After successfully recovering from its recent brush with disaster when a volcanic eruption nearly wiped it off the map, the small island nation of Montserrat is hoping to capitalize on its experience by establishing a one-of-a-kind climate change learning centre for the Caribbean.
The proposal was made in an engaging presentation by Montserrat Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Housing and the Environment, Eugene Skerritt, at the recent planning workshop for the Enhancing Capacity for Adaptation to Climate Change in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories.
New funding arrangements have now made it possible for the UK overseas territories to benefit from more investment in climate change adaptation initiatives, placing Montserrat in a unique position.
‘While what happened to us was not a result of climate change, we have first hand experience in dealing as a small island nation with the kinds of impacts climate change is going to have on the Caribbean region,’ said Mr. Skerrit.
Not that Montserrat hasn’t experienced the kind of extreme weather some scientists predict will increase as a result of climate change.
In September 1989, Montserrat experienced a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo which damaged over 90 percent of the structures on the island. Known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean for to its spectacular scenery and Irish heritage, Montserrat’s tourism industry suffered a heavy blow.
Further compounding the storm’s impact, a keystone of the local economy, AIR Studios, was forced to close, which until then had attracted a slew of international music stars to the island along with a steady source of foreign investment.
Despite an otherwise rapid recovery, things permanently changed for Montserrat when, in July 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano, dormant throughout recorded history, erupted. Still active today, over a course of several years it buried the island’s capital and main port, Plymouth, in more than 40 feet of mud, destroyed the airport and created what’s known now as the ‘exclusion zone’ that takes up the island’s entire southern portion.
‘We lost two thirds of our population who were forced to move elsewhere, and two thirds of our land to this catastrophe,’ says Mr. Skerritt, ‘so we have a pretty good idea of what the irreversible effects of global warming, with storms and changing land uses, can have on a small island nation.’
Mr. Skerritt says that thanks to careful planning and evacuation procedures, only 19 deaths can be attributed to the eruption, but the island has been changed forever.
Montserrat’s remaining inhabitants who now number only 8,000 or so, are eager to share their experiences of adapting to their island’s dramatic environmental change, and the proposed climate change centre would provide an ideal medium for it.
‘Climate change has an impact on livelihoods, agriculture, tourism, education, health, community services, labour, and infrastructure, all things we have experienced already,’ says Mr. Skerritt.
‘We want to take advantage of the opportunity this new financial arrangement is offering to do our part to provide a forum for overseas UK Territories in the region to use to our mutual advantage.’
Mr. Skerrit says he hopes the centre’s focus on practical experience will be able to attract both scientists and policymakers interested in mitigating the impacts of climate change.