Every year the Virgin Islands join the United Nations in celebrating the International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR). This year’s theme is “Making Cities Resilient”, quite timely considering the natural hazard events that have impacted our Territory over the last few months, namely the floods in July, Hurricane Earl in August and more floods in September/October.
IDDR Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the actions that we have taken over the years to reduce vulnerability in our city and our communities. And on what still needs to be done. As we reflect on the development of our economy and growth of our population, we must ensure that we put in place effective and well-coordinated planning systems. Sustainable development in our islands will require comprehensive steps to manage and mitigate risk and planning and building regulations that provides sound and enforceable standards. We live in a hazard-prone area and we should at all cost avoid unplanned and non-engineered development. This applies as much to homes and offices as well as to public buildings such as schools and hospitals.
One of the key components of this year’s campaign is a checklist of ten essential areas of focus for making cities resilient, one of which encourage countries to “Apply and enforce realistic, risk compliant Building Regulations and Land Use principles.” Since 1999, the Department for Disaster Management DDM) has been producing hazard data to help building professionals ensure that development is designed and implemented with appropriate mitigation measures. In 2009, the first ever Flood Map was produced for the Johnsons Ghut Watershed and it is expected that similar projects will continue into the coming years. Although great strides have been made in creating awareness of the data and having key departments use it for planning and development purposes, we have not yet been able to have the data fully integrated into all key Planning and Development processes.
Part of our Territory’s unique splendor resides in the distinctiveness of our steeply sloping hillsides, narrow coastlines and breathtaking but fragile ecosystems. These assets are in many instances located in cities or low-lying, vulnerable locations. If, as expected, climate change results in a rise in sea levels, they will be hit hard, thus adding to the challenges we face in designing and constructing systems and structures that will provide some resilience. What we need to do must be achieved through partnerships between government, business and ordinary people. I call on all planners, building professionals and community groups to engage with government to develop innovative and cost effective solutions to reduce risk to our city and communities and encourage good governance.
Many sound, effective risk reduction systems have been developed over the years. Our own DDM has produced such programmes that have helped to educate and inform the community of the various risks, and have allowed for the collection of critical data. Our Town and Country Planning and Public Works Departments are assigned the arduous task of analyzing development proposals and ensuring that they are designed and constructed in accordance with the Physical Planning Act and the Building Regulations. This is no easy task, as development in the Virgin Islands has increased exponentially over the years and each new developer anxiously seeks approval of his or her plans. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that all stakeholders support the process and bring to the table constructive suggestions and solutions that provide for the implementation of adequate risk reduction measures. These will serve not only to protect a particular development, but will take into consideration other land owners and residents in close proximity.
Another area of concern in the context of development is the need to address the reality of substandard housing and poor living conditions in our islands. This leads to overcrowding, spreads disease and increases the potential for disasters to occur. Another ISDR area of focus supports efforts to “Identify safe land for low-income citizens and develop upgrading of informal settlements where feasible.” The September/October floods have brought to light a number of areas within close proximity to the centre of Road Town that need to be tackled and tackled promptly.
Our city, Road Town, is growing rapidly. This is not going to stop. Nor should it. But to be sustainable this growth must be accompanied by measures which will reduce vulnerability and enhance standards. This is not pie in the sky. There are plenty of examples of where it has been achieved successfully.
The DDM has a full schedule of activities planned for today, including radio and television programmes focused on this year’s theme. I encourage you, and everyone, to listen and look out for these broadcasts, and to continue to play your part in making our Virgin Islands resilient. Remember the motto of the DDM: ”It is better prepare and prevent than to repair and repent.”