Responding to the Emergency in St Vincent & the Grenadines

Reference Number: 13032021, Press Release Issue Date: Apr 13, 2021
 
On Tuesday morning this week, the people of Malta and Gozo woke up to a surreal landscape bathed in thick mist which, however, soon dissipated with the morning sun. On the same day, the people of another archipelago and former British colony woke up to another surreal landscape: one that blotted out the sun. The terrain is completely covered in ash and dust emerging from an erupting volcano.

I am referring to the country called St Vincent and the Grenadines, a cluster of small islands in the eastern Caribbean, with a population of around 110,000 people. Most of the population lives on the main island, aptly called St Vincent, and whose highest peak (at 1200m from sea level) is a volcano that had last erupted in 1979. It blew its top again last week, and has been spewing ash and lava since. Fast-moving flows of hot gas and volcanic material have been flowing down the south and southwest flanks of the volcano. The inhabitants have been experiencing pyroclastic flows, tephra bombs and heavy rainfall that may produce lahars (violent mudflows). Power has been lost; water supplies compromised because of contaminated or damaged reservoirs; thousands obliged to evacuate their homes. The country is faced with a national emergency (on top of Covid-19) and requesting the international community to support. So far, no deaths or serious injuries have been reported, as the local community rallies to help its own.

Being a small state – slightly larger than Malta – the consequences of the volcano, and associated tremors, are felt all over the island. Exile is the only escape, for those who can afford it. Of the 16,000 who have already been obliged to leave their homes, some have been relocated to neighbouring island states, at last for the short term. The call is out to the international community, including the Vincentian diaspora in places like New York and Toronto, for water tanks, buckets, blankets, field tents, drinking water and mattresses, along with disinfectants to manage the ongoing coronavirus risks.

There are at least two Vincentians who are recent graduates of the masters’ programme in islands and small state studies, run by the Islands and Small States Institute at the University of Malta. We are in touch with them via WhatsApp: as long as the electricity system works. They have been sending photos and videos of the unfolding drama. It is reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno.

The many small landowners of this plucky country were major banana exporters to Europe for decades, benefitting from a special protocol that came on stream when the United Kingdom joined the Common Market in 1973. But Central American countries grow bananas more cost effectively on huge plantations and have crowded out St Vincent & the Grenadines, and other small Caribbean island states, to the lucrative European market. Tourism has been the mainstay of the economy since. Covid-19 shut that industry down last year; now, this violent eruption will force a sober reassessment of economic targets. It will be some time before the main island can once again flaunt its turquoise beaches to international visitors.

I am pleased to report that the Government of Malta, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is working through the Caribbean regional office of the World Health Organisation to provide urgently needed supplies and material to the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

by Professor Godfrey Baldacchino
Professor Godfrey Baldacchino is Malta Ambassador for Islands and Small States – godfrey.baldacchino.1@gov.mt