Your Excellencies, Prime Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I need hardly say that it gives me the greatest possible pleasure to be with you all this evening and to return to these remarkable Islands which I first came to know more than forty years ago whilst serving in the Royal Navy, on what was then known as “The West Indies Station.”
That seven month deployment enabled me to visit and get to know many of the island states in the region. It was an unforgettable experience, made even more unforgettable by the fact that, unlikely as it may seem, I found myself as part of my ship’s cricket team – an indication of just how desperate they were to put together a side! The result was that I ended up trying to play cricket against a local team on each of the islands we visited. This was in many cases a thoroughly alarming experience as the local bowlers were dangerously fast, the wickets like concrete and the subsequent balls ricocheted at high speed into your face or chest. Consequently, the Islanders invariably triumphed and probably later became Test cricketers for the West Indies!
Since then, I have cherished very special memories of this region – of its breath-taking beauty and the tremendous warmth and generosity of its people – and I have never underestimated their astonishing prowess as cricketers!
And so it was painful beyond words to see the devastation that was so cruelly wrought across the Caribbean by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in those few, terrible weeks in September.
In Barbuda as well as in the British Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands; in Dominica, and in Puerto Rico, Saint Martin and other islands too, the loss of life and property and the damage to the natural environment have been utterly heart-breaking.
As we look towards the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London next April, the recent events in the Caribbean have helped to underline above all, the importance of the Commonwealth as a family, whose members care deeply for each other in times of need. This is why it was so important to me that I should come to the Caribbean this weekend – to bring the special thoughts and prayers of Her Majesty The Queen, to show my support (however inadequate that may be) for those who have suffered so greatly; and to thank all those who have worked so tirelessly and courageously to help and assist them. To that end, I am so pleased to be visiting, over these next few days, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica. I need hardly add that I am particularly sad that I am unable on this occasion to visit the Turks and Caicos or Anguilla, both of which I know have been through such terrible trials, but I do want the people of those islands to know how just how much I mind about what they have had to endure and how much my thoughts and prayers are with them.
If I may, I would like to offer my deepest condolences to all those, across the region, who have lost loved ones and who are still suffering from the injuries and damage they sustained. I can only praise your enduring fortitude, determination and resilience in the face of such soul-destroying catastrophes.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as you know only too well, this year has been especially desperate for so many people across the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and Central America who have suffered under the relentless scourge of these terrifying storms, which have left trails of utter destruction and caused immense misery. Tragically, too, there were epic floods across parts of South Asia, similarly causing loss of life, robbing people of livelihoods and wrecking infrastructure.
It is, I fear, a sign of the times that extreme weather conditions, including Atlantic hurricanes, are becoming more frequent and more terrible, despite constant denials of the evidence. As has been predicted, and as some have tried for so long to warn, hurricanes draw strength from the warming ocean surface, and the warmer the ocean the stronger the hurricanes. As the world has warmed up, which it has done – with 2014, 2015 and 2016 being successively the warmest years on record – so storms have taken on the unprecedented ferocity seen this season, unleashing such dire consequences upon your poor country, other island nations and many coastal regions. Not only are the storms worse, but the warming seas are also rising, making the associated storm surges worse too.
All this is now very well documented and we also have a very clear picture of what is likely to happen in future. The climate change discussions this week at COP23 in Bonn can surely only give an added and much needed impetus to the development of the urgent programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to de-carbonize our economies and to restore ecosystem integrity.
Of particular concern here is the manner in which we manage coastal environments. Mangrove forests help to lock up carbon, and coral reefs are a vital part of the protection of coastal areas from storm surges. All these essential ecosystems also sustain marine fish stocks as they act as spawning grounds and nurseries and help to mitigate the scale of damage caused by these unprecedented weather events. And yet, all around the world, such ecosystems have been destroyed, depleted or are under serious threat.
These issues may not seem to be immediate priorities, coping as you are with the aftermath of Irma, but I do believe that it is vital to keep in mind how it will be possible to address climate change, and other challenges facing Small Island States, while simultaneously advancing the important goals of economic development and human welfare.
There is much attention being paid at the moment to how to accelerate and provide adequate funding for the restoration of towns, infrastructure and communities across the Caribbean. Evidently, this must address people’s immediate needs, but also anticipate challenges that, I fear, will inevitably confront you again as the Ocean continues to warm.
It seems to me that, desperate though the situation is, it does perhaps provide us with the opportunity to create Whole Island Development Plans that enable a coherent and comprehensive approach to be taken with regard to integrating resilience and low carbon outcomes. These must also recognize the necessity, particularly for Small Island States, to create solutions that reflect the need for equilibrium between development and the natural environment. And, critically, there is clearly a vital need to ensure that appropriate post-disaster plans are created which guarantee, amongst other things, that assistance – financial and otherwise –is commensurate to the particular challenges faced by small and often vulnerable communities.
I don’t doubt for a moment that Antigua and Barbuda, and the Caribbean as a whole, will embrace these opportunities and will rise to the challenge with characteristic determination.
And, as you recover and move forward, you can be sure, Ladies and Gentlemen, that you are not alone. The plight of those who have been through such terrifying devastation and are still enduring such dreadful privation is close to the heart of Her Majesty The Queen and, indeed, to my own. It is so important to all of us in the Commonwealth that the future of this special region is both prosperous and secure; and that the remarkable strength of spirit for which the Caribbean is renowned, continues to thrive and to offer an example to us all.