Assistant Secretary General Speech


June 7, 2021 - Washington, DC

Ms Elizabeth Riley, Acting Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA)

OAS Representative Phyllis Baron of the OAS National Office in The Bahamas

Mrs. Kim Osborne, Executive Secretary, SEDI

Distinguished invitees of Regional and International Organizations, Disaster Management Agencies, Government Ministries, Faculty and students of regional universities and colleges

Colleagues of the OAS and Inter-American partner agencies

Ladies and gentlemen

It is my honor to join you in today’s Chat with the OAS on the topic: The Work of the OAS in the Region in Response to Climate Change and Natural Disasters: Building Resilience in the Face of These Challenges.

I am always pleased to engage with my Caribbean compatriots and to update you on the work of the OAS in the region, but more so on this timely occasion to address a topic of the most pressing importance and urgency for Caribbean Member States. As you all know, the Atlantic Hurricane season started merely one week ago, yet we have already seen the formation of sub-tropical storm Ana near the waters off Bermuda. This year marked the seventh consecutive year in which a pre-season named storm has formed, and so notwithstanding the denials, this is ample evidence that many such weather anomalies can be attributed to climate change.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges to global stability, posing an existential threat to the gains made in democratic governance, economic and sustainable development, and peace and security in our region and the world. Indeed, rising global temperatures in recent years have contributed to more frequent and more severe natural disasters, including floods, droughts, tropical storms, dangerous heat waves, wildfires, and volcanic activity, and these have resulted in loss of life and livelihoods. They have contributed to food insecurity, economic decline, water shortages, and forced migration, and have exacerbated threats to one and all, particularly vulnerable populations in small island developing states and low-lying coastal areas.

We continue to be struck by increasingly stark data on climate change: a recent report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) cites that 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record, and that, not surprisingly, this was also the warmest decade on record. Viewed in the context of natural disasters and climate change, this provides clear relevance to our hemisphere’s precarious designation as one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world.

Data on last year’s Atlantic Hurricane Season documented 31 tropical depressions, 30 of which became tropical storms or hurricanes, 6 became major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher, ranking 2020 as the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record with over 430 lives lost. These are jarring statistics. The 2021 hurricane season is likely to be equally devastating as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts activity that surpasses past averages.

Given this sobering scenario, the Caribbean region must prioritize the building of resilience in its infrastructure, including mainstreaming a clearly defined pathway to the development of clean and sustainable energy.

In 2018, a landmark report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that allowing the planet to warm in excess of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels would drive hundreds of millions of people into poverty and preclude some countries from adapting to the felt impact. The Paris Agreement calls for limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Island states and low-lying coastal areas stand to suffer the most detrimental effects if swift action is not taken. On a positive note, Caribbean countries have taken a leadership role in climate change discussions and in advocating for adherence to the Paris Agreement. The fundamental reality is that climate change must be at the top of our global agenda and aligned with the Paris Agreement to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Along with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change remains the defining challenge of our time, and one that is a top priority for the OAS. Member States have increasingly called for better coordinated multilateral action in response to the challenges associated with climate change and other weather-related threats. In that regard, the OAS undertakes a multilateral approach in its response, optimizing its extensive technical experience, convening power, and resources to facilitate and build capacity for disaster preparedness and recovery.

One of the principal regional instruments to assist Member states in matters of disaster assistance is the Inter-American Convention to Facilitate Disaster Assistance which was adopted in 1991 at the 21st Regular Session of the General Assembly held in Santiago, Chile. It is the only regional, legally binding instrument in the world which addresses international disaster response through the provision of a set of rules for coordinated and collaborative international assistance.

Regrettably, due to a number of legal bases, only six countries have ratified this treaty, and we continue to encourage countries to research and to review the treaty, and to begin the ratification process.

Another such instrument of the OAS is the Inter-American Committee on Natural Disaster Reduction (IACNDR), which was established in 1999 to act, inter alia “as the principal forum of the Inter-American system for analyzing issues related to natural and other disasters, including the prevention and mitigation of their effects” Meetings of the Committee are convened at the request of a Member State in anticipation of a natural disaster or immediately thereafter.

Under my leadership, the Committee has met several times since 2016 during moments of crisis to ensure efficient coordination among members who form part of the Inter-American System of agencies focused on disaster prevention and mitigation. Members include:

• The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB),
• The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO),
• The Pan American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH),
• The Pan American Development Foundation (PADF),
• The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA),
• The Inter-American Agency for Cooperation and Development (IACD),
• The Inter-American Defense Board (IADB), and
• The Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM).

The Inter-American Network for Disaster Mitigation or INDM is a platform for sharing information and practical experiences for building resilience among its users. One of the most important tools of the Network is an online database of the only government-authorized archive in the Western Hemisphere featuring national information on the installed capacity of each OAS Member State for disaster preparedness and mitigation. It is an illustration of the comparative advantage among Member States and a useful platform during times of crisis enabling Governments to swiftly identify counterparts to assist with specific needs.

