The Caribbean’s Vulnerability Increases With Volcanic Eruption, Other Natural Disasters, COVID-19

US caribbean Strong ST Vincent
Volcanic ash covers the roofs of homes after the eruption of La Soufriere volcano in Wallilabou, on the western side of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, Monday, April 12, 2021. La Soufriere volcano fired an enormous amount of ash and hot gas early Monday in the biggest explosive eruption yet since volcanic activity began on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent late last week. (AP Photo/Orvil Samuel)

The Caribbean is beautiful, but it is fraught with danger. In the northern Caribbean, natural disasters include hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, bush fires, and a rare cold spell. In the islands of the eastern and south Caribbean, volcanic eruptions are also included.

The region is currently coping with the eruption of La Soufriére on the island of St. Vincent. In the 20th Century, this volcano erupted twice, in 1902 and 1979. The latter erupted on April 13, 1979, and lasted through June of the same year.  

Volcanoes in the Caribbean islands are visible, potential dangers as the islands were formed by volcanic activity. There is evidence of this activity in nearly all the islands particularly those in the south and east. In Jamaica, the famous mineral springs, specifically the hot spring at Bath in St. Thomas, is evidence of volcanic activity.

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Prior to the 1990s, the only Caribbean volcanic eruption most Caribbean nationals was aware of, was Mount Pelée in the French island of Martinique which occurred on April 23, 1902, destroying the town of Saint-Pierre and killing 29,000 people. But just a few days later La Soufriére in St. Vincent also erupted killing 1,680 people. It would erupt again 77 years later in 1979. Note that ‘soufriére,’ from the French word for sulfur, soufre, is a common name for volcanoes in the eastern Caribbean, where there was the influence of French language and culture.

Montserrat eruption

Most Caribbean residents became aware of volcanic eruptions in the English-speaking Caribbean when, after centuries dormant, the Soufriére Hills Volcano erupted in the British territory of Montserrat in 1995 continuing into the 2000s.

By 2000, two-thirds of the population of nearly 12,000 had been evacuated and large tracts of the small island had become uninhabitable. Monserrat, a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), saw its gross domestic product (GDP) of EC$122 million in 1995 reduced to EC$16 million by 1999. Today, its population is under 5,000 and, in the shadow of a still-smoldering hill, recovery remains an ambition.

Other dormant, but potentially eruptive volcanoes in the region include,  Watten Waven and Soufriére hot springs in Dominica; the Soufriére Volcanic Centre in Saint Lucia, and the mud volcano, the Devil’s Woodyard in Trinidad and Tobago. Dominica has several other active volcanic sites and has been exploring the use of thermal energy.

St. Vincent’s hazardous situation

So, on April 9, 42 years later, St. Vincent’s La Soufriére erupted again spewing thick black smoke and ash over the island with plumes extending to other islands including Barbados. With the monitoring of the University of the West Indies (UWI), modern science and past experience, the warnings from the volcano, being issued since December, were heeded.

People in the danger zones were evacuated. Reports indicate that scientists are still expecting large eruptions in the coming days. The 1902 and 1979 eruptions show that this crisis could last for weeks, possibly months.

This eruption also comes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to date, has recorded 1,790 cases in a population of 110,589. The tourist industry, since March 2020, has been crippled by measures to contain COVID-19. A vaccination and testing program was being implemented in a recovery plan.

In remarks on April 7, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, in an assessment of his country’s economic situation, said that it might not be possible to pay civil service salaries, national insurance contributions and pensions. For 2020, revenue collection fell by about 30 percent and the economy contracted by about five percent.

The PM signaled that the country was now under real pressure. The economic crisis has worsened and the economic prospects are now mired in deep volcanic ash.

CARICOM has mobilized to assist St. Vincent and the Grenadines through the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). Prime Minister Keith Rowley, as CARICOM Chair, pledged regional support to a sister country in its time of peril. Members are providing assistance. It is a time for cooperation.

Addressing vulnerability

The critical situation in St. Vincent highlights that CARICOM should have done more in the last 20 years to promote sustainable development and build economic resilience. Regional cooperation should have been accorded higher priority.

The international community also played its role, but is again witnessing the vulnerability of small island developing states (SIDS). The situation in St. Vincent also shows why GDP criteria are misleading, which place islands, such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the middle-income category, limiting access to or being able to graduate from development support.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines needs immediate, and long-term, regional and global assistance in this time of compounded crises.

Volcanoes are not to be taken for granted even when dormant for decades, even centuries. They are sleeping catastrophes. Montserrat is an example. 

And even while the region agonizes over the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent, it is weary that a predicted overly hurricane season is less than two months away.  Some Caribbean countries are still recovering from recent storms. And, Haiti has yet to recover too from its 2010 earthquake. Among all this, COVID continues to negatively impact the region. 

It is a very stressful, challenging time for all the Caribbean.

*Elizabeth Morgan, is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics.