As COP28 launches a Loss and Damage Fund, devastating rains highlight Caribbean islands’ increasing vulnerability to climate change impacts

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Very close to the end of the Atlantic hurricane season, a disturbance that was eventually named Potential Tropical Cyclone Twenty-Two decided to move from an area just south of Jamaica and head north-west. This was bad news for the island — and subsequently, the Dominican Republic — which lay directly in its path. Despite the fact that there was no wind and the system did not officially qualify as a Tropical Storm, the destruction (including the loss of 21 lives in the DR), was significant. The Spanish-speaking Caribbean nation has experienced three major flooding episodes since June, all with record levels of rainfall.

As the system moved across Jamaica on November 16 and 17, the eastern side of the island suffered the most. There were stories of citizens negotiating crocodile-infested floodwaters; travellers stranded overnight in rural areas; a massive landslide in an upscale hillside area near Kingston, besides other locations; overflowing rivers and gullies; and severely damaged roads. Thankfully, there were no reported casualties, although many stories were told, and in true Jamaican style, amusing comments were shared on social media.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness — who appeared satisfied that infrastructure had stood up fairly well — mentioned in Parliament that road repairs would amount to JMD 409 million (approximately USD 2.63 million).

In this regard, an editorial in the Gleaner newspaper suggested that Jamaica use IMF funds allocated for a resilience and sustainability fund, observing:

Kingston should also become an active proponent of Mia Mottley’s Bridgetown Agenda [unveiled at COP27, the Climate Change Conference in 2022] for reform of the global financial architecture, about which Jamaica has been relatively muted, notwithstanding that Ms Mottley’s efforts has been instrumental in moving the needle forward on several of the initiatives from which Jamaica has benefited – and could benefit in the future.

The issue of Loss and Damage, which has steadily become a high priority for vulnerable Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like the Caribbean, finally came to the fore with announcements of developed nations’ pledges on the first day of the Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai. Former head of Jamaica's Climate Change Division, Una May Gordon, gave the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) credit for keeping up the pressure on Loss and Damage over several Conferences:

At a side event at COP28, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Rabab Fatima shared the huge figure SIDS faced for Loss and Damage in just one year:

In Jamaica, agriculture was a major casualty of climate change in 2023. Agriculture Minister Floyd Green estimated that the two-day November rain storm alone had brought over JMD 1 billion (approximately USD 6 million) in losses. Coffee farmers were unable to transport their valuable crops because of numerous landslides, vegetable crops were inundated or washed away, and chicken farmers, who provide a key source of protein in the Jamaican diet, lost animals.

This devastation for small farmers followed a lengthy drought beginning in late 2022 and abnormal heat earlier in 2023, from which they have not fully recovered. On November 21, the Planning Institute of Jamaica reported a 9 percent decline in agriculture, forestry, and fishing in the July-September quarter, while traditional export crops declined by 7.5 percent.

The picture in Jamaica is similar to elsewhere in the Caribbean, where there are fears that food security is now at risk, as a result of repeated “natural disasters” caused by human-induced climate change. The issue was highlighted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate and Land.

The rainstorm raised another issue that had already been grabbing headlines in Jamaica: building practices and standards. Questions were being asked, in the media and among the public, about whether housing development standards had declined in recent years, as a number of buildings collapsed or were severely damaged by floods and landslides. Questions have also been continually raised as to whether proper monitoring and approvals are being carried out by local government and environmental authorities.

Local lobby groups Citizens Rights to the City and Island City Lab have raised concerns about the hectic pace of development, particularly in the outskirts of the capital Kingston, since covenant requirements were relaxed. A proliferation of high-rise apartment blocks has attracted attention, with attendant concerns over the impact of such buildings on the environment, including the loss of green space and the removal of mature trees.

After the rains, a huge landslide in the hills surrounding the city impacted homes in the well-off area of Jacks Hill after residents had expressed concerns months before about some allegedly illegal over-development in the neighbourhood. The area is located on a fault zone, and recent large developments, which have been raising eyebrows, may have contributed to the problem.

One geology professor warned against further development in the area, while environmentalist Diana McCaulay visited the area and reported on Substack:

It’s hard to imagine how what has been allowed in sections of Jacks Hill can be rectified. I suspect that those who are able to will eventually cut their losses and move away. Others will stay, taking the risks of living on old landslides. The correctly sited older houses will lose their value. Some properties will fall into disrepair, roads will get worse and worse, services will become less and less reliable. Public money will be squandered. At some point, there will be a powerful earthquake and the face of Jacks Hill will be resculpted once more.

In contrast to the problems in wealthier parts of the island, members of parliament representing much less well-off rural and mountainous areas hurried to their constituencies to talk with local residents in the immediate aftermath of the rains. On returning from an overseas trip, Prime Minister Andrew Holness focused his remarks on Jamaicans who had built their homes in unsuitable locations, near rivers and gullies or on steep hillsides, suggesting that they had made the wrong choices and, as a result, were suffering from the impact of disasters.

University professor and columnist Carolyn Cooper did not hesitate to take the prime minister to task, calling his remarks “a very forceful rebuke” for poor Jamaicans. She added:

[M]any poor Jamaicans do not live in dangerous places by choice. They simply cannot do better. They cannot afford to purchase prime property. So, they settle for undesirable locations where they can build inexpensive houses. Andrew Holness’ choice of ‘chosen’ exposes his gross failure to understand the history of landlessness in this country.

Cooper pointed out that the prime minister had not passed judgment on uptown developers who had ignored the environmental impacts of building on an unstable hillside such as Jacks Hill. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Holness has been handing over hundreds of new low-cost homes under an accelerated programme.

As Jamaica picks up the pieces, there is no doubt that the recent disastrous rains have brought to the fore critical and longstanding issues for the island: agriculture and food security, and resilience in housing and land use. Whatever the final decisions reached in Dubai, these issues will no doubt linger while sustainable solutions are found.

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