Shall we celebrate Earth Day 2021?

The world is commemorating April 22 as Earth Day with a global focus on climate action. Considering all the problems the world is facing today, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and economic crises, we ask ourselves if we shall celebrate it.

In the Caribbean region, the last decade was particularly dire. In addition to the pandemic, we experienced hurricanes, storm surges, volcanic eruptions, human migrations, and other calamities.

Despite those catastrophes, there are still reasons to celebrate Earth Day. The first is the universal effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic with a general vaccination effort, at national and international levels, which will convey many lessons for the future. In the environmental arena, world leaders are now calling for effective actions against climate change, with the possibility of significant funding for projects that are climate-friendly and socioeconomically inclusive.

In the case of The Bahamas, our low-lying islands are situated in the middle of a hurricane belt, with a high vulnerability to destructive winds and storm surges. In the last 20 years, five Category 4 hurricanes have hit our country, with disastrous human, economic and environmental consequences.

In order to tackle these problems, a new environmental management effort is underway for East Grand Bahama, the Implementing Land, Water and Ecosystem Management in The Bahamas (IWEco The Bahamas) project.

The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) while the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP), the Forestry Unit, the Ministry of Public Works and Bonefish & Tarpon Trust are the leading partners.

The project extends from 2020 to 2023.

Upon its completion, IWEco The Bahamas will provide effective land and coastal management alternatives that will protect the local biodiversity and groundwater resources in East Grand Bahama, which was ravaged by Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

The proposed management alternatives will also allow the economic use of less vulnerable areas, such as adventure tourism and sport fishing, involving local stakeholders.

To achieve its objective, the IWEco The Bahamas project has four main components: i) development and implementation of integrated, innovative technical solutions for the maintenance of ecosystem health; ii) strengthening of national environmental monitoring and evaluation systems; iii) strengthening of the enabling environment through policy, legislative and institutional reforms and improving capacity for sustainable natural resource management; and iv) enhancing knowledge exchange, best practices, replication and stakeholder involvement in a natural resource management.

In addition to the innovative environmental management alternatives, the IWEco The Bahamas project will inform sustainable environmental policies for The Bahamas, including new regulation and legislation using financial compensation mechanisms, such as payment for ecosystem services.

In the first project component, a watershed plan is being designed for East Grand Bahama, following the adaptive management approach. Using state-of-the art watershed management concepts, local information, and stakeholder surveys, the watershed plan will provide the blueprint for the sustainable management of the area, including the steps for watershed inventory, problem definition and scoping, development and selection of effective management options, development of implementation, evaluation, and monitoring procedures.

The existing and future threats to the environmental and socioeconomic sustainability of the project area are being identified, and appropriate adaptation measures will be established.

A key element of this study is the environmental vulnerability and economic potential assessments of the project area, including the preparation of user-friendly maps of groundwater potential, flood risk, biodiversity richness, and tourism opportunities.

Since several Bahamian and Caribbean islands share the same climatic, environmental, and socioeconomic characteristics of East Grand Bahama, the identified alternatives and the lessons learned in the IWEco The Bahamas project could be transferred, making The Bahamas a laboratory of innovative, environmentally sustainable solutions.

With our sights aimed at the future, and believing that science and management together provide sustainable solutions for our islands, we believe that Earth Day 2021 ought to be celebrated.

• Dr. Henrique M.L. Chaves is a hydrologist and the Watershed Planning consultant for the IWEco The Bahamas project, which encompasses 49,000 acres of land and ecosystems in East Grand Bahama.

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