Dominica in the Age of Climate Change

The Future of Dominica in the Age of Climate Change: An Analysis of Domestic and International Relocation as Potential Adaptation Strategies

By Anna Steltenkamp
May 1, 2019


“The stars have fallen, Eden is broken… We as a country, and as a region, did not start this war against nature. We did not provoke it. The war has come to us!” (King, 2018). Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit stated this to the UN General Assembly in 2017, just weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated his country. Climate change results in a tragic irony for Small Island Developing States (SIDS): SIDS’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are negligible on a global scale (emitting just 1.5 percent as much greenhouse gases as industrial nations do), and therefore they are among the least responsible for climate change, yet they are among the first and worst to be affected by its adverse consequences (“Climate change…,” 2005).

The negative repercussions of global climate change are greatly affecting the futures of SIDS in the Caribbean. Among the affected SIDS is Dominica, a Windward Island of the Caribbean Lesser Antilles. Climate change increasingly threatens Dominica because of the greater intensity of extreme weather events and the rise of sea levels (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). These repercussions of climate change have caused, and will likely increase the future prevalence of, the displacement of large numbers of Dominicans because of property and infrastructure damage, as well as permanent loss of land and/or economic instability (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). The ideal, proactive response to these threats would be a global attempt to mitigate climate change through the reduction of GHGs, thereby minimizing the possibility of a future wherein mass forced displacement and relocation is necessary (Betzold, 2015; Sanders, 2017; Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). However, industrialized nations have either denied or ignored their responsibility for the catastrophes and have done little to affect change. What minimal efforts have been implemented have been highly insufficient, or outright failures.

The uncertainty of the future of Dominica, and other SIDS throughout the Caribbean, due to environmental volatility, requires new methods for ensuring the survival of the at-risk persons that comprise the majority, if not the entirety, of Dominica. Dominica must begin to implement mechanisms for proactively addressing the negative repercussions of climate change that threaten the future safety and welfare of its populations. Preliminary investigations as to the suitability of the island for domestic relocation as an option for pre-emptively protecting its coastal populations should be undertaken. Further, Dominica and other SIDS, as well as the entire international community, must begin discussions about a possible future constituted of an ongoing ‘climate refugee’ crisis, wherein intensive international relocation becomes a necessity. Forced migration has dire consequences on those affected. Any relocation efforts—whether domestic or international—must take into consideration how to best resolve, or at least minimize, potential socioeconomic, political, and/or cultural losses.

Climate Change: The Present and Future Condition of Dominica

The adverse consequences of climate change have drastically affected Dominica, and they continue to pose an increasingly significant threat to its future. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean identified the Eastern Caribbean Island region, where Dominica is located, as the second most hazard-prone region in the world (King, 2018). Dominica is located in ‘Hurricane Alley,’ and therefore tropical storms frequently threaten the nation (Johnson, 2018).  Tropical storms brush or hit Dominica every 2.49 years on average, with an average sustained wind speed of 114 mph (“Dominica’s history…,” n.d.). And evidence proposes that climate change will contribute to an increase in hurricane intensity throughout the Caribbean because of the increase in tropical sea surface temperatures (Bada, 2018). The terrain of Dominica further exacerbates its citizens’ vulnerability to climate change. It is the most mountainous of the Windward Islands, which results in a population that is mostly clustered along the coast (Johnson, 2018; “The world…,” n.d.). Specifically, ninety percent of Dominica’s population lives in coastal villages (“Dominica,” 2019). The mountainous terrain threatens the population because mountain run-off causes inland flooding (Johnson, 2018). And the proximity to the coast renders the population vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding (Johnson, 2018). Dominica’s geographical location and population distribution cause the nation to be highly susceptible to the negative repercussions of global climate change, including rising sea levels and increasing intensity of tropical storms.

Dominica’s economy is vulnerable to the repercussions of climate change, especially that of tropical storms and hurricanes. Less than twenty-five percent of the nation is under cultivation because of its mountainous terrain (“Dominica: Economy,” 2019). Yet, the agriculture sector is the major contributor to economic production in Dominica (Benson & Clay, 2001). This economic base is susceptible to extreme weather events; in particular its dominant crop, the banana. Hurricanes and tropical storms negatively affect crops, as does the resulting flooding and water logging (Benson & Clay, 2001). Fisheries are also greatly damaged by severe weather, affecting the main livelihood of many poor families in Dominica. For example, Hurricane Lenny of 1999 caused an estimated EC$4.9m, in infrastructure and equipment damage for fisheries (Benson & Clay, 2001). And this was only two decades after Hurricane David had destroyed 75% of the boats in Dominica (Benson & Clay, 2001). These economic losses to individuals, and communities, make it increasingly more difficult to rebuild lives in the same location because of the insufficient financial means and the prevailing possibility that other climatic events will just destroy any progress again, and again.

