In Pointe Michel, on the Caribbean island of Dominica, I met a woman sitting in the middle of a pile of rubble. On her right there was a fridge and on her left a ruined mattress – the only recognisable possessions among the jumble of concrete, wood, metal, glass, galvanised iron and everything else that just a few weeks ago used to be her home. She and her family had been spared but they had lost everything when the wrath of Hurricane Maria exploded there, another terrifying manifestation of climate change.
Just down the road, MP Denise Charles, who was taking me round the island to assess the damage, pointed to a spot marked with debris, trees and boulders. At first I thought she was showing me a damaged road. Then she told me there used to be three houses on that spot. Fourteen people are thought to have perished when Maria smashed these homes into nonexistence.
Everywhere I went these stories were repeated. Every corner of this precious island, decimated. Flying in, I did not recognise Dominica, the land of my birth. The once flourishing, green vegetation that rolled over every mountain and carpeted the valleys is gone. It has been replaced by sickly brown, bald patches of land and naked trees, stripped of their bark and lying on the ground like discarded matchsticks or sticking up in the air in stark defiance.
Travelling around the country was difficult, with recently constructed roads caved in and barely accessible. I was shell-shocked when I visited Scotts Head, a beloved fishing village that holds many fond memories for me. It was virtually unrecognisable. Every house on the water’s edge is gone. In their place is now a beach, some rubble and a solitary boat, the only reminder of the once flourishing fishing trade.
In Barbuda, another Caribbean island, there is a similar tale of utter devastation. Driving through the ghostly empty streets on the evacuated island it was hard to imagine that just two months ago this was a vibrant community. Our guides spoke about landmarks in the past tense. “This used to be a church, this was the police station,” pointing to a roofless blue building. I walked around a primary school that looked like it had been bombed, and a hospital that would have to be rebuilt almost from scratch.
These pictures are seared into my memory. The stories of utter terror in the dead of night, of not knowing if you will survive, of people emerging the next morning like zombies, of funerals and memorials, will be in my mind every time I go into a meeting about my 52 member states.
But now, the glare of the media spotlight is dimming and my fear is that this story will slide off the international agenda. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen, because what I witnessed in the last week are two countries in the Caribbean in deep humanitarian crisis.
And what makes it even more worrying are the rules that the international community has set to help make aid distribution fair. There is a huge question mark over whether some of the countries affected by Irma and Maria will be able to get the help they need.
Dominica is currently classed as upper middle income, which still makes it eligible for Overseas Development Assistance. But Antigua and Barbuda is a high-income country, which excludes it from receiving that assistance. Under criteria set by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, those islands will probably cease to be recipients of assistance this year.
The fact is, it is not fair to exclude higher income but climate-vulnerable countries from that vital assistance when they are stuck by a cataclysmic disaster. Certainly not in this new epoch in which category 5 hurricanes, which used to come once in a lifetime, are coming within weeks of each other and with a new kind of ferocity. What Hurricanes Irma and Maria demonstrated, with vicious clarity, is that a high-income country could be made destitute in a matter of hours.
It’s heartening that, after tireless advocacy from the Commonwealth and other organisations, and leadership by the UK, these rules are going to be reviewed. My worry is that change will not happen quickly enough to meet the mammoth challenges facing the Caribbean and other regions that have been so grievously damaged by a season of climatic upheaval.
All those involved in making these rules, such as the World Bank and the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, have to consider seriously our present reality and to create eligibility criteria that adequately respond to what countries, particularly those more prone to natural disasters, are actually experiencing.
This is not just about a woman, thousands of miles away, sitting amid the wreckage of her home. This is about a rapid, drastic change in climate that is wreaking havoc on our planet. Even in Ireland, Storm Ophelia claimed three lives last month.
We need to accept the new reality of fast and furious natural disasters and have a plan to deal with it. We need a targeted global response that enables us to implement the Paris agreement on climate change and better coordinate a rapid reaction, with everything taken into account: search and rescue, regional coordination and legal impediments, such as the revision of aid rules.
But it also needs to recognise that the human spirit demonstrated by the Commonwealth during this traumatic period is something upon which we can build. We need all hands on deck. If not us, who – and if not now, when?
• Patricia Scotland is secretary general of the Commonwealth