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Natural Hazards in the Caribbean: Building Socio-Ecological Resilience

According to a paper from the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, “Understanding Haitian survivors’ perceptions of resilience and the traits that influence one’s resilience increases the ability of clinicians, researchers, and policymakers to implement resilience-based interventions.” Climate change has disproportionately affected vulnerable and marginalized communities. In particular, the Caribbean is a natural hazards hotspot and experiences exacerbating consequences as a result of rising sea levels, variable temperatures, sporadic rainfall, and degrading ecosystems. This is a summary of my AP Seminar Individual Written Argument that explored the prevalence of natural hazards in the Caribbean and how Caribbean communities can bolster socio-ecological resilience.

(Donaldson, 2020)


The Caribbean is a region in Central America consisting of the Caribbean Sea, 7000 islands, 13 sovereign countries, and the surrounding coasts. Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is the second most disaster-prone region in the world with “152 million affected by 1,205 disasters between 2000 and 2019. Currently, 70% of the Caribbean population resides in coastal cities, and this number is expected to rise to over 80% by 2050. Coastal regions are worth noting as these are the very regions vulnerable to coastal erosion, flooding, landslides, and degrading ecosystems.

Nearly 36% of the LAC population lives below the poverty line, while the global average sits at 9%. Despite significant development within the past decade, unfortunately, significant disparities still manifest. This is coupled with the fact that the Caribbean has only seen a 1.3% increase in GDP per capita per year for the past decade, a trend that is exacerbated by the degrading abundance of natural resources.

The Caribbean is known as a “blue economy” with the dominance of the agriculture and tourism industries; Caribbean countries thrive off goods and services derived from their optimal natural environment. As a result, the increasing presence of natural disasters creates economic instabilities and a positive feedback loop of poor environmental protection and economic growth. This is affirmed by economists from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A study based in Argentina showed “a strong correlation between urban poverty rates and the country’s macroeconomic ups and downs.” Additionally, economic factors have amplified the disparity between communities by pushing civilians to climate-risky areas.

“With large shares of the Caribbean population living in high-risk areas exposed to sea-level rise and weak infrastructure, and heavy reliance on weather-sensitive sectors such as tourism or agriculture, the risks are expected to worsen through damage to biodiversity, coastal erosion, risk to food and water security, and increased health risks.” The Caribbean is currently in a brain-drain situation and vicious cycle of decreasing growth and increasing risks; failure to manage and build climate resilience is directly related to a community’s development. Thus, an interdisciplinary analysis is necessary to understand ways to bolster resilience and action.

Socio-Ecological Resilience

Social resilience refers to one’s ability to bounce back and regenerate in times of disruption through aspects like social work, healthcare, and education. According to Rahill et al., a study conducted after the disastrous 2010 Haiti earthquake notes that “Haitians are as flexible as “bamboo;” they document that cultural factors such as the family, traditional food, and spiritual factors contribute to the ability of Haitians to continue to “cope” with traumatic events, including disasters.” This is just one of many observations that exemplify the strong social resilience in the Caribbean due to a strong sense of community and tradition.

On the other hand, ecological resilience is the ability of natural ecosystems to bounce back and regenerate in the face of natural process disruptions. A study from the University of Guelph showed that despite the various stressors–including disease, bleaching, and hurricane activity–the Caribbean’s coral reefs suffer from, considerable resilience can be observed as the majority of coral reefs recovered from Hurricane Allen after 3 years. However, many other species, such as Diadema antillarum and parrotfish, have nearly vanished and exemplify the more prevalent low ecological resilience in the Caribbean.

Together, socio-ecological resilience is the ability of communities to “bounce back” from natural hazards. According to Adger, “there is a clear link between social and ecological resilience, particularly for social groups or communities that are dependent on ecological and environmental resources for their livelihoods.” Studying socio-ecological resilience helps us understand disequilibrium within a community’s social structure and ways to strengthen its capacity to withstand shocks and stresses.

Recommendations: Guiding Socio-Ecological Resilience, Natural Hazards Management, and Urban Development

1. Ecosystem-Based Frameworks

Addressing natural hazards requires a multi-hazard approach. Understanding the different stages is imperative for the success of adaptation. In particular, multi-step frameworks that effectively use the Caribbean’s natural environment are imperative to ensure disaster-prone communities are equipped with effective tools, have up-to-date knowledge, and can bolster infrastructure. This includes incorporating action that dismantles the stages of mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery to ensure their longevity. In an ecologically diverse region like the Caribbean, using existing natural resources to bolster their resilience is holistic, practical, and sustainable. A specific example of this is ecotourism, which focuses on showcasing communities, engaging tourists, promoting cultural exchange, and diversifying local economies. As a vacation hotspot, encouraging travel companies and tourists to contribute towards conservation efforts (such as mangrove farm tours, rainforest treks, or coral reef snorkeling) will help bolster ecologically vulnerable communities.

2. Economic and Financial Resource Management

A study conducted by the CCRIF found that 62% of climate response payouts were for immediate post-event activities and limited funding was allocated to long-term mitigation. Building a resilient and sustainable community requires the development of services and infrastructure. However, Caribbean communities experience extreme economic disparities. For instance, urban Spain experiences extreme inequalities regarding access to the central sewerage facility and other infrastructures. 77% of the Spanish population lives in Port of Spain, yet only 40% of the national population is connected to the central sewerage system. This shows the urgency to mobilize resources and increase access to vital resources, including establishing local climate action funds, innovative financial incentives (such as green and social impact bonds), and partnerships between the private and public sectors. Fostering innovation and technology that is attuned to local needs is necessary to facilitate converging development.

3. Accountable & Unified Local Governance

Through literature reviews, it was noted that one of the greatest shortcomings experienced by Caribbean communities is a lack of legal frameworks and accountability. According to a study by Mycoo & Bharath, one of the most prevalent issues in the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago is informal urbanism. Regions of significant informal urbanism were also found to have the poorest and most sensitive natural ecosystems. In fact, “nearly half (46%) the land deemed suitable for agricultural purposes was converted to housing [which] contributed to urban sprawl and weakened the country's food security.” It was also identified that a significant cause of this problem was high dormitory settlements, which contributed to mass urban sprawl, long commuting hours, traffic congestion, air pollution, zoning policy failure, and unfit infrastructure development. Strengthening resilient housing and transportation ensures long-term longevity and the ability to continue economic and social activities. In fact, researchers found that the inability to abide by zoning laws meant to mitigate coastal erosion due to urban development “has led to only 60% of Trinidad’s dense forest cover surviving urbanization and significant triggering of rapid surface water runoff.”


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