since 2005, the CCCCC has initiated over twenty projects to address issues such as educating citizens on how to stay safe during extreme weather and designing strategies to make the islands more resilient to the effects of climate change.[v]
One of the CCCCC’s most promising ongoing projects is its “Coastal Protection for Climate Change Adaptation in the Small Island States in the Caribbean”. The project provides funding to support the protection, sustainable management and rehabilitation of coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs, in the small island states of Saint Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Jamaica. This work is needed because the Caribbean Sea’s increasing water temperate and acidity have negatively affected the region’s coral reefs.
Ironically, as climate change intensifies, coral reefs become more critical to the region’s survival. Scientists believe that these ecosystems may mitigate the impact of extreme weather by protecting islands from wave action and storm surges.[vi] A Stanford research team concluded that “coral reefs reduce wave energy by an average of 97 percent, dissipating disproportionately more wave energy as wave energy increased.”[vii]
The Coastal Protection project would attempt to strengthen coastal reefs by both 1) limiting local pollution and coastal development and 2) actively restoring reefs that have become too damaged to recover naturally.
Focusing on restoring reefs is a good use of the CCCCC’s resources. Reefs are proven to mitigate the impact of extreme weather on coastal locations and are cost effective to restore. The Stanford study estimated restoration projects to cost $1,290 per meter.[viii] This work pays back handsomely. A 2008 study estimated the value of “potential avoided damages” (i.e. costs that are avoided because coral reefs protect against hurricanes and floods) at $18-33mm and $28-50mm for the Caribbean islands of Tobago and St. Lucia, respectively. These are significant amounts given the small size of these economies: $286mm for Tobago and $825mm for St. Lucia.[ix] Rehabilitating the coral reefs would also boost tourism, one of the region’s economic drivers.
The CCCCC should continue to pursue projects that try to reduce the impact of climate change. I would argue for increased spending on technology to limit the impact of waves crashing on shore, including spending more money on building artificial seawalls. The Stanford study estimated the cost of artificial breakwaters at $19,791 per meter – much higher than the comparable $1,290 needed to restore natural coral reefs.[x] In addition to the cost, some critics of artificial breaks have noted the lifelessness of the “grey infrastructure” and the fact that they don’t improve the surrounding ecosystems as natural coral reefs do.[xi]
Despite these criticisms, the CCCCC should continue exploring all available alternatives given the immense security and economic value in protecting coastal shorelines.
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[i] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Socities. http://www.ifrc.org/en/news-and-media/news-stories/americas/grenada/help-on-its-way-for-hurricane-devastated-grenada/
[ii] “THE ECONOMICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE CARIBBEAN,” CARIBBEAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT VOLUME III. 8 December 2011.
[iv] “The economics of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean.” United Nations. February 2015.
[vii] “Coral reefs provide protection from storms and rising sea levels, Stanford research finds.” Stanford Report. May 13, 2014. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/may/coral-reef-protect-051314.html
[viii] “Coral reefs provide protection from storms and rising sea levels, Stanford research finds.” Stanford Report. May 13, 2014. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/may/coral-reef-protect-051314.html
[ix] “Coastal Capital – Economic Valuation of Coral Reefs in Tobago and St. Lucia” Lauretta Burke, Suzie Greenhalgh, Daniel Prager and Emily Cooper. Final Report – June, 2008
[x] “Coral reefs provide protection from storms and rising sea levels, Stanford research finds.” Stanford Report. May 13, 2014. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/may/coral-reef-protect-051314.html