February 26, 2010
Drought, bush fires and environmental consciousness


The dry season is well and truly with us, and throughout the Caribbean the complaint is the same – scarcity or lack of water. The spreading drought represents yet another natural disaster to which the Caribbean region is so vulnerable. While the severity of the situation is just beginning to dawn on us here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (see story with rainfall figures), other islands, Jamaica being the prime example, have been suffering in this regard since last year. So while we complain, we can at least thank our lucky stars that we have not felt the worst effects of drought as some of our CARICOM neighbours.{{more}} Indeed, to go further than drought, the destruction in Haiti from the earthquake and the continued eruption of the Soufriere hills volcano in Montserrat should remind us both of the vulnerability of the region as a whole and our own relative good fortune in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

We live in a world where there is now indisputable evidence of climate change. Whether one agrees with the causes, there is no doubting the fact that this is occurring, and small-island states like ours are areas of high risk, given our natural environment. This ought to be all the more reason why we should pay particular attention to such developments, and why, for us, environmental consciousness ought to be a priority for all our people. Given our strong dependence on our natural environment for a livelihood, whether in the form of agriculture, fishing or tourism, the state of our environment and disaster mitigation must rank high on our collective agenda.

Sadly, that is not the case. A quick perusal of the headline news throughout the region and a check on the rapid depletion of our natural resources would reveal that we are far from serious where our environment is concerned. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Forestry officials inform us that several of the bush fires now devouring our countryside are caused by humans – men in the vast majority of cases, in the illegal search for wildlife. In St. Lucia, the government has issued a stern warning of firm action against those who waste precious water resources in this dry season. It is as though we live in a world of our own, for there is ample evidence, in California, Australia, Spain and Portugal, to name a few, of how destructive bush fires can be when the hills and valleys are like tinderboxes. Must we wait for a similar disaster to hit us before we awaken from our environmental slumber?

Bush fires, whether deliberately or accidentally set, not only do great damage to lives and property, they also consume scarce water resources, water which we can ill afford in the dry season, to extinguish them. This waste of water resources also takes place daily, with individuals placing the appearance of their vehicles or lawns above the water needs of the society as a whole. If the people on the island of St. Vincent are not yet fully appreciative of the value of water supply, then we should let our sisters and brothers in the Grenadines, for whom this is a harsh fact of life, teach us all about it. It is not by chance that prominent global economists and social scientists have described water as “the oil of the 21st century” around which wars will be fought.

The same carefree attitude we display to water use is exhibited in respect of matters pertaining to the preservation of our land, air and marine resources. Waste disposal in particular is a chronic problem. Nationally, we have made strides in regard to governmental action over the last decade, thanks to the Central Water and Sewage Authority, and its Solid Waste Unit in particular. But on an individual level, there is little to show that we take it seriously. We discard waste anywhere, from the schoolyard to the home, from the street to the workplace, with scant regard for the consequences. The bad habits of us, as adults, are quite naturally adopted by our young ones. Environmental legislation is in dire need of upgrading and strengthening, while we are yet to make environmental science an essential part of our education at all levels, including public education.

The natural resources which we are so lucky to enjoy are susceptible to permanent damage if we do not take care of it. Our children’s future can be jeopardized by our own irresponsibility and recklessness.