Climate change does not just threaten the socioeconomic welfare of SIDS like Dominica, it threatens their very existence. A 2°C increase in global average temperature is predicted to result in a rate of climatic change that would exceed the adaptation abilities of SIDS (Benjamin & Thomas, 2016). SIDS recognize the drastic influence that rise in global temperatures will have on their future survival, evidenced by their campaign for a global goal to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C (Benjamin & Thomas, 2016). The slogan clearly illustrates the recognized necessity: “1.5°C to Stay Alive” (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Yet, the maintenance of global average temperature below this goal is doubtful because human-induced warming has already reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels (Allen et al., 2018). And it is estimated that current emissions rates will result in an average global temperature warming of 2.7°C, or higher (Benjamin & Thomas, 2016). A study at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research claims that seas may rise up to 2.3 meters (7 feet, 6.6 inches) per degree Celsius of global average temperature increase (Kirschbaum, n.d.). The resulting coastal erosion and loss of shoreline will have extensive effects on Dominicans because, as was mentioned previously, they predominantly inhabit the more vulnerable, coastal regions of the island. There will be a significant loss of coastal agricultural lands by salinization (“Dominica,” 2019). The destruction of mangroves from sea level rise will exacerbate this issue because of the reduction in fresh water availability that is necessary for keeping the salinity balance (“Dominica,” 2019).

Although rising sea levels result in incremental change, severe weather events—predominantly tropical storms—present rapid consequences for SIDS such as Dominica. Hurricane Maria of 2017 illustrates the destruction and displacement of persons that result from climate-induced catastrophes. This hurricane resulted in the destruction of private property (such as homes and businesses) and public facilities (such as schools and hospitals), as well as utilities (such as power and telecom infrastructure) (Sanders, 2017). Hurricane Maria resulted in $1.3 billion in damage in Dominica, which equates to 225 percent of the nation’s annual economic output (Flavelle, 2018). Damage to housing accounted for 38% of all the financial costs of hurricane damage, as it is estimated that one-fifth of the island’s homes were entirely destroyed, and another one-fifth were severely damaged (Flavelle, 2018; Johnson, 2018). Approximately 3,000 people were displaced in collective shelters in Dominica (Cloos & Ridde, 2018). And 25,000 more, equating to one third of total residents, fled and/or sought refuge on other islands because their property had been decimated (Flavelle, 2018; Sanders, 2017). As is evidenced by the post-hurricane condition of Dominica, the occurrence of extensive economic and personal costs is a guaranteed consequence of extreme weather events, with displacement oftentimes ensuing from the destruction. And the extremity of these events, and their effects, are expected to worsen in the future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, with high confidence, that past emissions alone are unlikely to raise global-mean temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (Allen et al., 2018). Therefore, a warming greater that 1.5°C is not “geophysically unavoidable,” yet it is entirely dependent on present and future rates of emission reduction (Allen et al., 2018). And this curbing of global temperature increases to 1.5°C would be in accordance with the previously-stated goal supported by SIDS to prevent, or at best minimize, existential threats to their nations (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). The decrease in future temperature increase through GHG reduction, from 2°C to 1.5°C, was found to be significant in projected risks for SIDS (Benjamin & Thomas, 2016). Thus, the long-term inhabitability of SIDS, including Dominica, is dependent upon whether drastic action is agreed upon throughout the international community and is implemented in a timely manner, or not.

The international community—predominantly China, the United States, and the European Union, which collectively emit over 50 percent of global GHG emissions — has yet to seriously commit to the actions necessary to combat climate change (“List of…,” 2019). For example, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States rose by 3.4 percent in 2018—the most substantial increase in eight years (Plumer, 2019). And unfortunately, SIDS like Dominica are not capable of combatting climate change through their own actions because their GHG emissions are exceedingly insignificant already. This is evidenced by the fact that, in 2009, China and the United States collectively emitted 13,135 million tons of carbon dioxide (“World carbon…,” n.d.). Meanwhile, Dominica only emitted 0.14 million tons of carbon dioxide (“World carbon…,” n.d.). Dominica emitted 0.00001 percent as much carbon dioxide as China and the United States in the same year, placing it at 211 of 216 countries ranked for carbon dioxide emission in 2009 (“World carbon…,” n.d.). Dominica may advocate for commitments to reduce the ramifications of climate change, but it is ultimately up to the larger, industrialized nations to enact the necessary reductions to GHG emissions. 

