“A Shantytown’s Warning About Climate Change and Poverty from Hurricane-Ravaged Bahamas

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“Dorian’s devastation highlights a risk that health and justice experts have long warned of: Climate change will hit the most vulnerable populations hardest.

BY PHIL MCKENNA    @mckennapr

SEP 11, 2019


“When Hurricane Dorian hit the northern Bahamas, it brought the force of 185 mile-per-hour sustained winds and a storm surge almost the height of a two-story building that flattened and flooded homes, leaving thousands of people fleeing for safety—if they could escape at all.  In some of the poorest neighborhoods, there was no safe haven to be found.

“The devastation was so widespread across Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands that recovery crews were only beginning to get into many areas more than a week later and only a few dozen bodies had been formally counted…

“As of Tuesday, 5,400 people had been evacuated to New Providence, home to Nassau, the nation’s capital. Emergency response officials estimated 4,000 people remained on Great Abaco, where living conditions, including lack of food, running water and electricity, were becoming increasingly dire.

“Many of the missing were from low-lying shantytowns where thousands of Haitian migrants lived in rough-hewn wooden structures that were flattened by the storm.

“It looked like a bomb just exploded,” said Dorval Darlier, chargé d’affaires of the Haitian Embassy in Nassau, who toured what remained of a neighborhood known as The Mudd and other shantytowns on Great Abaco island where an estimated 3,500 Haitian migrants lived before the storm. “It is completely destroyed. Not even a piece of wood stands up in The Mudd. If someone [was] not evacuated, they have to be dead.”

The storm’s devastation in the Bahamas highlights a risk public health experts have long warned about: climate change will hit the most vulnerable populations hardest, particularly the poor, but also the elderly and women, who often are responsible for caring for others. Those with the fewest means often live in the most vulnerable areas, and they are the least able to afford to evacuate and resettle.

Human rights advocates blamed the government for not doing more to help people living in the Bahamas’ shantytowns.

“They were predicting right on the dot the sea level rise, they could have called an emergency meeting of parliament or of the cabinet and they could have instituted mandatory evacuation and hundreds and hundreds of those people would be saved,” Joseph Darville, vice president of Rights Bahamas, said. “It is a catastrophe beyond measure…”

“Why Women Face Greater Vulnerability

“Housing, immigration status and the means to leave are all examples of how vulnerable communities are more heavily impacted by extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change.

“It’s a trend that will only continue to worsen as global temperatures rise, according to a recent United Nations report looking at the future impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, a level nations agreed under the Paris climate agreement to try not to exceed to avoid worsening risks.

“Women, as well as the children and elderly they care for, are some of the most vulnerable members of society, according to a report by the United Nations Development Program. The impacts are already being “magnified” in the Caribbean where small island nations are hit by repeated storms according to the report…

“We have heard stories of a number of young children who have basically been ripped from the arms of their mothers through storm surges or trying to evacuate and have died,” Benjamin said of hurricane Dorian…

“You don’t think about it, but after the storm, women, with schools that are closed, they have to look after their children, so they are not able to go back to work and a lot of the work that is available after these storms is physical, manual labor, which often employs men,” she said.

‘A Huge Issue of Climate Justice’

As hurricane activity increases, small island nations in the region are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change that they did little to cause.

The Bahamas’ contribution to global greenhouse emissions is 0.01 percent of all emissions worldwide, yet the country is facing increasing risks that come with sea level rise, warming waters and intensifying storms that can be exacerbated by global warming.

“This is a huge issue of climate justice,” Benjamin said.  “We are suffering the devastating impacts of this which are existential and we are not the cause of it.”

With 80 percent of its land within 3 feet of sea level—Dorian’s storm surge was 18-23 feet—it’s unclear how the island nation can survive rising seas and increasingly frequent and increasingly devastating storms.

“While we have very vulnerable subgroups within the country, the country itself is highly vulnerable,” Benjamin said. “We need action from developed countries. We need action from large developing countries as well. Otherwise, this pattern will just replicate, intensify and worsen.”


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