Yet another noteworthy instrument is the Inter-American Emergency Aid Fund (FONDEM) which provides monetary assistance to Member States following a natural disaster. Additionally, Member States adopted a series of resolutions and agreements, and in 2009 established a Joint Working Group of the OAS Permanent Council and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) to review the role of the OAS in disaster response.

In 2011, the Working Group published the “Assessment and Course of Action Suggested” (GTC/DAH-12/11 rev. 3), which concluded that any successfully coordinated action for disaster preparedness and response must be guided by the identification by countries of their needs with a view towards management of the response efforts of humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It emphasized that these agencies must also be cognizant of the legislative and regulatory frameworks of affected countries within which they would operate.

Another critical source of OAS support falls within the Executive Secretariat for Integral Development (SEDI, the principal organ of the OAS for assisting Member States in building community resilience through the integration of Disaster Risk Management objectives across all programs and projects. Building local resilience is an essential element for enhancing international disaster response given that built-in resilience affords countries the ability to properly manage and recover from natural disasters. SEDI has organized multiple workshops and developed numerous projects on building resilience with the aid of international organizations. One such project is “Building the Resilience of Small Tourism Enterprises in the Caribbean to Disasters”. Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises are the backbone of economic growth in our Caribbean countries, but unfortunately these are highly susceptible to natural disasters and global exogenous shocks.
The project, funded by the US Department of State through the US Permanent Mission to the OAS, seeks to reduce the severity and impact of such disasters on the operations of small enterprises in the Caribbean, as well as to minimize the duration of such disruptions. Many small businesses have benefitted from this program, and we look forward with the hope that the project will continue.

SEDI’s support in the Caribbean also extends to collaboration in building resilience in basic services, including in electricity, water, and sanitation. A critically important component of this is the promotion of renewable and clean energy, as well as the use of micro grids that create a measure of redundancy in national energy grids for decentralization of distribution across the larger network.
SEDI’s Department of Sustainable Development serves as the Secretariat of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) which provides a platform for technology transfer and the creation of energy markets. ECPA also supports a meeting of Ministers of Energy of the region which fosters public-private partnership to explore opportunities for investment in clean energy projects. Many Caribbean countries remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and recently, we witnessed the devastation wrought by the volcanic eruptions in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the adverse impact on the island’s energy supply which is derived primarily from fossil fuels.

In water and sanitation, SEDI has assisted in assessing and formulating recommendations for reconstruction of water supply systems to encourage the participation of local communities in their maintenance. This is borne out in the joint mission organized by SEDI along with the Argentine White Helmet Commission in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Dominica by which valuable support was rendered to the Government of Dominica in its recovery efforts. These are just a few examples of the practical ways in which the OAS endeavors to support the Caribbean region in the face of climate change and in post disaster responses.

The CARICOM region recognizes the importance of providing long-term, sustainable energy to its citizens, energy supplies that are better able to rebound from exogenous shocks, natural disasters, and now even from global pandemics. Given the direct correlation between energy supply and the high cost of fossil fuels, as well as the link to high operational costs in all sectors, support for the development of eco-efficient, eco-friendly, and sustainable energy must be elevated beyond the context of an economic issue: it must underpin a longer-term vision to support sustainable development in our Member States.

On May 27th of this year, the OAS held a High-Level Meeting with CARICOM Ministers Responsible for Energy, Heads of International Financial Institutions, Bilateral Development Partners, and the Private Sector to discuss opportunities for investment in clean energy projects, a priority consideration as CARICOM and other OAS Member States position themselves for resiliency in the face of natural and other disasters.

Climate change-related environmental degradation is a formidable and direct threat to the well-being of our region’s citizens. The OAS plays an important role in strengthening the Inter-American System’s capacity to respond to natural disasters and is well positioned to continue to support the efforts of the region in advancing more robust and better coordinated multilateral cooperation for international disaster assistance that responds to such crises.

During the current global pandemic, we find ourselves at a critical juncture, the crossroads at which our battles against the ravages of COVID-19 have the potential to be exacerbated by the threats posed by climate change and the onslaught of natural disasters. The imperative here must be to unite as a global community to prevent and mitigate any such disastrous effects, and the OAS will continue to work steadfastly with governments, other multilateral organizations, and financial institutions, as well as the private sector to address the impact of climate change in all its forms, and to respond when natural disasters strike. For their part, governments must continue to adopt responsive policies aimed at building resilience, and to be proactive in advancing towards the use of cleaner, greener, more environmentally friendly forms of energy. In this regard, the OAS looks forward to continuing to build on its record of service in working with Member States as we respond to climate change and natural disasters, and to being proactive in securing a strong foundation by which we become fully resilient to the disastrous impacts of natural disasters. This is what our citizens expect; this is what the OAS will continue to work towards as a clear and attainable objective.