I was honoured to be invited to Washington by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, to talk about how the BVI and Caribbean can recover from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Prime Minister Keith Mitchell of Grenada and myself also organised an initiative to bring together the heads of state of the Caribbean, the international community and business leaders to discuss the issues. I proposed that we set up a team to head up the Marshall Plan for the Caribbean, which was agreed. Very kindly the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank agreed to fund it together.
Richard World Bank
Afterwards I had meetings with the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who said that she would be happy to use her convening powers to help; the president of the World Bank, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, who agreed to get his team to move extremely quickly to develop a plan; and President Moreno of the Inter-American Development Bank, who also agreed to move speedily. We’re now putting a small team in place to take it forward.
I’ve spent much of my time in the last few weeks dealing with the devastating impacts the hurricanes had on the beautiful Caribbean, and trying to find ways in which we can rebuild all that’s been lost and help the affected communities back on their feet.
Richard World Bank Crowd listening
As our Caribbean corner of the world is subjected to nature's fury, I can’t help but ask how much more destruction is needed to show that the way we treat our planet is having serious consequences. Scientists have highlighted the link between carbon emissions and ocean surface temperatures. When Irma struck, Atlantic and Caribbean waters had reached temperatures of 86 degrees Fahrenheit in some places. I don’t need any further proof than that to know the time to act is now – globally and locally.
As some of you will know, I decided to ride out Hurricane Irma in my home in the British Virgin Islands. To be perfectly honest, none of us hunkering down in a basement on Necker Island were prepared for its force and intensity. Irma unleashed the most ferocious winds I’ve ever seen in my life, and it was truly heart-breaking to see the full extent of the devastation across the entire community once the storm had passed.
In the BVI, every single island has been hit and battered; more than 90 per cent of all residential buildings have become uninhabitable, and all local infrastructure – power, telecommunications, water and sanitation – has either been destroyed or seriously damaged.
Richard World Bank Stage Microphone
While the last month or so has been agonising at times, I’ve been living in the Caribbean for a long time and know its amazing people well. Their resilience and spirit are an enormous inspiration. The tasks ahead of us are daunting, but it’s the people who give me hope that the Caribbean islands will bounce back stronger than ever.
From Puerto Rico to the BVI and Dominica, this is still very much a relief operation. Tens of thousands continue to be without shelter, or access to clean and safe drinking water. These urgent needs must be met, and they must be met quickly. This year’s hurricane season is not over yet, and another storm could strike in the coming weeks.
But we have to start thinking beyond emergency relief and turn our attention to the islands’ long-term recovery and reconstruction. Resilience was the topic of many conversations I’ve had in the last few weeks. It really comes down to this question: as hurricanes will hit more often and with growing intensity, how can Caribbean countries avoid total destruction becoming the norm?
Richard Branson World Bank Stage
Among other things, this means building homes able to withstand sustained and catastrophic hurricane-force winds over longer periods of time. It means installing distributed power grids that don’t break down so easily and can be repaired quickly. It means restoring critical ecosystems like mangrove wetlands and coral reefs that mitigate direct impacts of storms by naturally reducing wave heights and preventing soil erosion. And perhaps most importantly, it means weaning Caribbean islands off their irresponsible and costly dependency on fossil fuels.
Running much of the region on diesel and other fuels comes with an enormous price tag – the Caribbean’s cost of electricity generation is among the world’s highest, and fuel expenditures consume up to 20 per cent of GDP in some island nations. As an investor and entrepreneur, I’ve never seen a more compelling business case than the one presented by more energy-efficient systems that make use of the abundance of the region’s natural resources, like solar or wind. Remember, you don’t have to ship sunshine.
And while we are talking about resilience, I was heartened by the story of Puerto Rican flower grower Hector Santiago, whose solar panels sustained only minor damage during Hurricane Maria and allowed him to keep his plant nursery running, even as the rest of the island completely lost power. That’s the type of resilience I imagine and would like to see go to scale. Interestingly, one of the few structures on Necker Island to emerge from Irma virtually unscathed little was our array of solar panels. Coincidence or just more resilient infrastructure? I’ll let you be the judge.
Richard Branson World Bank Stage
And aside from vastly improving resilience through better systems, diversified energy supplies will also have a positive economic effect. When Jamaica reduced electricity costs a few years ago, it quickly moved up 27 positions on the World Bank’s global Doing Businessranking.
For the type of reconstruction we all envision, the Caribbean must finally take the leap from 20th century technology to 21st century innovation. And we must resist the all-too-familiar impulse to return to business as usual and do the same things as before, simply because they are easy and cheaper in the short term.
You can frame this as a formidable political and economic challenge, but I think we can be far more optimistic. With the political will emerging now across the region and the financial commitments needed, I think these island states have a huge opportunity to build greener and more resilient communities than ever before – models of what climate-smart recovery around the world can and should look like.
Richard Branson World Bank Stage
To find leadership in this space, you don’t have to look much further than what is already being done in the Caribbean. A few years back, Aruba announced an ambitious strategy to run entirely on renewables by 2020, and the island is already halfway there. And in Barbados, one in two households are now using solar water heaters, not only reducing electricity cost, but also creating jobs in a budding solar industry. These are fantastic examples. What we need now is scale.
I have on various occasions called for a “Marshall Plan for the Caribbean”, a commitment from governments, multilaterals, and investors to provide the financing and the guarantees needed to empower Caribbeans to shape their own future and rebuild their nations. I think the consensus is that it’s got to be a “Marshall Plan for a greener, resilient Caribbean”. We mustn’t lose any time to make this happen.