Haiti beyond Matthew: building resilience to climate change


A woman walks next to trees downed by Hurricane Matthew in Coteaux, Haiti, on 9 October. © REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

My heart and prayers go out to the communities in Haiti who must once again mourn their lost family and friends, their lost homes and their lost livelihoods.

Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds before moving on from Haiti, showing the power of the weather to devastate the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people.

The immediate response for humanitarian and development agencies, such as Christian Aid and our partners in Haiti, must be securing basic needs for the most affected people: food, shelter, clean water, blankets, sanitation and hygiene supplies.

In time, this emergency response to the disaster will move to recovery and rehabilitation of communities, to allow them to build a decent life in the difficult aftermath of the devastation.

The people of Haiti know that this is not a one-off event; they know that they will have to face similar disasters in the future, and this reality must be terrifying.

With the advancement of climate change there is a greater acceptance that small island states such as Haiti will be exposed to ever increasing weather events such as Matthew. Deforestation has exacerbated this vulnerability, which helps to explain why neighbouring Dominican Republic is often less affected by storms than Haiti.

Hurricane Matthew has then moved on to Florida. But richer nations and people, while still severely affected, have the ability to bounce back and to put up defences – either physical barriers to strengthen houses, roads and flood defences or through insurance and financial buffers.

But for the people of Haiti each extreme weather event – on top of the devastating earthquake of 2010 – pushes them back even further into poverty, making it harder to recover each time.

As a 2012 report notes, the effects of climate change are having an ‘increasingly important’ and ‘significant’ role on natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the knowledge we have on climate change means we have the opportunity, after rescue and recovery, to build up Haiti’s resilience to climate change.

Haiti committed to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2030, as part of the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution it submitted to the United Nations a year ago, ahead of the Paris agreement. Haiti’s climate action plan highlights the need to work at a national and local level to support communities to be disaster ready.

While Christian Aid’s local partners in Haiti were able to help evacuate many people, building resilience in post-hurricane context means, for instance, replacing top soil that has been washed away along with this year’s crops. Essentials – roads, communication systems, supplies of water, food and cooking fuel – will all have to be strengthened to withstand increasing storm force.

In 2015, states and humanitarian agencies at the World Humanitarian Summit agreed to ‘end need’ and to use, rather than replace, local capacity. In order for this to happen, communities in Haiti and beyond must be sufficiently resourced and equipped to face climatic challenges, so that they can protect themselves against the impacts of future disasters.

It can be done. For instance, after the 2010 earthquake Christian Aid’s local partners in Haiti helped farmers get back on their feet, trained local masons to repair houses, and taught 35,000 people how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Our partners also built 550 earthquake-resistant homes: we have heard reports that in some areas hit by Hurricane Matthew, these robust houses withstood the force of the storm.

But what does this mean for countries such as the UK? What can we do beyond responding to disaster? First of all, we must do everything we can do to deliver the Paris climate agreement to hold climate change below 1.5oC of warming, and prevent the continued escalation of extreme weather around the world.

This means having a national carbon reduction plan in place to reduce our own carbon emissions, while at the same time supporting a rapid global transition to a low-carbon future. The UK carbon reduction plan must put the UK economy – energy, transport, industry, homes – on a path towards a zero-carbon future. This means a significant shift of investments from high fossil fuel technologies of the past, and towards renewable energy and energy efficiency.

And secondly, the world’s rich nations must live up to their commitments to finance adaptation and resilience in the poorest nations – such as Haiti – to help them help themselves to be better prepared in the face of increasing extreme weather.

There was a promise made at the COP21 negotiations in Paris last December to deliver at least $100 billion of climate finance every year to support the poorest countries to respond to climate change, while lifting their people out of poverty. Wealthy nations must present plans for delivering these funds at the 2016 UN climate negotiations in Marrakesh next month, so that countries like Haiti can build back, better.