On 9 April 2021, the La Soufrière volcano in St. Vincent and the Grenadines erupted, causing a crisis on top of the COVID crisis for the people of the island nation. Didier Trebucq, UN Resident Coordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, visited affected areas of the country shortly after the eruption, and again six months after. Here are his reflections.
“Apocalyptic” is the word that sprang to mind when I visited communities in the orange and red zones just nine days after the devastating eruption of La Soufrière.
A thick sulfur odor permeated the air. Desolate villages, once alive with community spirit, were blanketed in grey ash. Homes were damaged, roofs bowed, crops decimated, and paved roads reduced to tracks. Some residents took on the arduous task of shoveling stubborn debris from roofs and roadways, as stray animals roamed on what looked like a lunar landscape.
The social, productive and infrastructure sectors had been hit with damages and losses of about US$275 million, affecting livelihoods and displacing 20,000 people and putting them at risk of food insecurity.
It was difficult to reconcile the sight of this wasteland with the lush landscapes, bountiful banana crops, and lively island vibe I’d experienced on previous visits. The dystopian sight will forever remain etched in my memory.
The aftermath and 6 months later
From the onset of this “crisis within a crisis,” the UN Team for Barbados and Eastern Caribbean has partnered with the Government, civil society, regional and development partners, to ensure a sustainable recovery of the people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and leave no one behind.
Together, we supported the immediate response and are now supporting long-term recovery and reconstruction.
In the immediate aftermath, the UN helped procure relief supplies, and specialists from WFP, UNICEF, and PAHO/WHO were deployed to provide support.
Six months later, on my return to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on 28 October to observe United Nations Day, a sense of rebirth was palpable.
The skies were now sunny, the ocean was clear, and the land was green with trees and shrubs. There was hope.
I was encouraged to hear from residents and Government partners how the UN’s timely support helped to make a tangible difference in people’s lives.
Our efforts have not abated, and the UN team continues to support national authorities on the path to recovery in the areas of ash clean-up, cash support, relocation and temporary housing, livelihoods, WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), and health systems to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Continued COVID-19 prevention and support for increased vaccine uptake remains a priority. Most importantly, the recovery is an opportunity to rebuild better and increase the resilience of both people and housing stock to external shocks.
Where are we now?
Since our launch of a funding appeal which was generously supported by many international donors, including USAID, Japan, UK, EU, Spain, Germany, and Canada, amongst others, we had the privilege to work in myriad areas to help the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who have demonstrated an extraordinary resilience and sense of solidarity. Some notable achievements include:
- Multiple rounds of cash transfers to over 3,500 evacuated households, with WFP support.
-Academic and psychosocial support for 2,000 students across 45 schools, with UNICEF assisting the Ministry of Education.
- Sufficient access to potable water made available to most households in affected areas, thanks in part to UN support.
- Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries supported in the development of anticipatory action, emergency preparedness and rapid response protocols for livestock, crops and fisheries by FAO, that helped to reduce mortalities and support smoother transition to recovery.
- Over 15,000 cubic yards of ash was removed from schools and recreational areas through an ash and debris clean-up initiative, with the support of UNEP and UNDP. Over 1,500 students were able to return to school and 185 persons, 40% women, were provided with short-term employment through this initiative.
- Improved hygiene practices in over 1,000 households, with UNICEF support.
- Mental health services, purchase of medical and health supplies, and WASH interventions in 20 health care facilities, supported by PAHO.
- Over 1,200 metric tonnes of humanitarian relief cargo, and 730 metric tonnes of food assistance and other supplies, with WFP support.
- A critical Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, was performed by UNDP, the World Bank and the EU and other UN agencies and will support strategic reconstruction and recovery.
- The International Organization of Migration (IOM) is also providing support for transition to permanent housing and building back more resilient.
My colleagues and I are inspired by the neighbourliness and optimism of the people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, under even the most harrowing circumstances. I want them all to know that the UN will continue to work together as one team to support them on path to recovery.
There’s still a lot of work ahead. But hope is on the horizon.
By Didier Trebucq, UN Resident Coordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. To learn more about St. Vincent and Grenadines please visit Easterncaribbean.UN.org.