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Hark, heed and prepare

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If hurricane Ivan’s battering of Grenada was a wake-up call for its neighbours, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, then the unprecedented devastation in the Indian Ocean must be nothing else but thunderous banging on our doors to get up, take stock of reality and to act appropriately. {{more}}

True, the Indian Ocean is thousands of kilometres away from us, but the scale of death and destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunamis (tidal waves) must not be lost on us. After all, we too live in a very vulnerable zone, potential victims of hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes.

In the case of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not only do we have to contend with a relatively huge active volcano, but an underwater one as well – Kick ’em Jenny – and the chilling scenes from the Indian Ocean scenario speak for themselves. There is a way in which we in the Caribbean tend to pay lip service to real dangers around us, as long as we do not feel immediately threatened and always seem to be playing catch-up after a disaster.

It is manifested in our attitude to life in general and our disregard for our precious environment. Our education, upbringing and socialization have failed to instil in us an appreciation for our environment and the need to preserve it for future generations. In addition to the constant threat of natural disasters, the reality is that we have very limited land space and therefore need to use it wisely and protect and cherish it. Yet our persistent refusal to tackle the grave environmental problems in the banana industry in particular, both on an individual and national level, can prove to be our own hangman’s noose in any disaster. The mess we make of our rivers, fields, hillsides and the sea around us will return to haunt us.

The diothene with which we clog our rivers and streams is compounded by the reckless attitude to garbage. People consume and then throw away plastics, cups, bottles, and bits of food in gutters, rivers, along roadways, willy nilly. All the messages about the environment seem to get lost as the young ones simply follow the example of their adults.

Another aspect of our irresponsible behaviour is our wastefulness, particularly in regard to water and energy. Of course we complain about bills, energy bills especially, but it hardly seems to dawn on us that we too have a responsibility at the level of the individual and home to utilize these resources sparingly. Living as we are on borrowed time, we continue to fool ourselves that we can carry on with our profligacy in this regard.

All of this is built into our lackadaisical approach to disaster preparedness and mitigation. It is only when we get frightened that we react. We must now use the tragedy of the Indian Ocean and Grenada to stir us into action. Our government must show bold and creative leadership in this regard, starting with meaningful involvement of the opposition in our national strategy for disaster preparedness, mitigation and preservation of the environment. There is simply no room for partisanship here.

It is reassuring to hear the Manning government in Trinidad and Tobago positively reacting to the tsunami threat. That must be replicated and deepened on a Caribbean-wide level. And preparation cannot just be national disaster committees and the like. Sure, these are an essential part and CEDERA and the various NEMOs and NEROs must be given the necessary resources and authority to be effective. But Grenada also exposed security as a crucial area. A beefed-up role for the Regional Security System (RSS) and its local counterparts is necessary. Skills training for our security personnel, cadets and other uniformed contingents can be an important part of that thrust.

Central to the success of any disaster preparedness strategy is education, on a formal and informal level. Garbage disposal, respect for the environment, our forests, rivers and seas must be inculcated from small. This is also where community groups and civil society groupings must be a central part in this strategy. No government can do it all alone. On a formal basis, is it not time to have formal courses in sustainable development, disaster preparedness and mitigation right up to university level?

Then there is the long-overdue combined thrust of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Department of the Environment, the Banana Association and farmers organizations in both a macro-programme to eradicate pollution in that industry and to insist on proper and sensible agricultural practices. The Jamaica government’s budget had provisions for promotion of organic farming; should we too not be front-runners in that race?

Many other aspects need to be tackled as well, though I cannot deal with them all here. Alternative energy sources – wind, water, solar – ought to be explored as well as promotion of energy-saving practices. Then there are our external relations, including a robust foreign policy, which includes full support for international treaties and programmes aimed at preserving planet earth and its environs.

It is time to take heed and ACT!