Effect of Climate Change on St Maarten – Vishal Mahtani, St Maarten

White sand beaches, fringed palm trees, everlasting sunshine… These are a few things that come to mind when we hear the word “Caribbean”. But for over 35 million people living there, life is not as sweet. In this region, we are extremely reliant on the tourism sector, with the majority of our jobs having something to do with the tourists that flock to our islands. Life has been this way for many decades now, but can we still continue to rely on the tourism industry?

For the majority of people, climate change is a term we have at the back of our head, something we never really ponder about. The actual gravity of this looming epidemic remains not thought about. Climate change refers to a long term change in the earth’s climate, especially regarding an increase in the average atmospheric temperature.

It is caused mainly by us humans. When the fossil fuels that we use are burnt for fuel and energy, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This, in turn, builds on the layer of greenhouse gases, increasing global temperatures. It is therefore our own fault that places like the Caribbean are facing many impending disasters that can forever alter our lives as we know it.

There are many menacing threats about a rise in global temperatures, but perhaps the most threatening one is an increase in the sea levels. This is possible if the trend of a warming Earth continues. The increased temperatures will have a giant effect in the Arctic, which is a region of polar bears, tundra, ice caps and glaciers that can all be lost with the increase in temperatures. The threat is that the increased temperatures will have a rapid melting effect on these ice caps, causing a worldwide increase in sea level. One might not fully grasp the effect that this could have, but a sea-level increase of a mere 1 meter can fully inundate many lands, such as the Netherlands, Bangladesh and especially, the Caribbean region.

St Maarten, for one, has a varied terrain, with its fair share of hills. But, the fact that the main and central economical settlement is located on a bar of raised land is alarming. Philipsburg, the capital and hub of economic activity on Dutch St Maarten, is nothing more than a bar of reclaimed land with a highest point of 30 feet above sea level. It is a compact and quaint village by size, with a width of 1.5 kilometers and length of 0.3 kilometers. On both sides of the town, it is faced with bodies of water. To the north, a salt pond is present and to the south, the Caribbean Sea.

It is there, on the southern coast, where one of the most popular beaches of the island lies: Great Bay Beach, lined with numerous shops and eateries on its world famous Boardwalk. Every year, over 2 million cruise passengers walk through the streets of this town, making St Maarten one of the most popular Caribbean cruise ports. This industry generates a large amount of revenue for our island’s economy. Without it, the island’s 90,000 citizens would suffer.\

In less than 85 years, we can already expect a global sea level rise of approximately 1.2 meters. The devastating effect this can have on St Maarten cannot be overstated. The 1.2-meter rise will inundate our island’s most precious resource: the beaches. The 36 expanses of powder white sand and brilliant blue waters may cease to exist in this very short time period. Without beaches, the island is nothing. In addition to this, the increase in global sea temperatures might have an even greater effect other than just sea level rise.

Lying in the Northeast Caribbean region, our island is no stranger to hurricanes. These deadly storms bring days of extreme rainfall, storm surges that destroy our coastline and, most of all, damaging and deadly winds. Hurricanes are storms that drastically change the lives of the hardworking Caribbean inhabitants. Million-dollar damages are inflicted to the infrastructure and the environment; the effect is fatal. These destructive storms also deter the flow of tourists for several months to the islands, which are the main source of income. On average, St Maarten is stuck by one of these devastating storms once in 2.75 years. This average is, however, slowly reducing. Just in the last four hurricane seasons, six tropical systems have affected the island, wreaking havoc everywhere.

Hurricanes are weather systems that thrive on large bodies of warm water. With the continual increase in global sea temperatures, there is also a predicted increased risk in the occurrence of hurricanes. This does not necessarily mean only a greater amount of hurricanes, it also means that the hurricanes will be of greater intensity. This is another grave effect that the climate change epidemic can have on St Maarten.

This looming threat has already alerted a few neighboring Caribbean islands, which have already prompted the formation of several environmental committees. CARICOM, an organization of Caribbean islands which work together to promote regional trade and other interests, have started their own initiative called the Caribbean Planning For Adaptation to Climate Change. This project entails the introduction of many new technologies to benefit the Caribbean environment. Systems monitoring sea level rise and temperature increase, in addition to coral reef protection, have already been installed on the member states. St Maarten already lags behind in this case, as it is not even a member of the CARICOM.

The government of St Maarten has always been lax when it comes to this particular situation. There is no committee established to plan for the climate change epidemic. Instead, the public has been forced to form its own independent organizations to tackle this issue. The St Maarten Pride Foundation is one non-profit organization that protects St Maarten environmentally, regularly organizing beach cleanups and introducing reusable shopping bags.

The CARICOM member states have also partnered with a German company to introduce renewable energy forms in the Caribbean region. With an abundance of sun, sea and wind, what better place to start? Solar and hydropower is being introduced in many Caribbean states, so why not St Maarten?  With an abundance of problems and no solutions, we must ask ourselves, what is the government of St Maarten doing?

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