Extreme weather shocks Suriname's leaders into climate action

by Marvin A. Hokstam | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 June 2012 11:15 GMT
Latest unusual storm may lead to changed building codes, an education campaign and perhaps eventually a retreat from the coast

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AlertNet) - Gone are the days that people in Suriname considered their country blessed by the gods against disastrous weather.

Last week, an unprecedented storm caught the country off guard. Winds, clocked at 80 kilometers per hour, raged for an hour and a half, toppling trees, blowing off roofs and snapping light poles like twigs.

 It was the third or fourth time in a year that unusual severe weather wreaked havoc in the South American country, but this time was the worst. There were no injuries reported, but workers of the National Coordination Center for Disaster Relief rushed to help people under threat at more than 35 places around Paramaribo, the country’s capital.

The next morning after the latest storm, parliamentarians gathered for an urgent meeting to question the government about which measures will be taken so the country is not surprised by extreme weather again.

Located on the north eastern shoulder of South America, former Dutch colony Suriname lies outside the hurricane belt. The country prides itself on its tropical weather, with rainy and sunny seasons throughout the year.

Storms and hurricanes, like those that threaten the peace of mind in Caribbean islands during the hurricane season from May to November, are unheard of in Suriname, leaving the country totally unprepared for the sudden storm that blew in from the east on the evening of June 20.

First it hit the Amerindian village of Galibi and the village of Albina on the left bank of the Marowijne River, the border with French Guiana. Galibi, which is located near the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, got the full brunt of the storm’s force.

Trees were uprooted and towering waves damaged boats that were floating, tied up, in the river. Several houses were damaged and the village was left without electricity when the storm blew further to Paramaribo.

There, the storm blew off parts of the root at Saint Vincentius hospital, sent rain gushing into the Maretraite shopping mall, causing panic, and crushed cars as it blew over trees. Government-owned radio station SRS suffered damage to its main tower and had to switch to an auxiliary transmitter unit to be able to broadcast on Wednesday.

WRITING ON THE WALL

“For the first time in its history, Suriname suffered the effects of (such a) a storm,” the country’s worried environmental minister, Ginmardo Kromosoeto, said the next day as he addressed the Rio+20 sustainable development summit in Brazil. For John Goedschalk, director of Suriname’s Climate Compatible Development Agency (CCDA), the storm was the writing on the wall, underscoring his calls for political will to implement climate change adaptation measures.

“We shouldn’t even question whether this weather is caused by climate change,” he said. “The seas are warming up and the intensity of the wind we’re experiencing is a natural reaction to that phenomenon.”

The damage the storm left in the small country was just as unprecedented as the storm itself; the cost of the destruction has not been released, but the government has so far allocated 500,000 Surinamese dollars ($154,000) for repairs.

And more structural changes are coming, said Vice President Robert Ameerali, as he answered questions from parliamentarians in the National Assembly. Some 10 million Surinamese dollars ($3.1 million) will be made available annually for the National Coordination Center for Disaster Relief (NCCR) and for a relief fund that will be established for victims of inclement weather, he said.

“It is imperative that we make funds available structurally, so the NCCR can have the relief resources it needs to execute its tasks, permanently,” said Ameerali.

As a result of the storm, calls were made for the Meteorological Office to invest in a Doppler radar. With the radar, authorities could predict bad weather with more certainty and communities could be warned in time to take precautions, members of parliament said. Parliamentarians have also called for other measures, including awareness campaigns.

Such campaigns are crucial to educating people about the change in climatic conditions, said Meteorologist Roel Oelers, a meteorologist.

“We did issue warnings that there was bad weather underway, but not many people listened,” he said.

NCCR Director Colonel Jerry Slijngaard called the recent spate of storms “lessons.”

“Suriname is no longer that blissful exception to the rule that we were always so proud of. The pictures of trails of disaster caused by weather on the islands are no longer things that we can consider impossibilities. That’s why we should learn from the (Caribbean) region,” he said.

MOVE INLAND?

Some experts hinted at the possibility of moving some of Suriname’s infrastructure away from the sea, as the Meteorological Office has suggested that that the new weather patterns may not subside anytime soon and sea level along the coast is rising.

CCDA Director Goedschalk said his agency is in talks with the National Institute for Environment and Development to form an interagency taskforce that will assess the situation. Among matters he expects to be placed under the magnifying glass is the country’s building legislation.

“We still build houses in the conventional ways, because we never had to take strong winds into consideration. But with the increases we’re experiencing in wind strengths, we should add requirements like better anchorage of roofs to our legislation,” he said.

Slijngaard, of the country’s disaster relief centre, says the country should also look to the nearby Caribbean for lessons.

“On the islands people have started building much stronger years ago. They use more steel and stronger roof constructions. Right now in Suriname too many houses are still built according to a style that dates from a time of carefreeness,” he said. 

Marvin A. Hokstam is a freelance writer based in Paramaribo, Suriname.

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