"A lot of the damage now comes from extreme precipitation. So that translates into floods, landslides, loss of life, loss of livelihoods"
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, July 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As if hurricanes were not menacing enough, small Caribbean islands risk losing their entire way of life unless they urgently strengthen defences against a raft of future disasters, according to a climate change official.
"You don't even need to have a hurricane to get extensive damage .. a tropical storm or depression, it comes and sits over a particular island or territory and it deposits rain," said Ulric Trotz, deputy director at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC).
"For us small island nations, basically everything comes to a stop. As a region, we are very exposed to climate risk .. and our projections show that this will be exacerbated," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Trotz - whose organisation coordinates the entire region's response to climate change - said that along with the annual hurricane season, the Caribbean now faces extreme weather each year, from flooding to landslides.
Fishing and farming communities living in coastal areas and the tourism industry - vital for Caribbean economies - often bear the brunt of damage and loss of income.
Caribbean nations can now face as much rainfall as they would normally get over a period of months in the space of a few days, with drainage systems unable to cope, Trotz said.
"A lot of the damage now comes from extreme precipitation. So that translates into floods, landslides, loss of life, loss of livelihoods," said Trotz, a science advisor.
"We have some serious concerns about the viability of Caribbean life as we know it."
One key way to make coastal areas more resilient to storm surges and rising sea levels, linked to global warming, is to protect marine, coral and mangrove ecosystems, Trotz said.
Reefs act like breakwaters reducing wave strength, while salt-tolerant mangroves can buffer against hurricane winds and storm surges and cut wave height.
"As far as the human body is concerned, the healthier the body is, the more resilient it will be in terms of dealing with some of the threats, diseases," Trotz said.
"So the same principle applies here, that the healthier our ecosystems, the healthier our reefs, wetlands and mangroves are, the more they will be able to resist some of the impacts of climate change," he said.
Across the Caribbean, scores of projects are underway to restore battered coral reefs, establish artificial reefs, replant damaged mangroves and place millions of acres of marine areas under protected areas by 2020.
Some Caribbean nations also face water shortages exacerbated by longer droughts linked to climate change, Trotz said.
In several islands of the Grenadines, a pilot seawater desalination project using solar power is underway.
In Guyana, to better cope with drought and changing rainy seasons, rice farmers are using water harvesting and drip irrigation systems, and are receiving short-term weather forecasts allowing them to better decide when to plant crops.
But more defensive action is hampered by a lack of funds.
Despite the United Nations Green Climate Fund, set up in 2010 to help poor countries tackle climate change, red tape means many small island nations are unable to access funding.
"The bottom line is that we don't have the resources," Trotz said. "It's not that we don't have any idea about how we need to build resilience."
It can take from nine months to up to eight years to get funds from donors, Trotz said.
"The longer you delay, a lot of the assumptions you have made in the first instance are no longer valid .. we have to find some way of shortening that whole process."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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