Rebuilding the Windward Islands central at debate

Some of the panellists at Thursday’s debate on the reconstruction of the Windward Islands (from left): Anguilla Disaster Management Department head Melissa Meade, BVI Minister of Trade and Investment Marlin Penn, attorney-at-law and German Consul-General Karel Frielink, Member of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party and St. Eustatius Island Council Member Koos Sneek of the Democratic Party. (Suzanne Koelega photo)

THE HAGUE–Rebuilding the Windward Islands was the topic of an enlightening and intense debate at Hotel des Indes in The Hague on Thursday. The debate was part of the 25th Doing Business between the Netherlands, Dutch Caribbean and South-America Trade Mission and Congress that took place in The Hague on Wednesday and Thursday.

  Participants from St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands (BVI), in both the panel and the audience, shared their stories of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the immense damage the islands sustained. Reconstruction initiatives and aid were discussed, with a prominent place for the political brawl between The Hague and Philipsburg that has marked the relations between the two countries over reconstruction aid in the past two months.

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  The debate started with an introduction talk by the panellists, BVI Minister of Trade and Investment Marlin Penn, Member of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party, Anguilla Disaster Management Department head Melissa Meade, attorney-at-law and German Consul-General Karel Frielink, St. Eustatius Island Council Member Koos Sneek of the Democratic Party, Remi Blokker of engineering firm Bluerise and Suzanne Koelega of The Daily Herald.

  Penn explained that the BVI had suffered extensive damage estimated at some US $3.6 billion. The public infrastructure, including the overhead electricity distribution system, roads and several schools, was badly damaged. Tourism figures have plummeted. Reconstruction funds, especially in the form of grants, are direly needed.

  The United Kingdom has pledged 300 million GBP (British pounds sterling) to the BVI, but the bulk of this assistance is in loans and only a very small part in grants. Some contingency liability support was provided by the UK. Penn said it was important to rebuild in a sustainable manner so the island could withstand future hurricanes. However, there is no money to put the electricity lines underground on the entire island, as this is a very expensive exercise.

  Meade said her island faced the same financial issues where it concerned putting electricity underground. As a result, the electricity grid will be rebuilt aboveground. She said tourism had been decimated since Hurricane Irma, but the hotel resorts were re-opening in the course of next year.

  Unemployment is a problem, especially because there barely is a social welfare system to assist people without jobs. The damage has been estimated at well over US $300 million, but Anguilla can barely take loans for reconstruction because it already has a large debt. Meade also mentioned the importance of rebuilding in a sustainable manner and the need to diversify the economy.

  Sneek said that compared to St. Maarten, Anguilla and the BVI, the damage in St. Eustatius was not very bad. However, the hurricane made painfully clear how dependent his island is on St. Maarten for tourism, airlift, supply lines, telecommunication and the banking sector. “The fact that St. Maarten went out of business became a problem for us,” he said.

  The damage to homes in St. Eustatius, especially for those without insurance, is worrisome, and so is the cliff erosion. Sneek mentioned the need for a monetary reserve so the island would not run out of cash, as happened this time, and the importance of having a fuel reserve. Also, the island needs a direct line with Bonaire. St. Eustatius and Saba will receive a combined amount of 67 million euros from the Netherlands for reconstruction.

  Blokker, whose company Bluerise designs ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) systems, spoke about the climate change and its effects on the ocean temperature, which has been rising. “The heat stored in the ocean serves as fuel for hurricanes,” he said. He warned of even more powerful hurricanes in the future as the oceans’ temperature continues to rise. He said the OTEC system was more environmentally friendly, more sustainable, cheaper and reduced the dependence on fossil fuel.

  Frielink explained how he as German Consul-General managed to evacuate stranded Germans out of St. Maarten with German military aircraft which brought thousands of kilos of relief supplies to St. Maarten. He also helped to get one million euros in support to rebuild sports facilities on the island.

  Member of Parliament (MP) Bosman provided a brief overview of the emergency assistance provided by the Netherlands, in particular Dutch Defence, after Hurricane Irma. Building back in a better, more sustainable way is one of key issues in the spending of the 550 million euros the Netherlands has made available for St. Maarten’s Reconstruction Fund, a programme that will mostly be executed by the World Bank.

  United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean ECLAC Caribbean sub-regional office director Diane Quarless, whose organisation carried out assessments in several of the hurricane-hit islands, listed the many issues that keep recurring after powerful storms. In this regard, she mentioned the utilities, the road network, homes, schools and public facilities, debris and waste management.

  Quarless mentioned the general lack of resources the islands face to rebuild better. The fact is that rebuilding in a sustainable manner costs a lot more. As such, more grants are needed for the islands so they can rebuild better. She also said building codes and the enforcement of such were important, but also better roofs with a correct slope, stronger beams and using screws instead of nails. Post-storm psycho-social support is vital, as is the support for vulnerable groups in society.

  Naturally the St. Maarten Reconstruction Fund and the political quarrelling of the past two months between The Hague and Philipsburg on the associated conditions of this aid came up during Thursday’s debate. MP Bosman said these conditions – the establishing of an Integrity Chamber and the strengthening of the border control – were only logical to ensure that the money ended up in the right place. “It is Dutch taxpayers’ money and I have to account for that money to my constituency,” he said.

  St. Maarten Minister Plenipotentiary Henrietta Doran-York decided to speak her mind on the matter. She said the tying of conditions to the Dutch assistance was “the biggest integrity breach.” She emphasised that the St. Maarten Government did not even “want to touch” that money.

  “We just want our people to be helped. We find that advantage was taken with the people’s backs against the wall,” said Doran-York, adding that she agreed with just-resigned Prime Minister William Marlin to stand up for St. Maarten’s autonomy. She called on all parties to move forward now.

  A sizable delegation from St. Maarten attended the congress and trade mission in The Hague. Besides Doran-York, the delegation comprised: Ministry of General Affairs Senior Advisor Kingdom Relations Andrea Ortega-Oudhoff; Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) Senior Policy Advisors Saska Thomas and Jude Houston; Louis Bute and Peggy-Ann Brandon of the St. Maarten Chamber of Commerce; Stanley Lint of the Small Business Association; Director of the Cabinet of the Minister Plenipotentiary Irene Simmons; and Policy Worker at the Cabinet of the Minister Plenipotentiary Kelly Busby.

Source: The Daily Herald