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Before the Next Storm: Helping People and Nature Adapt

Photo: Hurricane Ivan over the United States after hitting the Grenada and the Eastern Caribbean  Credit: Tim Loomis, NOAA/NESDIS/Environmental Visualization Program, September, 2004
Hurricane Ivan over the United States after hitting Grenada and the Eastern Caribbean in September 2004.
(Credit: Tim Loomis, NOAA/NESDIS/Environmental Visualization Program)

By Vera Agostini, Senior Marine Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

Major hurricanes like Sandy (New Jersey in 2012) and Ivan (Eastern Caribbean in 2004) and Typhoon Haiyan (the Philippines 2013) make global headlines as they hit coastal communities, appropriately drawing attention to the human, financial, and community losses. While some smaller communities may not make global headlines, their risk from even minor storms is real. Our challenge is helping communities adapt to a changing climate before the next storm.

My colleagues from The Nature Conservancy and I recently travelled to Grenville, a small fishing village on the northeast side of Grenada.  Homes here are only steps from the sea and like most Caribbean Island communities; Grenville relies heavily on natural resources. Fishing provides the main source of protein and livelihoods for the people, while coral reefs and mangroves have historically provided significant coastal protection.

“Without the reef there would not be a town,” explains Crafton Isaacs, a local fisheries officer.

Helping communities like Grenville adapt to the risks of rising seas and intense storms is complex, and requires a holistic approach. People need their houses, infrastructure, jobs, food and to be able to care for their families.

Nature-based solutions can play an important role in meeting these needs. While no man-made or natural defenses will ever stop the most intense storms, reefs and mangroves can be a cost-effective option when compared with grey infrastructure, and they also play a critical role in reducing the social vulnerability of communities.

Photo: Modest storms or sea level rise threaten homes in Grenville. Photo: Tom McCann, Nature Conservancy
Modest storms or sea level rise threaten homes in Grenville. (Photograph by Tom McCann, Nature Conservancy)

No single organization can do this kind of work alone. We knew early on that to work effectively with local communities in Grenada, we needed to listen to their needs first and foremost and collaborate with someone the local community knew well and had a strong understanding of social issues. The Red Cross of Grenada was both—strong local presence with insider knowledge, and we formed a strong partnership.

“The Red Cross’s connections to local communities and understanding of the social context, and the Conservancy’s scientific expertise made a powerful combination for this project,” says Terry Charles, director of the Grenada Red Cross Society.

Our first step together was to modify the standard process that the Red Cross uses to work with vulnerable communities to include the important role that nature could play in increasing their resilience. The Red Cross surveyed four communities—a total of 300 households—using the new format that we designed together.

Results from those surveys helped us understand and map vulnerabilities in Grenville and with the community design adaptation strategies.

The Red Cross and The Nature Conservancy are now implementing those strategies. On land, we are fostering community leadership for climate and disaster risk management and instill the power of nature-based solutions through education. At the water’s edge, we are replanting mangroves as important erosion defenses and breeding grounds for countless marine species. In the sea, we are designing coral restoration strategies that reduce erosion, provide habitat for fish, and support socially resilient communities.

Grenville Fish Market
Catch of the day at the local Grenville fish market. (Photograph by Tom McCann, Nature Conservancy)

The latest climate change predictions for our ocean are dire, for coral reefs in particular. Acidification, warming seas, and sea level rise could affect our adaptation strategies for Grenville and other communities worldwide. We can help counteract these negative impacts by investing in a diverse portfolio of natural habitats, designing solutions guided by the latest science and matched to community needs.

During our time in Grenville, a small building across from the fish market provided a great vantage on the mangroves and reefs that we hope will star in the adaptation story we are building.  I gazed out and pondered the power of the ocean (a rough day out on the bay!) and the critical role the reef just beyond will play every day in reducing the vulnerability of the community. Together, with the Red Cross and local leadership we are setting the stage for Grenville to become a global model for adaptation success.