Relocation: A Potential Approach to Address Climate Change

The negative consequences of climate change—predominantly severe weather events—have already caused displacement and relocation to occur in SIDS, including Dominica. The predicted rise in sea level and in the severity of tropical storms both increase the likelihood that relocation will become necessary in order to protect the at-risk populations of SIDS throughout the Caribbean. Relocation may be particularly crucial for protecting the citizens of Dominica because the vast majority are located on the coast, an area highly vulnerable to climate change. Relocation could be considered as a proactive mechanism for protecting persons against climate change, hopefully preventing further property damage and loss of lives. There are two possible means for relocation: domestic relocation inland, staying within the borders of Dominica, or international relocation. Yet, there are serious economic and non-economic repercussions that may affect persons who are relocated, worsened because this would be a relocation forced upon them by circumstances out of their control. Further, there are significant structural restraints for both domestic and international relocation. These issues must be recognized and considered in the discussion of relocation as a possible mechanism for addressing the future of Dominica.

Economic and Non-Economic Repercussions of Forced Migration

Forced migration has serious consequences on the affected persons. These consequences include significant economic and non-economic losses, both on the personal and communal scale. Individuals, or communities, forced to relocate because their land is rendered uninhabitable must leave behind built infrastructure (Serdeczny, Waters, & Chan, 2016). Therefore, they no longer reap benefits from historic investments, and they must use additional funds to start over with development in the new location. There is a direct loss of income opportunities, as cultivated land is either destroyed or left unused and fisheries are abandoned (Serdeczny, Waters, & Chan, 2016). Again, previous financial investments are left to waste.

Also, non-economic losses have dire consequences on the welfare of migrating individuals and communities. Many islanders, including Dominicans, have important social, cultural, and historic ties to their “home (is)land and strong place-based identities,” oftentimes resulting from traditional socioeconomic and land-related cultural practices (Betzold, 2015; Sanders, 2017). Therefore, relocation forces them to leave behind important aspects of their self-definition. Essentially, they are “ripped away from their history, their culture, and their identity” (Sanders, 2017). The loss of cultural heritage may cause serious emotional trauma resulting in long-term psychological damage. Further, the pressure to adapt to the present realities and customs of the new location may cause stress, as well as feelings of disconnection and/or disorientation (Serdeczny, Waters, & Chan, 2016). Old knowledge systems may be incompatible within the new environment, and therefore become irrelevant for, and forgotten by, future generations. Further, issues of national sovereignty and unequal power relations arise if relocated to a foreign nation (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Issues may include: the restriction of rights, the insecurity of temporary residential status, and the prevailing discriminatory practices in both social and legal regimes. There may also be a loss of self-determination and self-reliance because individuals do not freely decide whether or not to migrate, rather they are forced by prevailing conditions outside of their control (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). The loss of confidence in individual agency and self-efficacy can greatly diminish the mental health of those affected.

Domestic Relocation

The coastal populations at greatest risk in Dominica may be relocated to more inland locations as a proactive approach to protection against the negative consequences of climate change that are predicted to significantly affect the nation in the future, especially severe weather events and sea level rise. For example, as land gradually recedes, there will be increasing pressure to relocate to less susceptible regions. And, as previously stated, the loss of coastal agricultural lands by salinization as sea levels rise will result in economic instability for persons dependent upon this means of income production. Coastal infrastructure and public utilities are also vulnerable to storm surges and severe winds of tropical storms because of their close proximity to the ocean. Inland relocation within Dominica may be a means of adaptation that could potentially minimize these risks. Or, relocation may become an inevitable necessity if the repercussions of climate change reach exceedingly acute levels in the future.

