By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Bahamas will reap multi-billion dollar benefits if it acts now to upgrade physical and environmental protections against $500 million in forecast storm damage, an engineer said yesterday.
Carlos Palacious, director of operations for Caribbean Coastal Services, said investing just $42 million over the next 20 years in enhancing New Providence's urban drainage infrastructure will generate $1.677 billion in cost savings.
Addressing the Bahamas Business Outlook conference, he added that an $11.8 million spend on restoring southern New Providence's mangroves as natural protection against storm surge would reap a $165 million benefit over the next five years.
And Mr Palacious added that a $73 million investment in upgrading seawalls and beach restorations would create a $454 million economic benefit, with this - and the other economic impacts - representing savings on potential hurricane restoration and repairs.
The Bahamian engineer argued that the Bahamas had little choice but to "adapt to survive", and take measures to strengthen its hurricane resiliency, given the increasing power and frequency and storms it will likely face in coming years.
He pointed to an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report that estimates the Bahamas will have to spend half a billion dollars, or $500 million, over the next 10 years on post-storm recovery and restoration to illustrate the economic costs this nation will incur if no action is taken.
"Where do you have a line item in the Budget to pick up after hurricanes," Mr Palacious asked. "Climate change is real, whether you believe it or not. The frequency with which we're seeing these events, and the cost, is increasing."
He added that IDB data shows the Bahamas suffered $673 million in combined losses and damage from the past three hurricanes - Joaquin, Matthew and Irma - combined. While the first storm, in 2015, had left the nation with a $100 million bill, the IDB pegs the losses from Matthew and Irma at $438 million and $135 million, respectively.
"I challenge you to find anything in our economy that costs us more than a hurricane," Mr Palacious said. "If Hurricane Irma had come right over New Providence, we would not be having this Business Outlook."
He added that the damage inflicted by that Category Five storm in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and St Maarten exceeded the size of those islands' GDP. St Maarten saw $2.5 billion in damage to a $1.9 billion economy, while BVI's $1.06 billion economy is still digging its way out of a $1.4 billion hit.
Mr Palacious said islands ravaged by Irma and Maria had been forced to take extreme economic measures to finance their recovery and survival, with some drastically reducing their fees for economic citizenship.
Antigua & Barbuda, where the latter island was virtually wiped out by Irma, reduced its citizenship fees from $200,000 pre-storm to $100,000. "That means you had to relax some of your policies to allow for a fiscal influx," Mr Palacious said.
"It brings social challenges, it brings cultural challenges, it brings diversity challenges. It brings many challenging issues."
Mr Palacious added that 38,000 Bahamian citizens were impacted by the 18 major storms that have hit this nation since 1970, but warned that 40 per cent or seven of these hurricanes had occurred in the last 10 years.
And the 12 major storms that have struck the Bahamas since 1980 caused a combined $2.5 billion in damage, equivalent to around 30 per cent of this country's GDP.
The Caribbean Coastal Services executive added that the Bahamas was "ranked number one in the Caribbean and Latin America" as the nation that will be most impacted by climate change, and said homes 10 years or older are unsuitable to withstand today's hurricanes without upgrades.
"What we have done in the past will not allow us to continue to function sustainably in the future," Mr Palacious said. "The things we have done in the past will not guarantee the future. The majority of persons today are living in homes that do not meet the current goal."
That 'goal' is to withstand 180 mile per hour winds, and he added: "It's not all doom and gloom, but we have to be aware of the facts. We have to be careful that we plan and adapt to survive. The future is still optimistic because we are having the conversation, and will overcome this."
Much of the Bahamas' infrastructure, including its tourism plant, roads, airports and 140 docks are located on the highly-exposed coastline, and Mr Palacious said properties in such areas would need to be built to a higher standard than those inland.
He pointed out that the demographics were also not in the Bahamas' favour when it came to responding to climate change, as New Providence's already-bloated population is forecast to expand by another 100,000 persons come 2040.
And the population segments aged between 50-64 years-old and over 65 are predicted to grow by 50 per cent and 192 per cent over that same timeframe, creating issues when it came to evacuations and upgrading properties.
Mr Palacious warned the Government to beware the dredging of mangroves to facilitate resorts and other developments, adding that coral reefs were estimated to have a $673 million economic value per year to the Bahamas.