A Caribbean island's quest to become the world's first climate-resilient nation

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Scotts Head, Dominica. Due to its mountainous terrain, 90% of Dominica’s population lives on the coast (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)
The Caribbean island of Dominica is one of the world's most at-risk places from climate change. Can it fulfil plans to become the world's first climate-resilient nation?

On a sunny Monday morning in September 2017, 67-year-old Faustulus Frederick was adding the finishing touches to a traditional wooden sculpture at his home in Salybia, on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

The small village of Salybia is one of eight that make up the 3,700-acre (1,500-hectare) Kalinago Territory – the home of Dominica's indigenous people. At the territory's highest elevations, lookout points provide sweeping views of the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean thousands of feet below. 

Frederick is an artist and former teacher who served his people as Kalinago Chief when he was just 25 years old. His paintings depict life and tradition in the Territory. His mural on the wall of the community's Catholic church is a breathtaking landmark, along with the church's altar – a carved canoe.

But as he added paint to the face on his latest piece, an emergency update blared on a nearby radio.

"The weather announcer said we should prepare our things and get ready to move to the shelter, which is the primary school," he tells me as we sit in a classroom at that shelter – his home since 2017.

Warnings are important for everyone…They let places be habitable – Ilan Kelman

Frederick grabbed some clothes, papers and his artwork and headed over. There were only a few hours to spare.

The storm was first announced to residents of the small island as a tropical depression on 16 September, but within two days heightened ocean surface temperature and low wind shear led it to intensify to a category five superstorm, the strongest possible hurricane, which was named Hurricane Maria.

When it made landfall in Dominica it hit the Kalinago Territory first and hit it hard. It claimed lives island-wide and cost Dominica over 3.5 billion Eastern Caribbean Dollars (£1bn/$1.3bn), equivalent to 226% of its GDP in 2016, in losses and damages. "It was the toughest hurricane we ever faced," says Frederick.

Dominica is one of the most disaster-vulnerable countries on Earth, meaning the country faces a choice between building resilience or risking becoming locked in an unsustainable cycle of destruction and rebuilding from hazards that could eventually make living there unfeasible.

After two of the country's most costly natural disasters struck within two years of each other (2015 and 2017), Dominica’s prime minister declared the country had found itself "on the front line of the war on climate change" and announced plans to make Dominica "the world’s first climate-resilient nation". Building resilience into every facet of society was essential to ensure the island remains habitable, he said.

Among the key measures to mainstream resilience is Dominica’s early warning system – a means to warn residents in advance about dangerous weather events, allowing them time to make what can be life-saving preparations, such as moving to higher ground. Dominica’s unique system includes a grassroots approach of support and communication using traditional conch shells.

Faustulus Frederick works on a Calabash carving in the shelter he has called home since Hurricane Maria in 2017 (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

Faustulus Frederick works on a Calabash carving in the shelter he has called home since Hurricane Maria in 2017 (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

"Warnings are important for everyone. They save lives. They support livelihoods. They let places be habitable," says Ilan Kelman, deputy director of the University College London (UCL) Warning Research Centre, the world's first research centre dedicated to the science of warnings.

Protecting the everyday lives of Dominicans means implementing early warnings across communities and integrating them with other protections. In the long term, though, the big question that lingers is whether this will be enough.

The value of warnings

Small island developing states like Dominica are disproportionately impacted by climate change, meaning they stand to lose even more than other countries if the global community and big greenhouse gas emitters fail to meet commitments to cut emissions.

The adaptation limits of some islands may be exceeded well before 2100, says Shobha Maharaj, a climate impacts scientist and lead author of the small islands chapter in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. This means some small islands face a threat to their very liveability, due to both sea-level rise and exposure to repeated extreme weather events.

The IPCC painted a worrying picture of how small islands are already feeling the impacts of climate change. In Dominica, rising sea levels that increase the risk of storm surges and the increase in the strength of hurricanes are among the principal climate change concerns, alongside floods and landslides. A 2019 study concluded that a storm of Maria's magnitude is nearly five times as likely to form now as during the 1950s.

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The IPCC singles out early warning systems as a key pillar of climate adaptation across risk areas from hurricanes and flooding to extreme heat and the spread of disease across the world. It credits the systems for saving lives following the devastating European heatwave of 2003, and notes that, in the case of flood risk, they may be the only measure to reduce casualties.

