Dominica’s Path Towards Housing Resilience: Revisiting our conversation with Francine Baron

At COP27, Build Change hosted Building for a Billion: The Resilient Housing Implementation Lab in collaboration with the Marrakesh Partnership and featuring speakers from the World Bank, Holcim, Howden Group, Mahila Housing Trust, and UNDP. One of our featured speakers included Francine Baron, Chief Executive Officer of the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD). 

We’re revisiting the conversation with Francine on Dominica’s actions towards housing and climate resilience, and how the global community should approach financing loss and damage.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Monica Schroeder: How did Hurricane Maria affect Dominica as a nation? Also, you have set a plan for Dominica to be the first climate resilient nation – how are you doing that?

Francine Baron: Dominica was devastated by successive storms – a tropical storm in 2015 and Hurricane Maria in 2017. So combined with the two, we suffered about a 300% loss of GDP. Hurricane Maria, which was a Category 5 storm, affected the entire island; we were without power, without water, and access roads were blocked. There were some communities that took over a year to have electricity and internet restored.

We suffered about 90% of homes being either damaged or destroyed; 3,500 completely destroyed and others suffered different levels of damage. Livestock and crops were damaged. And really, the country was shut down, literally, for about a week with no economic activity taking place at all. And then, slowly, we began to emerge from it. 

The Prime Minister, within 3 days of Hurricane Maria in 2017, addressed the United Nations and expressed the vision for Dominica to become the first climate resilient nation, knowing that we will continue to suffer from extreme weather events as climate change continues and perhaps gets worse, because our actions – meaning the actions of mankind – are not designed to limit what is happening. In fact, it is making it worse.

We decided that we would look at resilience building in a holistic manner: how do we ensure that our institutions align with our resilience agenda? How do we ensure that we have environmental, economic, infrastructure resilience? So looking at it in a holistic way, we developed a National Resilience Development Strategy and then a Climate Resilience Recovery plan which required all actors both within the government and within the private sector to be onboard and to be acting and moving in the same direction.

For us, that has meant that we have to look at institutionalizing resilience and ensuring that all governments, plans and policies are aligned to the resilience targets and that the private sector is also informed of what is necessary to build their own resilience as well.

And of course, importantly, looking at “How do you make your infrastructure more resilient?”, which is the really expensive part of it. So we revised our building codes immediately after Hurricane Maria, so that people, after they were repairing and rebuilding their homes, would employ better standards of building and hopefully buildings that can withstand hurricanes of that magnitude in the future. 

That’s just in a nutshell some of the work that we’ve been doing. It is something that will take some time and of course you’re limited by how much funding you have to move quickly. And it’s something that requires governments to do a lot of heavy lifting. The government has committed to building 5,000 climate resilient homes by 2025. We have had support from the World Bank in relation to some of the housing for the more vulnerable, and the government has provided material and technical support to people to help them rebuild as well. But it is a massive task so it’s still a work in progress.

We revised our building codes immediately after Hurricane Maria, so that people, after they were repairing and rebuilding their homes, would employ better standards of building and hopefully buildings that can withstand hurricanes of that magnitude in the future.

Monica Schroeder: What are some of the goals of the Caribbean community within this financing space? I think one of the things that we wrestle with often is, of course there’s a need for loss and damage funding, it’s something that a lot of people are recognizing, if not before then certainly now, but also how do we prevent that loss and damage in the first place, and how do we balance those goals?

Francine Baron: This is a very interesting discussion, because when you think of an individual who has a job that is affected by the storm, who has children to look after, and you say to that person, “Look, you need to build back and build back resilient.” The question they’re going to ask is, “Who is going to pay for it? Of course I would like to have a resilient home, but who is going to pay for it, and where am I going to find the money to do it?”

I like the idea that Daniel [Stander] has in relation to mobilizing the resources, but are we mobilizing resources in such a way that the government has to step in, in order for it to be effective? And when we are dealing with the government, who continuously has to put money up front to be able to respond to these same events, the additional funding is either just not there or the commitment that they will have to make is not possible. Because after responding to each of these events, your debt keeps climbing.

Now just to come back to your question on loss and damage – there is funding available for mitigation and adaptation. Most of that funding is loan funding and goes back to the debt issue. Governments are not able, or it’s not reasonable to expect governments to continue, to borrow and borrow to respond to issues like housing, where people’s homes are damaged as a result of an extreme weather event that really and truly is exacerbated by the actions of others. 

You have to find a mechanism where funding is made available to allow people, the individuals, to be able to do the changes that are required to their homes to make it more resilient so that they’re not continuously in a situation where the children are put out, they are put out and they are continuously struggling to be able to just live.

Sameh [Wahba] is right – the government becomes the insurer of last resort. You have to find the funds to be able to help citizens and you find yourself continuously in a build-destroy-rebuild cycle that is bankrupting governments. There has to be a facility and mechanism that is put in place that allows people to have the funding that is necessary to minimize the losses and to respond to the losses that they’ve already suffered. So what is the ideal mechanism for that? It cannot be loan funding.

If we’re talking about loan funding, you’re going to find that a lot of people are still going to be in the same situation because governments cannot borrow any more. And so, how do you create that mechanism, whether it is through the private sector or through a special fund that is created to allow people to be able to access the funding to make the changes that are required.

To learn more about how Dominica has advanced in its progress to become the first climate resilient nation and strengthen their housing stock, explore Dominica’s Housing Recovery Project and CREAD’s work and impacts and hear from one of the homeowners who is undertaking the home improvement process herself, Katurah Bougouneau.

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