Extreme weather

Opinion: Hurricane Matthew showed us that the world’s poorest are paying the highest price for climate change impacts

The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. Photo credit: EU Delegation to the Republic of Haiti via Flickr.

The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. Photo credit: EU Delegation to the Republic of Haiti via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

Hurricane Matthew is the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic Hurricane Season to since 2007. It has caused costly damage and claimed lives, at a level not seen since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The US escaped fairly unscathed compared to others. The hurricane has only claimed just over 30 lives and with a damage cost of around $5-7 billion. But it was a different and more traumatic story in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. The poor island state is still in the process of rebuilding following the devastating earthquake that hit them in 2010.

And Matthew delivered a massive setback and blow. It has taken the lives of at least 1,000 people (though that number will almost certainly rise) and has caused damage of $1 billion, equal to wiping out 11% of the country’s GDP. Officials say that 90% of the south of the country has been destroyed. The damage to infrastructure as well as the food supply is immense. The part of the country most affected now has to start all over. On top of this, and caused directly by the hurricane, Cholera has broken out. This is causing an immediate health emergency. It is clear that the situation in the country is very serious and urgent.

However, although I say that the US came out of it unscathed compared to Haiti, any loss of life is, of course, a tragedy. And the US also faces huge infrastructure challenges, but with a much better position to tackle them than Haiti.

This perfectly illustrates how poorer countries are at the front line of battling climate change, and that richer western countries must be ready to aid them in whatever way needed. Even though Matthew has spent far more time in the US than Haiti, the devastation in the island state is far greater. Many deaths and much of the damage could be avoided with proper investments in flood warning systems, infrastructure, storm surge barriers, flood protection, buildings to withstand extreme weather events and so on. This has got to be the priority. It is not a question of whether another hurricane like Matthew will hit Haiti, it is a question of when. And when it does, the country must be ready.

Haiti is not alone. It is the world’s poorer countries who, now and in the future, will pay the price for a problem they did little to create. When we in the rich western world are hit by extreme weather events which affect our food supplies, we can just import more food. Haiti, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and many other countries do not have the luxury of that option when disaster strikes.

This matter has been a core focus from developing countries at climate talks. And in the wake of this ,the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was set up but has so far failed to deliver on its promises. It is now time for the GCF to mobilise and deliver funding for the countries who most need help. And there is no doubt Haiti should be on that list. Another time-delaying issue is what to prioritise, and how to determine when an extreme weather event is climate-related and when it is not. Rich western countries must sort that out among themselves, and quickly. Poorer countries should not be paying the price for their inaction.

But the GCF is just one model, more should be done. But the key question is how do you ensure that the countries actually get the aid. How do we ensure that it is just not corporations who are handed the task, who will see it as a profit exercise, and not based on necessity?  And how do you ensure that the aid is not going into the pockets of corrupt governments and organisations? This is of course as always, the Achilles heel of international aid. This has been one of the struggles in Haiti with successive corrupt governments. Much of the aid channelled towards the country following the 2010 earthquake never got to its destination. And several examples exist of the wrong projects being built and funded, even in areas which had not been impacted by the earthquake.

But there must be a way to make sure that 21st-century solutions are being used to solve a 21st-century problem. The west is capable of delivering on those 21st-century solutions. So getting them deployed in the developing world can’t be that hard. Or can it?

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