At the Cop27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres unveiled a plan to ensure everyone on the planet is protected by early warning systems within the next five years.

"Vulnerable communities in climate hotspots are being blindsided by cascading climate disasters without any means of prior alert," he said, noting that countries with limited early warning coverage have disaster mortality eight times higher than countries with high coverage.

Dominica's case is especially tricky due to its mountainous topography and therefore the complexity of generating accurate extreme weather forecasts – particularly for floods, says Emily Wilkinson, a senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank. "Many communities get completely cut off by tropical cyclones, sometimes for weeks."

Dominica is one of the most disaster-prone islands, with flooding one of the most common hazards (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

Dominica is one of the most disaster-prone islands, with flooding one of the most common hazards (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

Standing outside the hurricane shelter he still calls home, Frederick tells me radio bulletins played a key part in warning people about Hurricane Maria. "We always listen to the weather forecast. It was the forecast and warning to move fast to the shelter that helped us."

Neighbours also scrambled to each other's houses to spread the word, he says. He himself helped an elderly man to the shelter during the disaster.

This element of neighbourly communication is hugely important for early warning systems, says Jennifer Trivedi, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center.

"Often, when I ask people in the field where they heard about an incoming hurricane, or changing floodwaters, they talk about hearing it from friends or neighbours," she says. "Someone knocked on their door. A friend called their house. They heard about it at church. Those networks are essential because people know them, they trust them."

This intricate communication chain provides important layers to reach people in more ways, she adds, over and above warnings sent to smartphones. "We can't expect that will be the only warning system. Many people around the world don't have [a smartphone], don't use all its capabilities, or maybe they're in an area that doesn't get a signal as well."

Frederick Donaldson, the disaster coordinator for the territory and a member of the Kalinago community, says Dominica’s cascade system for early warnings has been used for centuries by indigenous people.

Keeping areas habitable is a decision that has to be made not only in local city halls, but also in spaces like the United Nations – Jennifer Trivedi

Today, the system starts with urgent official information at the national level which is trickled down through various stages until it reaches the community. In the Kalinago territory, the council, the local governing authority led by the Kalinago chief, is at the heart of the system.

"It receives information from the National Disaster Office," says Donaldson. "The emergency warning system then kicks into gear, with each hamlet head receiving instructions, and they take the information throughout the community. Each hamlet has five or six people trained in community emergency response."

The network relaying storm information uses a mix of modern and traditional methods.

On the modern side, an emergency response chat group is used by the country's disaster officials to alert the council, which moves to communicate it to the community, says Donaldson. "We head out with a PA [public address] system, drive around the territory and blast messages." Alerts are also sent out via radio bulletins and smartphones.

And then there are the conch shells. Conch shell blowing has been used for hundreds of years by the Kalinago for communication. Nationally, the unique sound of the conch shell blaring through a neighbourhood indicates that there is fresh fish for sale. Ahead of urgent news, the short upbeat calls for fish are replaced with long, drawn out bellows.

An integrated system

Maharaj says many small islands remain highly challenged in building and sustaining integrated, people-centred, end-to-end warning systems, although improvements have been made in detecting, monitoring and forecasting severe weather.

Of course, early warning systems are only one in an array of important tools to protect islands from climate impacts. They work best in tandem with effective disaster risk management and resilient infrastructure – such as shelters.

A model Kalinago structure as part of a project by Faustulus Frederick to forge resiliency based in local culture (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

A model Kalinago structure as part of a project by Faustulus Frederick to forge resiliency based in local culture (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

Following Hurricane Maria, the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (Cread) was established with a deep focus on disaster planning and early warning systems. Its community emergency readiness programme assessed the vulnerability of all communities in Dominica to different natural hazards, says Wilkinson, who has been an advisor to Cread since 2019.

"It prioritises which communities are the most vulnerable and what kind of support they would need, including things like stabilising slopes in communities that would often get cut off by heavy rainfall and landslides."

Other small island states like Union Island have embraced ecosystem restoration as a buffer against potentially deadly storm surges, another essential adaptation strategy which Dominica is embarking on.

