UNITED NATIONS (CN) – Conditions on the ground in Barbuda remain dire after the island was rendered uninhabitable in September by Hurricane Irma, the prime minister told reporters Monday, promoting a United Nations pledge drive.
“We have made some progress during the past two months in that today we have perhaps about 200 of the 1,800 inhabitants who have returned to Barbuda, albeit living under very difficult conditions,” Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told reporters on Monday.
“Perhaps I can even refer to them as primitive conditions because, to date, electricity has not been fully returned to the island,” he added.
The record-breaking storm has been credited with reducing to rubble Barbuda’s civilization stretching back more than 300 years and obliterating the nation’s storied bird sanctuary.
“It reminded me of Christmas without snow,” Browne said.
The World Bank’s estimate for overall recovery costs is $222 million. Browne calls that figure conservative, and said his nation’s crushing debt currently makes the task all the more daunting.
“To put that in context, that is 100 percent of our annual earnings,” the prime minister said.
“We would have to literally as a nation would have to fast for a year,” Browne added.
Shortly after Irma made landfall, the International Monetary Fund demanded a $3 million payment on a $117.8 million loan accrued four years ago under Browne’s predecessor.
The IMF’s refusal to grant a moratorium on that payment at the time sparked outrage among many activists.
Browne downplayed that particular challenge in response to a question by Courthouse News.
“The IMF loan is not an immediate challenge at this point,” he said.
Antigua and Barbuda has reduced its debt burden to the IMF to about $11 million.
“So that really is not insurmountable,” he said.
“Where we have a challenge is there has been a block of Paris Club loans totaling about $140 million U.S. that have been outstanding for probably about three decades,” he added.
Paris Club countries is a term that refers to a group of officials from major creditor countries whose role is to find solutions to difficulties faced by debtor nations.
Browne urged the group to consider gravity of Barbuda’s dilemma.
“We made a point that if countries could not pay those loans prior to the hurricane, I don’t know how someone can sensible think we can pay them now that we’re in this crisis,” he said.
Having returned from the recent climate conference in Bonn, Germany, U.N. Development Program administrator Achim Steiner told reporters that Barbuda’s struggle highlights the need to enact the Paris agreement.
“Yes, this is what the world looks like when you do not act on climate change,” Steiner said.
Climate change was a constant theme of this morning’s press briefing, with an executive from the U.N.’s agency on behalf of the Caribbean community warning that these nations’ very survival is at risk.
“For us, we need 1.5 to stay alive,” CARICOM assistant Secretary-General Douglas Slater said, referring to the goal of keeping global temperatures below a 1.5 degree increase.
Caribbean islands have been pushing to build more resilient infrastructure able to withstand stronger storms, but Slater said that this mode of prevention had its limits.
“We usually build to withstand [Category] 3, Cat 4, but the storms of this year [were] Cat 5,” Slater said.
“As you may know, Cat 5 is 157 and over,” he continued, referring to wind speeds. “Some places had up to 200 mph winds.”
Caribbean Community, an organization of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies otherwise known as Caricom, will announce the results of the pledge drive on Tuesday afternoon.