by Sandiford Edwards, MA, MBA, ACCA
There can be no denying that the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) has had a deleterious effect on livelihoods and economies around the world, with a precipitous decline in global travel, upending many traditional brick and mortar businesses and reorganising of many hospitality services. The Caribbean region has not been exempted from the scourge of Covid-19 and the consequent economic fallout.
Whilst international supply chains and connectivity (air and sea) remained relatively stable for agri-food products, local and regional producers were faced with the double burden of market interruptions, on the occasion of the imposition of ‘stay-at-home’ orders and excess supply for agri-food products primarily targeted for the hotel, restaurants and fast-food markets. This tested the resiliency of their enterprises and by extension the agri-food sector.
Overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, primary agri-food producers in many parts of the region struggled with long term drought. The 12-month review (April 2019 to March 2020) according to the Caribbean regional Climate Centre, indicated that conditions were severely to exceptionally dry[i]. In the absence of well-developed and implemented integrated water management plans and corresponding irrigation system, primary agri-food producers many of whom are small family farmers, reliant on rain-fed agriculture were front and centre, experiencing the excruciating pain of limited availability of water for their crops and livestock.
The acute water stress finds genesis in the fact that Caribbean agriculture is highly seasonal being dependent on weather. Natural climate variability but more so climate change has altered the status quo making traditional agricultural methods less efficient.
1 June ushered in the 6-months long annual Atlantic hurricane season which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Climate Prediction Centre is expected to be an extremely busy season, “forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher)”[ii].
The unnerving prediction can potentially exacerbate the lingering effects of both the drought and the Covid-19 pandemic on the agri-food sector, exposing its fragile structure and huge vulnerability. Interestedly, the majority of the countries in the region have been ranked as medium to high on the classification of vulnerability to external shocks – inclusive of exposure to natural hazards and climate change[iii].
Exposure to this exogenous threat is evident in the recurrent incidences of tropical cyclones of varying magnitude to befall the region over the last 2 decades, averaging once in less than every 2 years (Table 1).
Table 1 – Weather Systems Impacting the region from 2000 – 2019
Additionally, over the last 2 decades, the region has suffered approximately US$32 billion in damage and loss for which infrastructure, housing and agriculture were most pronounced[iv].
Notably, examples of impact of tropical weather systems in the region are: Hurricane Ivan in 2004, was estimated to have stripped over 91% of the forest land and watershed vegetation in Grenada and wiped out an entire year’s crop, destroying approximately 85% of nutmeg trees, Grenada’s main export crop[v]. In the case of Dominica, damage and loss to the agriculture were estimated at US$170 million from hurricane Maria[vi]. Thirdly, the Bahamas reportedly lost approximately 60,000 livestock with damage and loss to agriculture assessed to be upwards of US$80 million as a result of hurricane Dorian[vii].
The question, therefore, is whether the region has learnt the lessons from previous catastrophic climatic events and has truthfully embarked on the journey to strengthen its agriculture resilience with a level of urgency.
Resilience personifies the concept of having an adequate policy-induced ability for an economy to withstand or recover from the effect of exogenous shocks[viii]. More broadly put, the level of resilience will be determined by how well the actions and interplay of the various systems (political, economic and societal) can safeguard the performance of the economy[ix]. Resilience is, therefore, underpinned by robust institutional frameworks to dampen or render shocks negligible or the speed to which an economy can return and surpass normal productivity following shock events.
Interestingly, vulnerability does not equate to an inability to achieve resilience as seen in the “Singapore Paradox” which confirmed the paradigm that small countries with high economic vulnerability ratings can still be economically resilient and attain consistently high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates with a consummate elevated level of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita and high standard of living as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI).
As governments seek to reopen borders aimed at boosting economic activities, they cannot afford to be blindsided by Covid-19, losing sight of the imperative of building the resilience of the agri-food sector to the potential wreckage that can arise on the occasion of climatic weather events.
