Protecting the Caribbean’s ports is essential for regional climate resilience

Protecting the Caribbean’s ports is essential for regional climate resilience

By Charlotte Strawson

Few nations are more reliant on ports than the small island states of the Caribbean. Island economies are highly dependent on the flow of goods and people and the Caribbean’s trade in energy, water, agricultural goods and its tourism industry all rely heavily on seaports. However, climate change increasingly threatens port infrastructure, and impacts such as sea level rise and coastal flooding can disrupt operations.

Sea level rise in the Caribbean has occurred at a rate of about 2 to 4 cm per decade over the past 30 years according to the Inter-American Development Bank. This trend is set to increase, and presents major risks to the region. Caribbean countries are already subjected to severe weather events such as hurricanes and floods, which could also become more intense as the atmosphere warms.

The Caribbean’s low-lying coastal regions are particularly vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Over 80% of the Bahamas, for instance, lies below 1.5m of the mean sea level. A study found that the land surrounding 35 out of 44 Caribbean ports will be inundated by 1m of sea level rise, if no coastal protection structures are put into place (Simpson et al, 2010). Climate change adaptation for ports in the Caribbean is, therefore, of great importance.

Size matters

The risks associated with rising sea levels and flooding have been assessed in other parts of the world, especially at larger ports in Australia and North America. However, there are far fewer studies on the impacts of climate change for smaller ports. In the Caribbean small ports act as hubs for coastal settlements, with a large proportion of the regional population residing in the surrounding areas. It is essential for these settlements to be considered in adaptation strategies, and for further research to be undertaken onto the impacts of climate change on networks of smaller ports and marinas.

Furthermore, these small ports are often hot spots for the cruise industry. The Caribbean’s sea, sand and sun attracted over 10,000,000 cruise passengers in the first half of 2015 alone, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. If sea levels rise as predicted, the disruption to this industry alone would be severely detrimental to Caribbean economies that are highly dependent on tourism.

Trading nations

Most Caribbean countries have open economies that rely on international imports for food, manufactured goods, transportation and fisheries. Exports are also crucial for the region, for example Trinidad and Tobago exported $11 billion of goods and resources in 2015, with the top export being petroleum gas. Intra-regional trade is also vital, in the period 2010-2014 the value of imports among the Caribbean Community averaged at $3.1 billion, while exports averaged at $2.9 billion (CARICOM, 2016). The majority of these exchanges and trade linkages rely on ports, as air travel is too expensive. Protecting ports from climate extremes is crucial to maintain economic prosperity in the region.

Climate risks to ports are diverse and include both direct impacts to port infrastructure and indirect impacts to supply chains. A 2011 report from the International Finance Corporation (IFC),  gives a detailed risk assessment of the Muelles el Bosque in Columbia. It shows how climate change might impact on vehicle movements inside the port, trade imports and exports, flood risks to storage areas, refrigeration costs due to rising temperatures and impacts on grain storage.

The region’s policymakers increasingly recognise climate risks to Caribbean ports, and the need to prioritise climate adaptation and building resilience. The redesign and modification of ports to minimise the disruption caused by flooding, storm surges and sea-level rise has been prioritised. In 2015 the UK government announced a £300 million fund for Caribbean infrastructure, seeing investments in roads, ports and sea defences. Other adaptationactions emerging include upgraded storage facilities that can withstand more severe extreme weather events and investment in cranes that operate safely under stronger winds.

The Caribbean is a region that is highly dependent on ports for both trade and tourism. Rising sea levels and severe weather events therefore have the potential to cause significant damage to the regional economy and threaten the region’s development goals. Taking early action to adapt to climate impacts is therefore essential to sustain economic growth and prosperity for Caribbean countries.


Charlotte Strawson is a final-year Geography student at Newcastle University. Charlotte has a keen interest in climate change adaptation and sustainable development and has recently completed her dissertation project which focussed on planning consent for offshore wind turbines.



Cover photo by Roger W (CC by 3.0)

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