With 90% of its population living in coastal communities, Dominica has also erected several sea and river walls to protect communities from flooding, and aims to make its healthcare facilities more resilient to extreme weather events. Other critical infrastructure like new roads and bridges are being built to better withstand natural hazards.

And then there are the buildings.

Two years before Hurricane Maria, Tropical Storm Erika dumped 12in (30cm) of rain on the island in 12 hours. Residents report hearing howling winds and deafening rumbling as the heavy rainfall made light work of rocks, roofs, vehicles and many homes during the night.

The community was wiped out. In the days following the storm, we were evacuated by boat. I left with only my backpack – Sarwan Gregoire

The storm claimed 20 lives in the hardest-hit village, the south-eastern community of Petite Savanne. Residents were evacuated and the village declared uninhabitable. Over 800 families bade farewell to the village they called home.

"It was tough," says 20-year-old Sarwan Gregoire, a primary school teacher, who, then 13, was among them. "The community was wiped out. In the days following the storm, we were evacuated by boat. I left with only my backpack."

Gregoire now lives in the nearby community of Bellevue Chopin, in a government-built housing development. Contractors follow disaster-resistant construction designs, in keeping with protocols under Dominica's 2020-30 Climate Resilience and Recovery Plan

Meanwhile, revisions to Dominica's building code last year mean only homes and buildings that can withstand natural disasters will be approved for construction, according to Vince Henderson, Dominica's former minister for planning.

Such apartments address gaps in construction which disaster officials like Donaldson say compounded the impact of Hurricane Maria in the Kalinago Territory. "With the intensity of the hurricane and dealing with the impacts of climate change, resilient housing became a priority."

The road ahead

Dominica is determined to set an example of a small island state successfully confronting climate change. The protection of ecosystems, erection of sea defences and building resilience in infrastructure are all part of a mission to protect lives and livelihoods.

It is an urgent mission. Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Dominica's sister island Barbados, has warned that large-scale migration from the small states of the Caribbean will be a reality in the next decades without emissions cuts and finance for robust climate and resilience projects.

'Climate-resilient' homes in Belle View Chopin, Dominica, are now home to those displaced by Storm Erika (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

'Climate-resilient' homes in Belle View Chopin, Dominica, are now home to those displaced by Storm Erika (Credit: Jose Alison Kentish)

So what more can islands like Dominica do to remain habitable?

First and foremost, address data gaps, says Maharaj. "We don't have data on future sea-level rise and wave climate projections for most islands. Think about that. We're so exposed and vulnerable on our coastlines." Islands also need more information on the value of ecosystems services to tackling climate change, she says, and studies to model their future habitability. And there needs to be clear, direct communication chains from scientists to policymakers to ensure they are aware of what's lacking and the consequences, she adds.

For Trivedi, habitability ultimately hinges on cooperation between people on many different levels – from local cultural decision-making to international policy changes. "Keeping areas habitable is a decision that has to be made not only in local city halls, but also in spaces like the United Nations."

Warning systems that cut across multiple hazards are also key, says Fearnley, alongside investments in public education. "It's thinking about the whole process and having that dialogue repeated every single year, refreshing the relationships, refreshing the knowledge to embed the warning system as part of the everyday fabric of life."

Carbon Count

The emissions from travel it took to report this story were 50kg CO2. The digital emissions from this story are an estimated 1.2g to 3.6g CO2 per page view. Find out more about how we calculated this figure here.

Kelman notes that Dominica could avoid the next major storm being as catastrophic as Hurricane Maria. "We can have hurricanes, even category five, without having a hurricane disaster," he says – by ensuring all the links in the chain, from resilient infrastructure to early warning systems, are working well and based on scientific advice.

Still, for Gregoire, who moved from Petite Savanne to the government-built Bellevue Chopin housing units after Tropical Storm Erika, the fear of having to move again is never far from mind.

"I'm always worried," he tells me. "What we went through [in 2015] was rough and again we saw the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. It's not only that another village can be wiped out, but I feel that it's possible that our whole country could someday have to move."

Sadly, there ultimately are limits to adaptation to climate change. Maharaj says early warning systems will help to increase habitability of islands and quality of life for people. But in the absence of deep, rapid cuts in global emissions within a brief, rapidly closing window, she says "climate impacts are likely to make some small islands uninhabitable".


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