Weather-ready, climate-smart - a Q&A with Crispin D'Auvergne

23 March 2018

A Caribbean disaster risk management expert talks about preparing the region's airports and seaports for climate change effects like more frequent and stronger hurricanes.

This year’s World Meteorological Day on 23 March highlights the importance of being “weather-ready, climate-smart” – a timely theme with hurricane season right around the corner.

Experts predict the 2018 season will be as busy as the last, when three major storms – Harvey, Irma and Maria – devastated parts of the Caribbean. Such extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent as global temperatures rise, and Caribbean islands need to adapt.

To assess the climate-related risks and vulnerabilities of airports and seaports, the lifeline of island economies, UNCTAD developed a methodology recently put to the test in the Caribbean nations of Jamaica and Saint Lucia, as part of a three-year project looking at the impact of climate on coastal transport infrastructure in the region.

To find out more, we sat down with one of the project collaborators, Crispin D’Auvergne, who works on climate change and disaster risk management for the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), comprising 10 island nations.

Q:   What are the major risks Caribbean islands face due to climate change?

A:   I have to put that first in perspective. I’m a native of Saint Lucia, which contributes just 0.0015% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet as a small island state we are among the most vulnerable to sea-level rise and more extreme events. And the recent history in the Caribbean of extreme events in the form of hurricanes is testimony to that.

But I think the more serious impact will be the decline in water as a result of changing rainfall patterns, because some islands are water scarce. And as they say, “Water is life”. This can have a profound impact on a day-to-day basis, as opposed to the extreme events, which are dramatic and can totally upend an island’s efforts to advance itself.

Q: The project looked at two countries in the Caribbean. Are certain risks more inherent to islands in that region?

A: The Caribbean is special in the sense that we lie in an area that is prone to hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

The rate of sea-level rise in the Caribbean is higher than the global average, as is the rate of temperature increase. So we know that we are particularly vulnerable in term of extreme events – we’ve been hit a lot. Though I stress that it’s not only extreme events that we’re vulnerable to.

Q:   Why did you decide to get involved in the UNCTAD project?

A:   Well, I think maybe we need to stand that question on its head. Actually, UNCTAD found me. A case study was done for Saint Lucia. So when the workshop was being held in Saint Lucia, they invited me as a regional expert to present the perspective of the OECS.

Once I knew what the project was about I got immersed in it because I saw the value of this work. This work is not just academic, theoretical. It actually has a practical application in an area that affects many aspects of life and economic growth and development in the Caribbean. 

Q:   What have been the project’s main achievements?

A:   In the first instance, I believe that it has brought attention to an area of vulnerability that has been under studied or not studied at all. When we’ve done our vulnerability studies, we’ve looked at infrastructure in a broad sense – roads, bridges, ports – but we’ve not looked at the vulnerability of air and sea ports in a focused way.

We say, “Yes, they are vulnerable due to sea-level rise and storm surge.” But we don’t really apply methodologies that give empirical evidence, so that you can say, “Look, this is the extent of their vulnerability. This is what we expect to see in 2050 or 2100”.

I think this is what the study does. It has brought that to the fore in a practical way to show that these ports and airports, which are the lifeblood for our countries – for commerce, for agriculture, for tourism – that they are particularly vulnerable and need focused attention in terms of building resilience.

It has also applied a methodology for determining vulnerability which is being subjected to academic peer review. My understanding is that at last one academic paper presenting the case studies and methodology is already under review for publication in a prominent academic journal. And my understanding is also that this paper is intended to feed into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on the 1.5 degree target.

Q:   Could you tell us a bit more about the methodology? What has it shown?

A:   It has different parameters. For example, we looked at mean sea-level rise combined with storm surges and waves and what implications that has for each and every airport and seaport in Saint Lucia and Jamaica.

The methodology is based on the assessment of operational disruptions due to changing climatic factors and has produced marine flood maps for ports and airports for different scenarios, depending on the year, like 2030, 2050, 2100.

In the case of Saint Lucia, which I’m most familiar with, it shows you that approximately 150 meters of the runway of our international airport, Hewanorra, will be flooded under the 100-year storm event in 2030. It’s graphic. You can actually see how the flooding, or the inundation, progresses.

So it tells you, as a country, that if you want to still have airports that are functional, you will have to take certain measures in terms of building their resilience, in terms of protecting them.

And this is the kind of output that you need. Because it’s one thing to do the analysis. But it needs to be clear to the policymakers. It has to be demonstrated in a practical way.

Q:   What are the next steps?

A:   I believe not that it could be used but that it should be used.

I’ve been advocating for us to extend the model to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and to the wider Caribbean. And I don’t see any reason why it cannot be applied to other situations.

One of the reasons it’s important to extend the work is that we are a network of islands, and there is an interconnection between airports and seaports. Even if Saint Lucia is not hit by a hurricane, for example, but a major hub is hit by that particular event, people won’t be able to fly from that hub into Saint Lucia.

So it’s important to look at the region as a network, not just as individual airports and seaports.

To give you a practical example, a lot of our food imports come from Miami. So when Miami gets hit, depending on how long Miami stays out of commission, it affects the extent or the rate at which food and other supplies get to the region.

Likewise, for tourists. The Caribbean is highly dependent on the tourism sector. If people who are planning to come on holiday can’t get out of Miami that has knock-on effects for other countries, for local economies.

Q:   Any key recommendations for governments in the region?

A:   Becoming climate resilient is going to take a certain degree of boldness. It cannot be business as usual. It has to be business unusual. We can’t build as we always have. We have to make the extra investment. For example, when we rebuild a bridge after a hurricane, we can’t build it the same old way so that it gets washed away again, which has been known to happen.

It’s going to take a lot financial resources. It’s going to take a lot of political will to make it happen.