Why We Need Coastal Urban Resilience Now

Climate change is already affecting life in the Caribbean. Explore the actions we can take in the wake of recent natural disasters to build resilient coastal cities now.

Photo: Bridgetown, Barbados (IDB)

How resilient are our Caribbean coastal communities?

Life in the Caribbean is coastal. Across the Caribbean, an average of 84.2% of the population lives within 25 km of the coastline. This means an alarmingly high number of people and critical infrastructure are located in risk areas that are more exposed to natural disasters as a result of climate change.

Climate change could cost the Caribbean region from 5 to 34 percent of GDP. Projected annual costs from sea-level rise in 2050 range from US$3.9 billion to US$6.1 billion for all CARICOM nations.

Building resilience in coastal cities requires strong ecosystems, smart planning, and a shared vision to minimize risks and maximize opportunity.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda, InterAmerican Development Bank.

Why is coastal urbanization making the Caribbean more vulnerable?

Populations in low-lying coastal areas of the Caribbean are growing faster than ever. This growth exposes more people to flooding from storm surges and rising sea levels.

Unmanaged growth compounds this risk. Beach erosion and mangrove loss intensify coastal flooding as new buildings replace wetlands. Sprawl ultimately increases carbon emissions and contributes to climate change.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda InterAmerican Development Bank.

Extreme weather already causes long-term setbacks

In recent years, the frequency and intensity of hurricanes has increased in the Caribbean, a trend that is expected to worsen because of climate change.

Since 1900, more than 36 million people in the Caribbean have already been affected by storms and flooding. Trauma caused from exposure to extreme storms negatively impacts quality of life and access to opportunities for coastal residents and their children. Repeated damage to climate-sensitive sectors such as health, housing, and education create long-term setbacks.

Blue Urban Agenda, InterAmerican Development Bank.

Critical infrastructure needs protection from disasters

Critical infrastructure located near the coast — hospitals, power plants, water supply, etc. — increases climate-related risk exposure. Storm damage and flooding interrupts the vital delivery of goods and services, while repeated repairs are costly.

In the Bahamas, one meter of sea-level rise would place 14% of road networks, 36% of major tourism properties, 38% of airports, and 90% of sea ports at risk.

Bahamas is not alone. Critical infrastructure throughout the Caribbean is vulnerable to flooding, and careful planning is required to increase resilience by protecting essential services.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda, InterAmerican Development Bank; Bahamas Facing $500m Climate Impact by 2025

Informal settlers are most at risk to sea level rise

Residents of flood-prone informal settlements are likely the most affected by climate change.

In the Jamaican parishes of Kingston & Saint Andrew and Saint Thomas, a third of squatter settlements are within 100 meters of a waterway.

Coastal urban resilience requires holistic and smart planning, especially in cities where housing quality is low and where settlements are on high-risk sites.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda, InterAmerican Development Bank.

Coastal urban resilience requires smart growth

Long-term smart growth strategies are essential for resilient urban development along the coast, including zoning regulations to promote higher housing density on sites with less exposure to sea-level rise.

In Montego Bay, storm surge projections for 25- to 50-year returns suggest average annualized losses at approximately J$609 million (US$5.4 million), with a maximum probable loss estimated at J$17.9 billion (US$159 million). Compounding risk factors include urban sprawl and critical infrastructure in areas prone to flooding.

Coastal urban resilience requires holistic and smart planning, especially in cities where housing quality is low and where settlements are on high-risk sites.

The map illustrates two contrasting urban growth scenarios. The Smart Growth scenario favors density in areas further inland. The Sustainable Montego Bay Action Plan is a recognition of the need to adopt a smart-growth strategy for resilience.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda, Inter-American Development Bank; One Bay for All: Sustainable Montego Bay Action Plan, Government of Jamaica and Inter-American Development Bank

Strengthen ecosystems to protect coasts

Sea-level rise projections are serious. However, ecosystem-based approaches can reinforce natural barriers that protect coastal communities.

Greater use of green infrastructure at the city level, such as permeable surfaces, mangroves and wetlands can absorb water from floods and rainfall.

Commitment to clean and sustainable energy is also a critical part of resilient climate adaptation. The Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) has set ambitious targets to increase renewable power capacity to 47 percent and reduce energy intensity and power sector CO2 emission reductions by 2027. Long-term success of this strategy depends on prioritized investing in transforming the energy sector and strengthening regulatory structures.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda, Inter-American Development Bank

Photo: Mangroves near Belize City, Belize (IDB).

Combine resilience with opportunity

To respond to the many dimensions of climate change, actions to build resilience should also seek to improve the quality of life of urban residents while reducing exposure to risks.

In Barbados, the IDB supported the Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU) with a series of waterfront improvement projects in Bridgetown to reinforce the natural beach barrier system, including the creation of a 1.6km boardwalk. This has resulted in 10% growth of nearby economic activity.

More coastal cities across the region are funding similar projects to control flooding and provide vibrant public spaces.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda and Impact of Coastal Infrastructure Improvements on Economic Growth: Evidence from Barbadosa, Inter-American Development Bank

Photo: Bridgetown, Barbados (IDB).

Community collaboration is key

Actors across sectors should work as a team with communities to build resilience in a holistic manner, while also challenging the systems and behaviors intensifying climate change and its consequences.

Community-based adaptation is a vital part of building resilience in coastal urban areas, especially in districts with limited income and infrastructure. Engage communities in the process of collecting data for planning infrastructure and collaboratively identify local risks and vulnerabilities to climate change.

Source: Blue Urban AgendaBlue Urban Agenda, InterAmerican Development Bank

Photo: IDB specialists work together with community groups from the Yarborough neighborhood in Belize City, Belize to improve the local flood mitigation system. (IDB)

Work together for a resilient Caribbean

Recent disasters in the Caribbean remind us that additional action and investment are needed to secure a safe, sustainable and productive future for our coastal communities. We must work together across all sectors with a shared vision, making coordinated decisions that prioritize interventions and scale impact.

With every experience, our knowledge and technical capacity for climate change adaptation will improve. Only through learning from these programs and making their data widely accessible, can we inform the next generation of coastal resilience strategies.

For detailed, practical guidance related to building urban coastal resilience, read the Blue Urban Agenda.

Source: Blue Urban Agenda, InterAmerican Development Bank