Hope that the next few months will bring respite from any other exogenous shock might be misplaced as this year’s Atlantic hurricane season has already recorded 2 named storms. Evidence of Covid-19 and the impact of tropical weather systems on the region elucidates the rationale behind the need for governments to have a long term commitment to agri-food resilience building.
Proactive steps are therefore needed to confront this looming challenge of the predictive above-average Atlantic hurricane season.
Having regard to the foregoing, the prevailing conditions around regional food and nutrition security and cognisant of the inexhaustible compendium of policy recommendations already available and intensely debated, I wish to highlight a few areas of consideration that I consider germane and an absolute imperative for building resilient agriculture.
- Hurricane Resistant Agriculture Technology – it will be foolhardy if the region continues to promote the use of greenhouse and other protective agriculture technology (livestock, crops and aquaculture) that are not technically designed to withstand hurricanes. The urgency to sustain livelihoods or even to build back after the impact of a climatic event should not be traded for inappropriate technology ill-suited for the region’s challenges. According to the United States based National Institute of Building Sciences, every $1 spent on mitigation saves at least $6[x]. Transposing this conclusion without accounting for variables would imply that investment of $175 million in disaster mitigation and appropriate climate smart technology can yield over $1 billion in savings.
- Policymakers should institute a well-coordinated and systematic integration of climate adaptation principles into agriculture and food and nutrition security development policies, plans, programmes, projects, budgets and processes. For example, the Caribbean Climate Risk and Adaptation Tool (CCORAL) should be a standard feature in the evaluation of the agriculture projects. The use of CCORAL should also be augmented with sub-sector and geographic considerations to ensure local relevance.
- Updating of national integrated water resources management strategies, enhancement of agriculture catchment storage capacities and aggression transition from a predominantly rain-fed agriculture approach to irrigated agriculture. Technical skills in the region should be enhanced for drip irrigation technologies with a mass proliferation of same among farming systems.
- Farmers should receive training in water conservation measures, especially in drought-impacted areas. Additionally, where countries have not yet introduced funding mechanisms for water resources management, they should commence budgetary allocations for implementation, monitoring and enforcement (especially within the upper watershed, i.e. sustainable use of forest resources and disposal of agricultural waste).
- Mainstreaming of climate smart and regenerative agricultural techniques – this should no longer be a buzz phrase but ought to be diligently implemented noting its potential to achieve resilient agriculture impact, especially within vulnerable communities. Simple practices such as organic mulching, agro-forestry, housing animals in raised pens or high ground to combat flooding, proper storage practices for agriculture inputs, provision of shade and ample water for livestock to safeguard animal health and protect from heat-stroke should be common practice.
Sandiford Ruel Edwards, MA, MBA, ACCA is a Development Finance Specialist with experience in many countries in the region.
[i] CariSAM Bulletin Vol 3 Issue 12 May 2020, Caribbean regional Climate Centre
[iii] Ram, Justin; Cotton. J, Jason; Frederick, Raquel; and Elliot, Wayne (2019) Measuring Vulnerability: A multidimensional vulnerability Index for the Caribbean, Caribbean Development Bank Working Paper No. 2019 /01 https://www.caribank.org/sites/default/files/publication-resources/Measuring%20Vulnerability-A%20Multidimensional%20Vulnerability%20Index%20for%20the%20Caribbean.pdf.
[iv] Source Caribbean Development Bank Estimates cited in Ram, Justin (2020) Resilience Impact Securities with Equity (RISE) — How to Finance and Democratise Resilience Building during and after the POST Covid-19 Era. https://medium.com/@justinram/resilience-impact-securities-with-equity-rise-how-to-finance-and-democratise-resilience-b8bd0290557a
[v] Grenada: A Nation Rebuilding an assessment of reconstruction and economic recovery one year after Hurricane Ivan, (2005) The World Bank
[vi] Antoine, Patrick (2018) Dominica, A Global Centre for Agriculture Resilience Among SIDS
[viii] Lino et al, (2008). Economic Vulnerability & Resilience. United Nations University
[ix] Brinkmann, Henrick, (2017). Economic Resilience. A new Concept for Policy Making?