Coastal Populations in Latin America and the Caribbean Face Rising Climate Risks

A United Nations report warns that tens of millions in Latin America’s coastal areas face escalating risks to healthcare and infrastructure due to severe weather events driven by climate change. The report highlights the urgent need for adaptation and resilience measures.

As climate change intensifies, tens of millions living in coastal areas across Latin America and the Caribbean face escalating risks to their healthcare systems and critical infrastructure. According to a recent United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, approximately 41 million people, or 6% of the region’s total population, reside in low-lying coastal zones vulnerable to storm surges, flooding, and hurricanes. The Caribbean alone accounts for 17% of these at-risk populations.

The report underscores the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable groups, particularly Afro-descendent and Indigenous women and girls, who bear the brunt of climate-induced health crises despite contributing the least to the problem. “Behind our modeling of exposed coastal populations are millions of people who are the least responsible for the climate crisis but are paying a heavy price when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health and rights,” stated UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem. She emphasized that climate change exacerbates existing gender inequalities.

Healthcare Infrastructure at Risk

Using satellite imagery and population estimates, the report identifies over 1,400 critical hospitals in low-lying coastal areas, emphasizing the vulnerability of essential healthcare infrastructure. In Caribbean nations such as Suriname, Guyana, and the Bahamas, as well as in the Dutch and British territories of Aruba and the Cayman Islands, more than 80% of hospitals are located in these at-risk zones.

Ecuador, which faces the Pacific, has 12% of hospitals at risk. In Haiti, the figure is 10%, while in Mexico, the region’s second-largest economy, over 5% of hospitals are vulnerable. Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, has the highest number of hospitals in low-lying areas, with 519 facilities, representing just over 7% of the nation’s total.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has forecasted a highly active Atlantic hurricane season starting this June, driven by hotter ocean waters and the La Niña weather phenomenon. This prediction heightens concerns about the resilience of healthcare systems and infrastructure in these vulnerable coastal regions.

Gendered Impacts of Climate Change

The UNFPA report highlights the gendered impacts of climate change, noting that women and girls often face heightened vulnerabilities during and after climate-related disasters. Disruptions to healthcare services can severely affect maternal and reproductive health, while increased displacement and economic instability can lead to higher rates of gender-based violence and exploitation.

“Climate change is not gender neutral and exacerbates existing inequalities,” Kanem said. Addressing these disparities requires targeted interventions that prioritize the needs of women and girls in climate resilience planning.

Latin America and the Caribbean have long grappled with the challenges of natural disasters. The region is frequently hit by hurricanes, tropical storms, and heavy rainfall, leading to devastating floods and landslides. Socio-economic factors, including poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and limited access to healthcare and education, compound the impacts of these events.

Historically, the region has faced significant challenges in building resilient infrastructure and systems capable of withstanding extreme weather events. The legacy of colonialism, economic exploitation, and political instability has left many countries with fragile economies and limited resources for disaster preparedness and response.

Case Studies: Vulnerable Nations and Territories

Several countries and territories in the region exemplify the urgent need for enhanced climate resilience. In the Caribbean, small island developing states (SIDS) like Suriname, Guyana, and the Bahamas are particularly vulnerable due to their geographic isolation and dependence on coastal infrastructure. These nations are often heavily indebted and need more climate adaptation measures.

Similarly, Ecuador’s extensive Pacific coastline poses significant risks from rising sea levels and increased storm activity. The country’s healthcare infrastructure, already strained by economic challenges, could be further compromised by climate-induced disasters.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, exemplifies the intersection of poverty, political instability, and environmental vulnerability. Frequent hurricanes and earthquakes have repeatedly devastated the country, undermining efforts to build resilient healthcare systems and infrastructure.

Addressing the climate vulnerabilities of coastal populations requires coordinated policy responses and international cooperation. The UNFPA report calls for comprehensive strategies integrating climate adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development goals. These strategies should prioritize the protection of vulnerable populations, particularly women and girls, and ensure that healthcare systems are resilient to climate impacts.

At the recent meeting of leaders from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in Antigua, discussions centered on economic and political solutions to climate change. The focus was on protecting vulnerable coastlines while managing high debt loads and limited resources. International support, including financial aid and technical assistance, is crucial for these nations to implement effective climate resilience measures.

Innovative Approaches to Building Resilience

Innovative approaches are essential for building resilience in vulnerable coastal regions. These include developing early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, and sustainable land-use practices. Investments in renewable energy and green technologies can also reduce the carbon footprint and enhance the sustainability of local economies.

Community-based approaches that engage local populations in planning and implementation are critical. Empowering communities to participate actively in climate adaptation can lead to more effective and sustainable outcomes. Education and capacity-building initiatives can equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to respond to climate challenges.

The UNFPA report is a stark reminder of the urgent need to address the climate vulnerabilities of Latin America and the Caribbean coastal populations. As climate change impacts intensify, it is imperative to prioritize the protection of healthcare infrastructure and ensure that vulnerable groups, particularly women and girls, are not left behind.

Building climate resilience requires a multifaceted approach that includes policy reform, international cooperation, and innovative solutions. By investing in sustainable development and disaster risk reduction, the region can better prepare for the challenges ahead and safeguard the health and well-being of its people.

Also read: Illegal Wildlife Trade Threatens Public Health Across Latin America

The time to act is now. The future of millions of people living in coastal areas depends on the collective efforts of governments, international organizations, and local communities to build a more resilient and equitable world.

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