PREMIER & MINISTER OF FINANCE DR. HON. D. ORLANDO SMITH, OBE
STATEMENT AT UN HIGH LEVEL PLEDGING CONFERENCE
UN HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK
21 NOVEMBER 2017
Your Excellences, partners, ladies and gentleman,
As you just saw in the video clip, in a span of just six weeks the combined impact of a tropical wave, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria devastated the BVI. I will say a little more about this shortly.
I would like to begin by thanking all of our friends and partners who came to our aid in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, particularly the UK, CARICOM, CDEMA, OECS; and also those partners who continue to support us in this early stage of our recovery.
The outpouring of sympathy, compassion and goodwill for the BVI and other affected parties reaffirms the humanity in us all during these difficult times. The people of the BVI are indeed grateful.
Let me also thank CARICOM and the United Nations for organizing this donor’s conference in support of both Caribbean states and territories impacted by the hurricanes, which did not recognise political status or boundaries when they devastated our societies.
Ladies and gentleman, I would like to put into context for you the ordeal we have been through this hurricane season.
The tropical wave we experienced on August 7th and 8th caused some of the worst flooding that we have ever seen in the BVI. The heavy rains resulted in severe flash floods and landslides.
Nearly four weeks later on September 6th, Irma hit the BVI as the strongest hurricane recorded in Atlantic history. We were lashed by sustained winds of more than 185 miles per hour and gusts of 225 miles per hour.
Two weeks later, while still in the crisis response to Irma, we were hit by Maria, the most concentrated low pressure hurricane on record in the Atlantic.
This succession of extreme weather events underscores the vulnerability of small islands to the negative impacts of climate change, which cannot be ignored.
The BVI has done everything in our power to cope with the impact of these storms. After each event, we immediately began the work of saving lives, providing food and shelter to the many affected and cleaning up our islands.
However, there are limits to what a small society can do in the face of the devastation of a storm as strong as Hurricane Irma or Maria. We received much needed assistance from our international partners for which we are grateful.
The toll on the society has been great.
Four lives were lost, which are four too many. I am a doctor by profession and it hurts when we cannot save a life.
Almost 20 percent of our population was temporarily displaced. We estimate that over 70 percent of buildings, including homes sustained material or catastrophic damage.
The impact on the economy has been tremendous. Our Tourism sector, the greatest contributor to GDP and employment, has been devastated. Nearly every major hotel in the BVI suffered significant damage and many will not reopen until the next tourism season – some even later.
The preliminary damage impact assessment on the economy, not counting all sectors, is estimated to be more than $3.6 billion. This is more than three and a half times our annual GDP. We project that GDP will contract by 40% in 2018 from 2016 levels.
The material damage to the BVI and economic impact will require full scale reconstruction of the entire society.
Thus I am truly grateful for this opportunity to share with you my Government's vision for a new British Virgin Islands as we look toward the future with hope and optimism.
We have set an ambitious goal for ourselves of making the BVI one of the most climate resilient, energy efficient, highly networked, accessible, environmentally friendly and welcoming societies in which to live, work and visit.
We are enshrining in our recovery plans the principles of sustainability and resiliency which cuts across all sectors.
This is our chance to do something truly special that will stand the test of time and benefit generations to come.
Climate resilient infrastructure
One of our main goals is to build world class climate resilient infrastructure to bolster our ability to cope with the negative effects of climate change over the long-term and to ensure our viability as a society.
In the housing sector we envision a landscape of homes and properties repaired and rebuilt according to revised building codes that will make them resilient to category 5 hurricanes and excessive rainfall.
To achieve this objective we must secure credit facilities and grants to provide individual homeowners and small business operators with the soft loans needed to rebuild their properties.
We are also opening up the social housing sector to public private partnerships to ensure the elderly and vulnerable in society, who are financially unable to rebuild on their own, have adequate housing that is also climate resilient.
Climate resilience will also feature in our spatial planning processes as we lay down new roads and drainage to minimise erosion and flooding.
These measures will encourage hoteliers to rebuild their facilities with the same goal of making the BVI a climate resilient destination.
In the area of energy our goal is to strengthen the resilience and efficiency of our electricity grid and to transition to renewable energy.
We are making great progress in necessary immediate restoration of power using electric poles and cables, but our medium to long-term plan is to place as many lines underground as possible and to add solar and wind power to our energy mix.
We invite partners to invest with us in sustainable energy to increase efficiency and reduce our carbon footprint.
We have set a goal of developing world class ICT infrastructure whose resilience will also depend on critical parts of the network being placed underground.
The objective is to establish reliable connectivity across the islands and with the outside world that will remain in-tact during and after storms so our businesses, government and educational institutions can continue to function.
We welcome partnerships in this sector.
The storms have reinforced our environmental goal of preserving as much of our natural environment as possible.
Coastal erosion has been massive and much work must be done to remediate this.
We intend to make our coasts more climate resilient by investing in sea defenses. We must replant mangrove forests, but also build seawalls.
We must also restore our now damaged beaches which are a key feature of our tourism product and al vital source of leisure and health and wellness for the people of the islands.
The Virgin Islands Trust Fund was set up explicitly for the purpose of receiving funds for such projects and I invite partners to contribute to the fund. We are proud that it is held up by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre as model for others.
We also need to invest in new waste management solutions. There is still a tremendous amount of debris and solid waste left to be cleaned up and reconstruction will only add to the waste to be disposed.
We invite new solutions and partnership.
Another of our goals is to ensure there is more efficient air access to the BVI.
One of the lessons learned from the hurricane is that emergency access in and out of the islands is critical in the event of a hurricane or other emergency.
Precious time was lost after Irma in getting flights in and out of the BVI through regional hubs because the runway at our airport is not long enough to accommodate longhaul jets.
We intend to extend the runway to ensure this never happens again and that direct emergency access from and to the US, Europe and Latin America are guaranteed for evacuation and relief purposes.
We will also upgrade our seaports to reinforce our accessibility.
These measures will give residents and visitors a greater sense of security in the future and instill confidence in hoteliers to rebuild.
Finally we have a goal of returning the BVI to a thriving community and place of opportunity.
In this regard there is no greater investment than in the security, health and education of our people.
We have opened up our school rebuilding programme to investment by our partners and welcome further donations.
We will also rebuild our community clinics that prior to Irma served our local neighborhoods.
Our central hospital also needs additional support to continue functioning effectively.
In all of our recovery efforts, we want to ensure the community at large is as fully engaged as possible and that the vulnerable are not left out of the picture.
We have costed our plans which indicate that almost $1 billion is required to rebuild areas specifically related to Government. With limited borrowing capacity, hundreds of million of dollars from other sources will be needed to meet our goals.
It is important that we keep in mind that the BVI is not eligible for Overseas Development Assistance under OECD rules and have yet to receive any development aid as a consequence.
It is difficult to understand why the BVI as a small island cannot even receive climate change related funds after what we have been through.
This is why we need your support.
In the meantime we must find resources elsewhere.
Your Excellences, partners, ladies and gentleman, I have shared with you our vision for a new BVI and the thrust of our plans for reconstruction.
I invite you to partner with us on our rebuilding initiatives. We have a robust management structure for our overall recovery and reconstruction.
Your support for the BVI’s recovery help to determine how quickly our families will be back in homes, children back at school, our people back to work and our future more secure.
As I close, let me again thank CARICOM and the UN for organizing this conference. A special thank you goes out to CARICOM Secretary General Dr. Irwin LaRocque and CARICOM Chairman Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Keith Mitchell who have worked tirelessly. CARICOM has done us proud.