The UK should be better prepared for disasters in its Overseas Territories

8 November 2017
Comment
Damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Road Town, on the British Virgin Island of Tortola, 12 September 2017. Photo: Russell Watkins/DFID (CC BY 2.0)

Climate change is increasing the intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic and globally we are likely to see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the future. Rather than dipping into the aid budget after these events, the risks should be acknowledged and action taken to reduce them before disaster strikes. There is a critical opportunity to do this now, while the political will exists.

Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria and the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, is committed to building back better. He aims to make his island country ‘the world’s first climate resilient nation’. A similar level of ambition is needed from the UK Government, together with the Governments of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Caribbean islands are highly exposed to hazards

These islands are economically fragile because of their small size, insularity, remoteness and environmental fragility but they are also highly vulnerable to natural hazards.

Boris Johnson, UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said that Hurricane Irma was ‘unprecedented’, yet half of the Overseas Territories (OTs) are in the tropics. Every year hurricanes cause $835 million of damage in the Caribbean and $178 million in the Pacific – so we should have seen this coming. Moreover, several of these islands are close to tectonic plate boundaries and have active volcanoes. Disasters have occurred in these islands before, and they will happen again.

In 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted in Montserrat. There was no strategy for how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the then Overseas Development Agency would manage a complex and long duration emergency in an overseas territory. The Department for International Development (DFID) subsequently spent £75 million on recovery over three years; this made Montserrat Britain’s second largest recipient of bilateral development aid – after India – at that time.

The recovery funding gap

Hurricanes are costly – the price tag for uninsured losses from Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean is estimated at between $7 billion and $15 billion. So far, the UK has committed £57 million to recovery in Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. But in BVI alone, losses are estimated at $3.6 billion, and according to the Premier, Dr. Orlando Smith OBE, insurance cover will be ‘far from universal’ with an ‘inevitable impact on GDP’.

Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands pay into a Caribbean ‘risk pool’, known as the CCRIF, but the insurance payouts are a drop in the ocean compared to the sums these devastated islands need: $6.7 million and $14.9 million respectively.

British citizens living in OTs need affordable home insurance more than anyone but they are not currently covered by the Flood Re reinsurance scheme, which offers more affordable flood cover to residents of the mainland. This needs to be redressed.

Contingency funding often fills this gap in insurance coverage. On the UK mainland the Bellwin scheme has been used by local governments to respond to floods in 2014 and 2015, and the Grenfell Tower fire this year, but this scheme doesn’t stretch to the Overseas Territories. Neither are these islands eligible for development aid, despite UK government attempts to bend the rules.

Planning, regulations and finance are needed

Given the very risky geographies of these islands, land-use planning is key to resilient recovery. Safe land is in scarce supply, particularly in the volcanic, mountainous islands. Consequently, regulations have an important role to play in minimising risk. Zoning restrictions and building codes now need to be reassessed and, if they are no longer fit for purpose, updated.

Governments should be conducting regular audits of building and land use regulations – to assess if these instruments are up to scratch and why they are not being properly implemented. This would increase transparency and encourage compliance. More creativity is needed to encourage compliance with regulations.

It is all too common for local authorities to allow lucrative coastal developments to take place and for low-income families to build their homes in some of the most dangerous ravines or on river banks. This compounds vulnerability and the situation will continue in the aftermath of Maria unless the government adopts a longer-term strategy for disaster risk reduction, backed by national financing mechanisms. Subsidies can be used to encourage private investment in climate resilience: for example, in reforestation and slope stabilisation near to new developments.

The UK Government has a constitutional responsibility for internal security in its Overseas Territories but spending the UK aid budget on foreseeable disasters is not the answer. Investment is needed today to make these territories more resilient, reducing the need for ad-hoc post-disaster expenditure in the future.