A clarion call for Commonwealth solidarity

The eruption of La Soufrière, which spewed 6km plumes of dark ash into the sky, has wrought devastation on the citizens of St Vincent and the Grenadines just as they sought to recover from Covid-19.

Posted on 27/05/2021
By Renwick Rose

How does a small island state, already suffering from the havoc caused by Covid-19, recover from volcanic eruptions that pushed plumes of dark ash 6km into the sky and forced the evacuation of almost 20% of its population?

That is the billion-dollar question facing the government and the approximately 110,000 residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Since early 2020, Covid-19 has virtually eliminated tourism in the country; its main foreign exchange earner and a major source of employment.

Just as it began rolling out its vaccination programme, the country’s active volcano, La Soufriere, erupted into a series of violent explosions lasting for almost two weeks. Though the explosions have subsided since 22 April, ongoing volcanic emissions continue to create mudflows and lahars, a mixture of water and pyroclastic debris which, combined with the voluminous ash spewed by the eruptions, make the fertile northern section of the island uninhabitable.

The current eruption is the third one to strike the country in the last half a century but is far larger and more destructive than those of 1971 and 1979. They confirm the ongoing active status of the volcano which also exploded violently in colonial times. The devastating fallout from the eruptions of 1812 and 1902 are a reminder of the enduring threat with which Vincentians must live.

‘How does one strictly enforce social distancing in evacuation centres?’

St Vincent and the Grenadines does not have the resources and facilities to host evacuees at scale without severe disruption to social life. As a result, thousands are currently being housed in schools, community centres and churches. The National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), with the aid of local, regional and international assistance, has made heroic efforts to house, feed and ensure the well-being and safety of the evacuees along with the countless volunteers who have begun hosting evacuees in their own homes.

This mass evacuation could not have come at a worse time. How does one strictly enforce social distancing in evacuation centres? How can the centres adhere to hygiene protocols when the national water supply system, fed from rivers emanating mainly from the Soufriere foothills, has been severely disrupted?

This eruption has compounded the challenges of Covid-19 and represents a major setback to a country that, until now, has been recording success in its effort to attain the global sustainable development goals. Take education as an example. The sector has been dealt a heavy blow by Covid-19 and after missing the first term of 2021, schools were due to be reopened on 12 April. The volcano struck on 9 April. Now schools are housing evacuees at a time when local and regional examinations are due.

‘The cost of damage stands at a staggering 36% of GDP—a figure that will rise substantially’

The preliminary estimates of the damage paint a grim picture in a country with a total Gross Domestic Product in 2019 of 824.7 million USD. The cost of cleaning up volcanic ash, mudflows and lahars has already surpassed $38 million; five thousand buildings have been damaged at an estimated cost of $35 million; agricultural and forestry losses are estimated at $225 million. The total cost of damage to the local environment and public infrastructure is being assessed but even if we leave those vast sums aside, the cost of damage, so far understood, stands at a staggering 36% of GDP—a figure that will rise substantially.

All this for a national economy that—as estimated by the Ministry of Finance—will contract by about 5-8% in 2021. This follows a 5% contraction occasioned by Covid-19 last year.

The challenges are huge, not only in economic but also in social terms. Children are particularly hard-hit. The forced closure of schools over the past year has disrupted education but above all, it has created tremendous psycho-social problems for children and young people forced to curtail education, sporting and recreational activities. Unemployment has skyrocketed. Food self-sufficiency, a point of national pride, is now fundamentally threatened and mass evacuation has given rise to new fears regarding the spread of Covid-19.

‘Now is the time to demonstrate the power of international solidarity. The Commonwealth can lead the way.’

This situation is one that this proud nation cannot handle alone. The Commonwealth and the international community can help meet the needs of the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines in the following three ways:

  1. Supporting the rehabilitation and reconstruction process with special emphasis on resilience to safeguard communities in at-risk areas
  2. Partnering with Government and civil society organisations in ongoing relief and humanitarian efforts
  3. Long-term funding to build the capacity of regional organisations that work in disaster preparedness such as the Seismic Research Centre of the University of the West Indies (UWI) to establish a state of the art volcano monitoring system

In this, the Commonwealth, both at an institutional level, including the Commonwealth Foundation through its civil society partners, and through Member States, can play an important part. Now is the time to demonstrate the power of international solidarity. The Commonwealth can lead the way.

Renwick Rose is a journalist and coordinator and CEO of the Windward Islands Farmers Association.