AS SOME politicians in the United Kingdom (UK) question their government’s response to La Soufriere’s eruption, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves says he is grateful for whatever contribution we receive.
The UK has provided an initial £200,000, via the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to support the regional response, through the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA).
But the UK’s initial response is not sitting well with some members of the House of Lords, and last Friday, several members addressed issues relating to the eruption and asked questions of Lord Tariq Mahmood Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth at the FCDO.
The House of Lords, the upper house of the Parliament of the UK, heard Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford tell Lord Ahmad that as a teenager he lived in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).
He described the country as a “magical” place with “delightful” people and he experienced a hurricane here and was also in SVG when La Soufriere erupted in 1979.
“It is not a wealthy area by any means. The main source of income is agriculture and tourism, and both have been devastated by this natural disaster.
“It would take a long, long long time for the place to recover and also the islands around her, especially agriculture, is going to take a while to recover because of the covering of the volcanic ash that is there.
“We must help these islands in every way we possibly can and whether it is financially or with military personnel to help over there or a combination of both but we must help…” Earl Chetwynd-Talbot told Lord Ahmad.
In response, the Lord said they are working very closely to provide support.
“The issue of HMS Medway, just to be quite specific, prior to the volcanic eruption it was undergoing routine operational updates and repairs on the vessel and therefore that is why it has not been immediately deployed, but I assure the noble Lord that is one of the immediate questions that I have raised and we are working, let me again emphasize the point, with the authorities on the ground, whether its technical support or long term support…,” Lord Ahmad stressed.
Also addressing the House of Lords was Earl of Devon Charles Peregrine Courtenay, who asked about the contact made with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working on the ground in SVG, particularly local churches working with evacuees, Marion House and the Girls’ High School (GHS).
Lord Ahmad answered that their primary contact is with the international Red Cross, while they are working directly with the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency (CDEMA) and the SVG government.
Also questioning the UK’s response was Bishop of St Albans Alan Gregory Clayton Smith, who commented that the diocese of the Windward Islands is linked with his diocese in St. Albans and he has been in contact with the right reverend Leopold Friday, current Bishop of the Windward Islands.
“Here in my diocese in Luton we have a very large Vincentian population and this is a matter that is affecting peoples’ families.
“If there are people forced to evacuate from the country, would the government consider a temporary resettlement scheme for those with family links in the UK?”
Lord Ahmad responded that he acknowledges the important role that the church plays, but did not specifically tackle the Bishop’s question of opening the UK to displaced Vincentians.
“Indeed again with the High Commissioner this morning, I did suggest on the issue of the question raised by the noble lady Baroness Northover how when the vaccines roll out, the churches can also assist on its wider question about the long term impact.
“Obviously we would remain engaged with the authorities on St. Vincent and the Grenadines about their medium and long term requirements,” Lord Ahmad said.
Lord Ray Collins of Highbury told Lord Ahmad that like many persons, he shares the concern about the amount of the initial response, but he is not only looking at the humanitarian effort but at environmental health and safety.
He said the United Nations (UN) Environmental Program is developing and implementing a debris management plan to clean up ash and promote
environmental health and safety in the long term to help get SVG’s economy back on track as soon as possible.
Lord Collins of Highbury asked Lord Ahmad if the UK is working with the UN Environmental Program and if they had offered professional support to that program.
Lord Ahmad answered that the UK Is working with all international agencies including the UN, but noted that in terms of disaster response, the UK works with CDEMA and they are working very constructively with all elements including immediate and medium responses and other actions that are required.
Lord Randall of Uxbridge reminded the House of Lords about the unique endemic wildlife such as the St. Vincent parrot, and asked that Her Majesty’s government consider what assistance it can offer in due course to NGOs to ensure that the endemic wildlife of the island is conserved and protected from any potential accidental introduction of non-native species, while providing much needed relief to the island.
“We recognize the importance of biodiversity especially in the context of climate change,” Lord Ahmad responded while noting that the UK’s chairmanship of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) has made notable suggestions and recommendations.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock spoke about Montserrat and noted that that country was devastated by a volcano.
“I was the minister of DFID dealing with it and we sent out emergency teams immediately to help them.
“Why is that not being done now?
“ and we also committed long term help, not of thousands of pounds, but of millions of pounds. Are these poor people going to be the first victims of the cuts in DFID assistance?” Lord Foulkes asked.
DFID is the UK’s Department for International Development.
Lard Ahmad in answering Lord Foulkes, said the UK has given an immediate response.
“What we have announced thus far is immediate support and the reason we are not sending out direct support is because we have invested since 2017- and I can speak with some insight and expertise in CDEMA- in the structures in the Caribbean, in the structures in the region, to ensure that the response can be as effective and coordinated as it can be.
“I myself continue to support Montserrat; indeed it is this government that has provided close to 30 million pounds of capital spending to continue to help Montserrat. Also through the Caribbean Investment Development Bank, we are supporting specific projects like road building in St. Vincent and that kind of long term infrastructure support will also continue,” Lord Ahmad said.
Prime minister Dr. Gonsalves, on Saturday, at Georgetown told local, regional and international journalists, including a team from Channel 4 from London, that we have had a long historic partnership with the British government and we expect that they will be partnering with SVG through the reconstruction and humanitarian phases of this natural disaster.
The PM was responding to a Channel 4 question as to whether the initial £200,000 ($755,360) given to SVG was sufficient to help it to rebuild.
He said the British government assists regional institutions like CDEMA, and that organization works intimately with SVG in terms of disaster response.
The PM noted that currently, SVG is at the humanitarian relief phase and he recently had conversations with someone from the UK foreign ministry while British parliamentarians have also reached out.
“I believe they are committed to the humanitarian effort and the recovery effort,” Gonsalves said while noting that he expects support for the reconstruction phase.
On Monday, Lord Ahmad tweeted, that he spoke to Dr. Gonsalves last week, discussing support and recovery, including the 200,000 pounds to help address the immediate humanitarian impact.