By Matilde Mordt
In Mayan mythology, the god Huracán came from the heart of heaven to rule the thunder, lightning, winds, and storms. For the Caribbean Tainos, Juracán represented an evil god. In 1494, Christopher Columbus noted in his logbook a tropical cyclone that surprised his fleet while sailing in the waters near Cuba. And, as such, this climatic phenomenon - known elsewhere as a cyclone or typhoon - in the Western Hemisphere was christened "hurricane".
The recent passage of Hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean, which has affected millions of people in Colombia, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the United States, reminds us once again of the relentless forces of nature. In Haiti, in addition to a rising death toll, there are 750,000 people in need of immediate assistance. In the most affected areas, villages have been destroyed and agriculture devastated. Given the precarious sanitary conditions in the country, cholera threatens to surge.
The forces of heaven would perhaps have surprised Pre-Columbian populations. These days, however, we can monitor and predict the course and strength of tropical storms and hurricanes, allowing us to take precautions and prepare for their arrival. Scientists tell us that the intensity of hurricanes will increase with climate change. This stresses the need for necessary preparations to be long term and considered an integral element to the way we construct our built and social environments. In other words: we need to build more resilient societies.
The question then is: Are we doing enough to create this resilience? It is true that there is a great disaster response capacity in many countries; Cuba for example is renowned for its competency in hurricane preparedness, demonstrated once again with the passage of Matthew. More than a million people were evacuated in a few days and are gradually returning to their homes. However, we also see that persistent poverty, rapid and uncontrolled urbanization, and environmental degradation in the region have led to increased vulnerability. The case of Haiti is remarkable, but the wider Caribbean is also highly vulnerable: according to ECLAC, in a 25-year period, disasters have claimed more than 240,000 lives, caused more than US$39 billion in losses, and nearly wiped out the GDPs of some island nations.
We should also remember that most of the events are localized and do not necessarily reach the media headlines; incidents such as landslides, flash floods, and local flooding cause significant damage in accumulated terms. Another threat is slow onset weather events: the El Niño phenomenon of 2015/2016 affected crops and livestock, water availability, nutrition and health conditions of millions of Latin Americans, causing migration from the most affected areas. More than 3.5 million people required humanitarian assistance in Central America in the form of food assistance and livelihood recovery support. Similarly, South America suffered excessive rainfall, putting millions of hectares of land under water, and causing infrastructure damage. The vulnerability of the energy sector was also brought to light: hydroelectric power in the region suffered alarming drops in water levels, forcing electricity rationing in several countries.
UNDP supports countries in managing these climate risks. We support the installation of early warning systems and adaptation planning in the agricultural and water sectors. We promote the restoration and protection of ecosystems to strengthen buffering functions, calculate the necessary investments so that countries can address climate change in the long term, and in case of a disaster, support the recovery of societies with a social and human rights approach.
The Paris Agreement has now been ratified by more than 55 countries that together contribute more than 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions, the two thresholds needed for its entry into effect. The swift ratification process demonstrates a global will to decisively meet the challenge of climate change. The agreement includes the need to find schemes that mitigate or compensate for the loss and damage of the countries most affected by disasters. The El Niño phenomena and the hurricane season in the Caribbean are reminders of the urgency of preventive measures and strengthening climate risk management. It’s time to come to terms with the god Juracán.