There are advantages to internal relocation as an approach to adapting to, and protecting populations against, climate change. Relocation within Dominica means that moved persons are not subject to a different regime of power. Issues of national sovereignty and citizenship do not arise because they are still within the political borders of Dominica, unlike international migration. Internally-moved persons do not experience pressures to assimilate into a new system of culture, nor do they face the risks of social or political discrimination present in a foreign country. Further, communities and/or individual persons may have greater efficacy in the decision-making process when only addressing their own government because they are still valued as that country’s own citizens. The result may be that they are given greater weight as stakeholders in discussions regarding alternative locations and plans to rebuild.

However, there is a multiplicity of structural constraints that affect the implementation and effectiveness of this adaptation strategy for protecting the at-risk populations of Dominica for the indefinite future. First, there is the question of financial feasibility. Where will the funding for relocation and rebuilding of entire communities come from? It would be a stringent—perhaps impossible—economic burden for the Dominican federal government to be the sole investor in these efforts of resiliency. The internal landscape of Dominica will still be at risk from climate change, especially from severe weather events. Investments in increasing the resiliency and sustainability of infrastructure and services as compared to present engineering standards would be required. For example, Dominican housing is not presently built to withstand extreme natural hazards. Wood and galvanized sheeting is the most common type of roofing currently used on the island, and there are few confined masonry buildings (“Supporting resilient…,” 2019). Housing in the new inland locations would need to be built in a more durable manner, or else the new units will be simply demolished by the next tropical storm at a total loss of investment. Dominica will likely need external funding investments, such as aid from industrialized nations or international financial institutions (i.e. the World Bank or International Monetary Fund). Acceptance of external aid presents its own challenges, however. Oftentimes, aid from these financial bodies come with strings attached that restrict a nation’s ability to use their own powers of sovereignty. For example, the money may only be allocated to projects implemented by foreign entities, disregarding the case-specific expertise of Dominicans.

Also, Dominica’s mountainous terrain makes resettlement and economic opportunity difficult in the inland environment. It is a rugged landscape—with at least 26 mountains—built upon some of the most rain-drenched lands in the world, resulting in extensive water runoff (Pike, 2019). Some inland communities have already been built on steep, unstable areas. They are vulnerable to slippage as a result of landslides during heavy, prolonged rains (Edwards, n.d.). For example, three members of a family died in 2010 after being buried in their home during a massive landslide (Edwards, n.d.). Inland communities also have an increased vulnerability to flash floods during intense rainfall because of the mountainous terrain of Dominica’s interior. Therefore, an increase in severity of tropical storms that hit Dominica would still pose significant threats to infrastructure and human lives, even if communities were relocated to a distance further from the coast.

Further, economic opportunity may be more difficult to achieve if Dominicans are limited to the interior landscape because only a few interior valleys are flat enough for soil accumulation (Pike, 2019). The World Bank reported in 2014 that only 8% of Dominica’s total land area was arable, yet the agricultural sector continues to be the primary contributor to Dominica’s economic production (“Dominica – arable…,” 2019). Therefore, a reduction in the availability of arable land can be expected to result in a significant decrease in Dominica’s gross national product. There may be insufficient alternatives for economical self-sufficiency if persons are relocated to areas that are not viable for agricultural production. Personal economic instability could result in a drastic decrease in standard of living. Domestic relocation in Dominica, wherein communities are rebuilt on territory more inland, should be considered as a possible adaptation approach against the negative repercussions of climate change. However, as stated, relocation within national borders is a complex process that has a multiplicity of structural constraints, as well as serious consequences on moved persons, that must be addressed when considering its implementation.

International Relocation

SIDS, including Dominica, and potential receiving countries must address the pending ‘climate refugee’ crisis, which may force emigration out of the Caribbean. There is a serious likelihood of vast emigration because of the insufficiency of domestic relocation, and other adaptation strategies, to make nations resilient to climate change. Or, the future of climate change may result in an existential threat to SIDS; the complete annihilation of the very existence of these islands altogether. If the industrialized nations that are the dominant polluters of GHGs do not seriously, and rapidly, act to minimize the increase in average global temperatures, relocation of Dominican populations inland may become an inadequate means of protection. Further, ad hoc approaches to international relocation may result in increased vulnerability and greater risk of maladaptation for the moved persons (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Or, their implementation may be entirely ineffective because of the irreversibility of extensive loss of lives and vast infrastructural and/or environmental damage potentially affiliated with climate-induced, severe weather catastrophes.

