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Global collaboration and private-sector investment are needed to help islands bolster resilience in the face of growing climate threats
Small islands, especially in the Caribbean, face a harsh new reality as storms of unprecedented ferocity threaten homes and businesses, causing such extreme devastation that generations down the track may still be paying the price.
With the seemingly inexorable march of climate change likely to make hurricanes more powerful, Caribbean - as well as Pacific islanders - now face the prospect their homes may one day become uninhabitable, speakers told a discussion hosted by Zilient.
"We're really into an entirely new reality that we have to think very differently about," said Angela Burnett, climate change officer for the British Virgin Islands (BVI) who has written a book, The Irma Diaries, documenting survivors' experiences of the hurricane that hit them last September.
"Hurricane Irma was the first moment when I felt I could become a climate refugee," said the author. "Is life on these islands going to be sustainable if we are hit by these kind of destructive events on a more frequent cycle?"
The double whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria caused around 235 direct deaths in the Caribbean last year - and likely thousands more from related ill health - as well as economic losses estimated at $130 billion.
Some islands - many with limited resources - were still struggling to rebuild homes, schools and hospitals, and restore electricity as this year's hurricane season started in June.
More support is needed to help islands generate bankable projects - both small and large - that can help their people, infrastructure and environments become more resilient to extreme weather and other stresses, said speakers.
Islands around the world are already adapting to climate change and environmental degradation, said Kate Brown, executive director of the Global Island Partnership, an alliance of island states.
The Republic of Palau, for example, created one of the world's largest marine sanctuaries in 2015, turning 80 percent of its maritime territory into a protected reserve.
Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. wrote in an oped for Zilient this week that the policy stemmed from a desire to "cultivate a sustainable path forward, to protect and live in balance with our environment, and ultimately protect our children’s and nations futures".
Small islands have always had to go through a process of reinvention but they cannot do it all alone, Brown noted.
"Some of the issues for islands can't be solved by islands themselves," she said.
Already burdened by huge piles of debt and with limited room for fiscal manoeuvre, hurricane-hit Caribbean islands have had to borrow yet more money to cope after the 2017 hurricanes that cost some several times their gross domestic product.
BVI "maxed out" its borrowing capacity after Irma, taking out loans for recovery that will "last for multiple generations", said Burnett.
And for non-sovereign overseas territories like BVI or the Dutch Antilles, the door is closed to international sources of finance for adapting to the wilder weather and rising seas linked to climate change, such as the Green Climate Fund.
Bringing in healthy amounts of money from the private sector is a key part of the answer, but projects need to be scaled up to meet investors' requirements, said experts.
Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, founder of Precovery Labs and director of the Island Resilience Initiative, said islanders were tired of "just talking" and instead "want to do".
"Money has to meet implementation," he told the discussion.
Necessity being the mother of invention, BVI has set up its own trust fund in the hope that organisations and wealthy individuals might donate cash that will be invested in a more secure future, said Burnett.
"Smart islands" could become more than just a buzzword if tech ecosystems can be built to help entrepreneurs drum up home-grown solutions, while stemming the brain drain and boosting economies, the webinar heard.
"It's very difficult for these small islands to be better than San Francisco or Amsterdam," said Axel De Vries, advisory services manager at EY Dutch Caribbean.
"But there are so many small initiatives here on the islands... that can come up with great ideas just for the local situation."
EY worked with the Aruba Centre of Excellence for the Sustainable Development of SIDS to organise a hackathon in March on hurricane-hit Sint Maarten, at which young entrepreneurs hashed out 21 ideas for the Caribbean island to build back greener and more resilient, including tackling plastic waste.
There is no shortage of locally derived ideas to boost resilience, said Sarkozy-Banoczy - and they do not have to be expensive.
Examples include replacing old, polluting ferries with sail-driven vessels, and greenhouses that can be folded up into containers in which to store plants safe from storms.
It makes little sense for each island to start from scratch, said experts.
Tools and platforms to share knowledge and experiences, particularly between regions, could give them a head start.
BVI's Burnett noted that, since Irma struck her homeland, many people cannot contemplate starting over again in the event of another top-strength storm.
"How does the world come together to save these islands?" she asked.
(Additional reporting and writing by Megan Rowling and Isabelle Gerretsen)
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.
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