By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Bahamas has been warned that "the era of tough choices has arrived" after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma caused a combined $710 million in economic damages and loss.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), in two separate 100-plus page reports on the devastation inflicted by the two storms, warned that this nation needs to move now on relocating coastal communities and investing in infrastructure able to withstand disaster and climate change risk.
Breaking down the impact from the two most recent storms, the IDB's just-released reports revealed that Matthew - which struck the two most-populated islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama in October 2016 - inflicted a combined $580 million in physical damage, revenue and other economic losses, and clean-up costs.
And Hurricane Irma, even though it largely spared the main population centres, caused an estimated $129.4 million in damages, economic losses and repair costs when it ripped through Ragged Island, Acklins and Inagua last September before curving northwards to affect Bimini and Grand Bahama.
"As a result of global warming and sea-level rise, the people of the Bahamas will face tough choices about relocating coastal populations and investing in infrastructure that will create resilience to the increased disaster risk and ongoing climate change," the IDB's Matthew assessment concluded.
"The damage wrought by Hurricane Matthew's storm surge to communities such as West End on Grand Bahama and Lowe Sound on Andros, or by Hurricane Joaquin to Lovely Bay on Acklins and Landrail Point on Crooked Island should stand as a warning that the era of these tough choices has already arrived."
It added: "A child born in the Bahamas in 2016 will be 84 years old in the year 2100. In that lifespan, she can expect to see, by conservative projections, a rise in sea levels of two to three feet (60 to 90 cm) above where they are today. Less conservative projections recognise that there is some risk of a substantially greater rise.
"This is the start of a very long-term trend in which continually increasing sea levels will affect the Bahamas for hundreds of year to come, potentially not ending until such time as the entire volumes of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been added to the water in the Earth's oceans.
"By the time the rise in sea level reaches three feet (90 cm), the increase in water level will be enough to lap at the thresholds of houses in some of today's low-lying communities, and it will have already led to profound changes to the coastlines, topography, and bathymetry of the Bahamian archipelago," the report continued.
"Natural coastal protections, including mangroves, barrier islands, beaches and reefs, will become eroded or further submerged, leading to increased risk of damage to sea-side infrastructure as a result of storm surge and wave action.
"At the same time, the increase in water temperatures because of global warming is likely to contribute to a tendency for tropical cyclones to be, on average, stronger than they have been in the past. Thus, large storms like Hurricanes Matthew and Joaquin can be expected to impact the islands with an increased frequency."
Having illustrated the dire consequences if the Bahamas takes no action, the IDB report said the authorities needed to start immediately on educating inhabitants of low-lying coastal, communities on the need to relocate.
Emphasising that such a move could not simply be dictated or mandated by the Government, it suggested that "a fast-track programme" and incentives were needed to underpin such relocation, with the provision of Crown Land helping to minimise such costs.
The IDB assessment also warned against continued reinvestment, including the use of scarce taxpayer dollars, in rebuilding homes and infrastructure in areas deemed to be at 'high risk' from flooding and storm surges during hurricanes.
"Respect for human rights mandates that endangered communities cannot simply be removed by fiat of the authorities, but that a long-term process of consultation, planning, consent-building, and incentivisation is necessary," the report said.
"That said, continued and extensive public investment to rebuild destroyed housing and infrastructure in areas at high-risk is also not an appropriate response. Rebuilding in high-risk areas should be limited to that which is necessary to maintain public safety, and the basic services to which residents are entitled. Broad economic redevelopment should focus on sustainably-sited communities, and this can serve as an incentive to draw populations in at-risk areas to resettle on safer ground.
"For example, the Government is advised to create a fast-track programme and incentives for citizens who live on or near coastlines to relocate to Crown Land. However, simply opening up new building sites is not in itself sufficient to draw populations away from at-risk areas," the IDB study added.
"This has been demonstrated in the past when the Government opened up a new settlement area to entice relocation of citizens from Lowe Sound. Ultimately, relatively few people moved to the new location, in part because it was not near the centre of economic activity. Perhaps more will move now, following the devastation wrought on the town by Hurricane Matthew, but there is a need for additional urban planning and economic development to make relocation a more inviting prospect to those remaining in harm's way."
Hurricane Matthew increased in intensity from a Category Three to a Category Four storm by the time it reached Grand Bahama, with that island accounting for almost 70 per cent of the damage and economic losses inflicted upon the Bahamas. New Providence took the brunt of the remainder at some 23 per cent.
"Total hurricane damage, estimated at $373.9 million, accounted for almost two-thirds of the storm's total cost. Most damage was to the housing sector, and the tourism sector," the IDB's assessment said of Matthew.
"The productive sectors - tourism and fisheries - account for nearly $109.3 million of the total $145.5 million in income losses caused by the hurricane. Fisheries have the highest ratio of income loss to damage. For each dollar of hurricane damage, there was $25 of lost income in the fisheries sector.
"Of the $60.9 million in additional costs attributed to the hurricane, approximately 60 per cent - $36.3 million - was borne by the infrastructure sub-sectors - transportation, telecommunications, power, and water and sanitation. About 93 per cent of the additional costs in infrastructure occurred in the power ($23.6 million) and telecommunications ($10.3 million) sectors."
As for Irma, the IDB report noted: "The estimated damage is $31.5 million; the losses, $86.5 million; and additional costs, $11.4 million.
"Hurricane Irma caused moderate damage throughout the country, particularly affecting the productive private sub-sectors of tourism and fisheries, as well as causing important environmental damage. Most of the damage sustained resulted from excess rainfall, storm surge and flooding. It is estimated that the total damage is $31.5 million, of which 39.2 per cent is public and 60.8 per cent private.
"Losses... were sustained primarily in the private sector, which accounted for 97 per cent of the total. The productive sector accounts for most of the losses, with 93.5 per cent. The infrastructure sector accounts for 4.3 per cent of the losses, followed by social (2.2 per cent)."