How can we protect Caribbean airports against growing climate change risk?

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A photo of an aerial view of airport on Grande-Terre, Guadeloupe, Lesser Antilles, Caribbean. Caribbean nations have seen their airports significantly impacted by storms and hurricanes over the last few years.

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In the Caribbean, June 1st isn’t just another day – it’s marked with a bold, red underline on every calendar, signifying the onset of the hurricane season. This period of heightened vigilance lasts until November, reaching its zenith in early September. Each year, every country in the Caribbean finds itself potentially in the crosshairs of tropical storms and hurricanes, which are only becoming more frequent and extreme under the effect of climate change.

Caribbean airports, which are often located near the coastline, have been paying a heavy toll. From the Bahamas to Puerto Rico and Dominica, Caribbean nations across the region have seen their airports significantly impacted by storms and hurricanes over the last few years. At Sint Maarten’s airport, the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017 came in at a staggering $173 million. However, these high-impact weather events aren’t the only substantial threats to the Caribbean's air transport system. 

In 2010, Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake which claimed over 200,000 lives severely damage the main airport in Port-au-Prince, further challenging relief and aid action. In 2021, a volcanic eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines caused significant disruption to airport operations, not only on the island of Saint Vincent but also in nearby Barbados and Saint Lucia, due to ash carried by wind currents.

Such diverse and unpredictable threats emphasize the compelling need for resilient, adaptable strategies in the Caribbean's air transport sector--a sector that is critical to the region’s connectivity and to the development of key economic sectors such as tourism. 

In that context, significant resources will be needed to enhance airport resilience, improve air connectivity, and ensure compliance with international safety standards. This has been a significant challenge for many Caribbean countries as pressing investment needs vastly outpace their limited fiscal and human capital resources. And of course, COVID-19 has only worsened the situation due to its devastating impact on the aviation industry, tourism, and the economy at large.

As the world continues to recover from the pandemic, the lessons learned from this crisis offer valuable insights. The resilience of an airport and, more broadly, of the entire air transport sector, is not just about withstanding natural disasters or enhancing infrastructure. It must also encompass adaptability in the face of global disruptions like pandemics and economic crises. As the Caribbean moves forward, its airports must embed this broader definition of resilience into their strategic planning, ensuring their ability to respond and adapt to an ever-changing array of threats, and quickly recover from disruptive events. 

Planning for long-term air transport resilience demands a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach. Rather than just pinpointing specific infrastructure deficiencies, a sound air transport strategy should start with a 360-degree evaluation that takes into account every facet of the sector – from governance and management to operations, financial performance, and the overall health of the air service market.

Working with this 360-degree approach, The World Bank Transport Team undertook an exhaustive review of air transport sector resilience in Grenada, Haiti, and Saint Lucia. While each country is different, our analysis revealed several common challenges across the region:

  • A financially beleaguered regional airline industry marked by unstable service characteristics, including frequent flight cancellations and schedule/route changes.
  • Airports that are chronically underfunded and inadequately equipped to meet the demands of modern, safe, and resilient operations.
  • Inconsistent regulatory oversight leading to uneven safety performance.
  • Competitive dynamics between countries often result in fragmented approaches to air transport, with an adverse impact on the region's collective resilience.
  • Significant (and growing) exposure to climate risk.

After evaluating the resilience gaps, our report found that while the specifics vary by country and airport, a holistic resilience enhancement approach in the Caribbean’s aviation sector should include:

  • Immediate investment in infrastructure and systems to enhance resilience, paired with urgent preparation efforts to better manage and recover from emergencies. 
  • Improving investment identification and prioritization, including full consideration of the cost of risk. 
  • Optimizing the financial performance of the aviation sector, including enhancing and diversifying revenues, controlling costs, and building financial reserves. 
  • Creating a high-performance airport management organization with resilience embedded in its mission.  
  • Improving economic regulation and safety oversight across the sector. 
  • Preparing and executing a Resilience Enhancement Implementation Plan. 

The World Bank’s analytical work is giving voice to these recommendations and, is fueling decisive action. In the race against climate change, we are scaling up financial support and implementing these recommendations in the air transport sector across various nations—including Grenada, Haiti, Saint Lucia, and Sint Maarten. Our commitment remains unwavering as we work collaboratively with these nations to reinforce the resilience and robustness of their air transport infrastructure.

The study is part of the Caribbean Regional Air Transport Connectivity Project (CATCOP), a regional series of projects financed by the World Bank currently involving three Caribbean countries: Grenada, Haiti, and Saint Lucia. CATCOP aims to enhance regional connectivity by improving the safety of air transport and the resilience of airport infrastructure to natural hazards. The US$ 159 million project was approved by the World Bank's Board of Executive Directors in May 2020.

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