The issue of climate-induced migration faced in Dominica is a world-wide phenomenon, with global estimates of climate-induced migrants by 2050 ranging from 200 million to 1 billion (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). However, the classification of ‘climate refugee’ does not presently have any formal definition, recognition, or protection that is enforced internationally (McDonnell, 2018). A plan for how to manage the influx of ‘climate refugees’ cannot begin to be considered until an agreement on who qualifies as a ‘climate refugee’ is established, and even this is a complicated challenge for policymakers in the international community. First, the 1951 Convention Relation to the Status of Refugees requires an element of persecution to qualify an individual as a ‘refugee’ (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Therefore, the existing international legal framework would have to be reconstructed to encompass the concept of ‘climate refugee.’ Further, the issues faced by possible ‘climate refugees’ may be vastly different. A ‘climate refugee’ may be affected by a specific weather event, such as a hurricane, while others may be forced to migrate as a result of slow-onset changes, such as sea level rise. This variation in circumstance makes it difficult to create an established criterion for ‘climate refugee’ status.

If an international agreement is reached regarding a classification for ‘climate refugees,’ there continues to be the complicated dilemma of how the international community will respond to a significant influx of ‘climate refugees.’ An international agreement on the obligations of receiving countries may be proposed, but in light of the increasing prevalence of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe and the United States, international bodies of governance—such as the United Nations—may have severe difficulties getting individual nations to agree to, and act in accordance with, an expansion of refugee protocol (McDonnell, 2018). The high economic costs and issues of national sovereignty are ever-present concerns of nations when discussing immigration policy. Dominica, and other SIDS in the Caribbean, could potentially look at the Pacific country of Kiribati for direction on how to approach international, proactive relocation. Kiribati has the most detailed mechanism in place for international migration and resettlement, found in the Kiribati National Framework for Climate Change and Climate Change Adaptation (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Kiribati aims to establish agreements with other countries to facilitate the “inevitable migration of the population” (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Instead of broad agreements dependent upon vast, international agreement, perhaps Dominica, and other Caribbean SIDS, can approach individual countries in a more case-specific manner. Receiving countries may be more willing to agree to requests by individual countries, as the commitments are less extensive.

Dominica may use this approach to begin establishing agreements with countries that already are top destination areas for emigrating Dominicans. As of 2013, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom were the top receiving countries (UNICEF, n.d.). Relocation to these countries may lessen the negative personal and communal consequences of forced migration because there may be cultural and socioeconomic foundations that previously-settled Dominicans have already established. A sense of community and familiarity with persons of the same nationality could help alleviate feelings of alienation and disorientation. Preemptive migration that is community-based may further help sooth tensions (Thomas & Benjamin, 2018). Further, relocating based on a community-level may lead to a more collective decision-making process, wherein the persons directly affected by the resettlement receive appropriate, meaningful weight in determining their future outcome.


The negative repercussions of climate change are an ever-increasing threat to Dominica and other SIDS throughout the Caribbean. It is unfortunate that these countries minimally contribute to the GHG emissions that are responsible for creating this environmental crisis yet are the most at-risk from climate change. Dominica must implement nationwide, proactive adaptation strategies to protect its citizens from the threats of rising sea levels and intensifying weather catastrophes. A possible strategy for addressing the threats to the safety and welfare of Dominican populations—one that may become an absolute necessity for future survival—is relocation. There are two different strategies for relocation that Dominica, and other Caribbean SIDS, should consider: domestic relocation and international relocation. Resettlement of persons to more inland areas within the borders of Dominica could potentially help protect the ninety percent of the population that is especially threatened because of their close proximity to the coast. Alternatively, Dominica could consider international relocation. This may ultimately become the only option if climate change becomes so severe that it threatens the very existence of the island. This would require discussions throughout the entire international community, as potential receiving countries must begin to determine how they will act if and when they become unable to continue to deny or ignore an extensive ‘climate refugee’ crisis. Both forms of relocation have structural constraints that must be resolved in order to achieve effective implementation in the future. Further, there are serious socioeconomic, political, and cultural losses that may affect moved persons. How best to minimize these negative repercussions affiliated with relocation must be discussed.

SIDS throughout the Caribbean must address the potential need for relocation of persons as the consequences of climate change worsens. They must become proactive in developing national policies that create a framework that could guide climate-induced migration and resettlement in the future. Ad hoc approaches to addressing the existential threats that climate change poses for SIDS throughout the Caribbean will result in increased vulnerability for their populations and perhaps the loss of tens of thousands of lives.



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