This Caribbean Island Aims to Exemplify ‘Resilience Building’ Amid Climate Change
Dominica offers a model—and opportunity—for construction firms to learn how to build as climate-related events threaten the world’s buildings and infrastructure
Big ideas, in normal times, are born, nurtured and brought to fruition in the largest, most industrialized societies and then gradually seep out to the world’s smaller, more remote economies. Sometimes, however, a small society driven by urgent necessity may decide on its own to flip that paradigm.
The Commonwealth of Dominica, a Caribbean island nation of 71,000 residents, is determined to be a conspicuous case in point.
Dominica is a lush, mountainous, tropical paradise. It promotes itself as “The Nature Island,” largely eschewing luxury hotel and theme resort development in favor of wooing eco-minded adventure tourists with its volcanos, pristine rivers, waterfalls, coral reefs and black sand beaches.
Idyllic as it is, however, Dominica’s location puts it in the center of the bullseye for tropical storms, particularly major hurricanes. Storms have regularly battered the island, tearing the roofs from houses, causing landslides and crippling water and power infrastructure.
Tropical storm Erika, for instance, destroyed 96% of the island’s GDP in 2015; two years later, Hurricane Maria knocked out 226% of GDP. Climate change inevitably will increase both the frequency and intensity of those storms.
As more countries are poised to experience climate-related events in the coming years, Dominica aims to serve as an example for how to build in ways that will make its structures more climate resilient.
A holistic approach
In the past, typical redevelopment proposals might arise from a major road failure, a mudslide or a bridge nearing the end of its lifecycle. But Dominica is thinking more holistically.
A building damage assessment done right after Maria surveyed 29,650 buildings. The government, NGOs and private interests have been rebuilding. “Unfortunately, we don’t know how much of that redevelopment was up to resiliency standards,” said Colin Scaife, the former chief operating officer of the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD). “It’s frustrating not to have that data, but at least we know what we’re missing.”
The assessment says 21% of the buildings on the island were completely destroyed by Maria, meaning the building lost its roof and at least 50% of the wall structures.
Resilience building in practical terms
The primary focus in building for hurricane resilience is the roof, according to Simon Walsh, project manager for Resilient Dominica, a privately funded NGO pursuing several redevelopment projects in the south of the island.
“Roof pitch is an essential element,” Walsh said. “If you have a 15-degree roof pitch, a horizontal wind will create lift on the back side and suck the roof off. A steeper pitch is a given in hurricane zones. You also see reduction in eaves and overhangs, giving the hurricane less to grip.”
For some projects, Resilient Dominica has used imported structural and roofing materials not generally available in Dominica. They used 3 foot by 6 foot rafters, which are commonly available, but materials like these were scarce just after the hurricane hit.
“There was an over-demand and lack of supply,” Walsh said. Resilience clearly will entail maintaining larger inventories.
Also essential are proper hurricane ties. “Instead of putting a screw in every other rafter, you put one in every ridge in your corrugated roof, two inches apart, stitching the exterior,” Walsh said.
A global example
Dominica’s government has called on the United Nations, international development banks and NGOs to take climate change more seriously and to help fund its own redevelopment. But Dominica also has taken matters into its own hands.
In 2018, Dominica created the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD), an agency dedicated not just to rebuilding infrastructure but to setting “an example for sustainable development and climate resilience for the world.”
CREAD, headquartered in the island’s capital of Roseau, is staffed by a team of seasoned international development technocrats and charged with carrying out Dominica’s Climate Resilience and Recovery Plan (CRRP). That plan includes an ambitious program of capital projects; it also seeks to make Dominica a global thought leader as “the world’s first climate resilient nation.”
The goal is for 90% of the buildings in the country to be rebuilt to resilient standards by 2030. Those standards are defined in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Building Codes, which were updated in 2019.
Such a goal might seem a bit grandiose, given the island’s minuscule economy and tight budget. But CREAD has developed a shrewd program that carefully aligns redevelopment projects with the specific goals defined by the international development banks for funding capital projects.
Rather than relying on private investor-backed redevelopment, Dominica is going after public funding from entities like the World Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank, matching the projects’ intent with the donors’ goals.
“There are fairly large amounts of money out there in international development funds that we are targeting,” said Colin Scaife, CREAD’s chief operating officer. “These funds are looking for specific programs for climate adaptation. They have money, but it’s not as easy as you think for them to find appropriate ways to spend it.”
Dominica’s strategy is to stay ahead of the funding sources, anticipating the ways it will target grants. The language and logic call to mind the U.S. government’s attempts to stimulate growth after the 2008 financial crisis, when the Obama administration sought to fund “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects.
“We can provide specific metrics for success in meeting national targets for housing, roads or utilities,” Scaife said. “Nations like Dominica have been on the back foot in the past, defining development projects reactively as funds become available. We’ve become proactive.”
Many of the local contractors are too small, according to the bid specifications, to qualify for the projects or partner with overseas companies. So, there are opportunities for foreign contractors who want to be part of what could be a global model for climate resiliency—especially if they’re willing to share their expertise or bring new ideas and technologies into Dominica.
“We don’t just want more resilient houses; we want a more resilient housing sector,” Scaife said.
The Ministry of Public Works is developing a major capital projects unit, organized to manage bigger contractors and consultancies. The Nature Island is also opening up to the outside world. An international airport is slated for development, as well as a deep-water port and other major projects.
If all goes well, there will be a major uptrend in construction on the island.
“The development banks are very transparent in the way they advertise the availability of funds for projects,” Scaife said. “If people are interested in consultancy or contracting opportunities, they definitely should keep abreast of what is listed on the websites of those development entities.”