I just returned from the Atlantic coast, where we visited two communities impacted by Hurricane Felix in September of 2007. The experience was, to say the least, heart wrenching. On the NW coast, in spite of the poverty we saw, I had the sense that there was possibility for adaptation. The dry spells could be countered by digging wells, creating irrigation systems, and so forth. With good planning and an infusion of resources, the insecurities brought about by the changing weather patterns could be mitigated.
However, in the communities on the Atlantic coast devastated by Felix, the situation is far more complex. It is much more difficult to adapt to the buzz saw of a category five hurricane. A very similar situation is New Orleans post-Katrina (which by the time the hurricane made landfall it was actually a category three). Even though the U.S. has a very advanced infrastructure, building codes, and abundant resources, parts of New Orleans (such as the Ninth Ward) are still (three and a half years later) in ruins. Even with all our tools and resources, we in the U.S. still cannot fully adapt to a severe storm. In a poor place with limited resources such as Nicaragua, the picture is even bleaker.
One year and four months after Felix, whole communities are still in tatters, lacking basic necessities such as food and shelter. They have also become breeding grounds for diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever. The situation is dire.
Obviously, relief is a key component to any response (and more of it is still needed on the North Atlantic coast). People need food, drink, and medical care. They need help rebuilding their homes and planting their fields.
But relief aid alone will not be sufficient. Energy and thought and resources must also be directed towards development. In the weeks and months following Hurricane Felix, the community of Santa Marta was sent tarps from USAID to provide temporary shelter. You can see from the picture above how well those have held up. They did not receive much else. Probably the most difficult moment in the whole visit was when the local leader of the community said without a hint of irony or sarcasm, “Gracias por las tarpas (Thank you for the tarps).”
So what does this all mean? First, it is clear to me (and to the people I have visited down here in Nicaragua) that climate change is already impacting people in the Global South. We are not simply talking about the future world that we will pass on to our children. Right now, today, we need to work to curb greenhouse gases, at both a personal and corporate level. Second, we need to rethink how we do aid (Bread for the World has made aid reform a key theme in 2009, see http://www.bread.org/
). Let’s get to work!