About 41 million people living in low-lying regions of Latin America and the Caribbean are threatened by storms and flooding that are becoming more extreme because of climate change, according to newly released data from a United Nations agency.

The study, published Tuesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), says 6 per cent of the region’s population is at risk of severe weather that could endanger their lives, damage critical infrastructure and cut people off from vital services such as health care. The agency says developing countries need more funding to mitigate against the effects of climate change.

The study examined the proportion of the population living in low-elevation coastal areas, defined as 10 metres or fewer above sea level.

In places such as Suriname, the Cayman Islands, Bahamas and Guyana, the rate is 80 to 90 per cent.

Additionally, many Caribbean countries with high populations close to sea level also have a majority of their hospitals located at low elevations. There are a total of 1,448 hospitals situated in coastal zones and the agency notes that these facilities are crucial to providing health care to women and girls.

The UNFPA is the UN agency dedicated to sexual and reproductive health. UNFPA released the study in conjunction with the Small Island Developing States conference taking place this week in Antigua and Barbuda.

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be more active than usual owing to La Niña and warm ocean temperatures, according to the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hurricanes pose a catastrophic threat to people living close to sea level and risk damaging crucial facilities, the UNFPA notes.

In its findings, the UNFPA emphasizes that women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change and related severe weather such as hurricanes. These disasters threaten infrastructure that has contributed to gender equality, such as access to proper maternal care and family planning measures, the agency says.

Sabrina Juran, UNFPA’s regional adviser on population and development for Latin America and the Caribbean, said that the agency will work next to identify specific vulnerabilities, such as assessing structural durability of hospitals to see how they would fare in a hurricane.

“We know that these people are extremely exposed to climate change – to rising sea levels, to ocean warming and to hurricanes,” said Ms. Juran. “This will not only threaten their life, it will threaten their livelihood.”

Ms. Juran said she hopes the study’s findings will be a topic of discussion at COP29 in Azerbaijan this fall.

She said the study focused on understanding how many people and health care facilities are at risk, and that UNFPA research into government preparedness must follow.

The states highlighted in the study and featured at the conference this week face unique challenges in climate resilience, said Ms. Juran. They are geographically remote and are still seeing economic difficulties because of a collapse in tourism owing to COVID-19.

Ms. Juran said the developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean need funding to build resilience, both in their economies and in their populations. She wants to see investments for emission reduction and contributions to emergency preparedness measures.

She said improvements made to female health over the past few decades could be reversed if the global community doesn’t take the threat seriously.

“Conditions created in the aftermath [of climate disasters] will result in more gender based violence. They will result in more unattended and unsafe births,” said Ms. Juran. “We will see gender equality going backwards.”

Ms. Juran also wants to see investment in early warning systems, which allow agencies to see where disasters will strike and develop response plans before it’s too late.

The Canadian government has committed $5.3-billion from 2021 to 2026 toward international climate protection measures for developing countries, such as the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems initiative.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first announced a renewal in contribution to CREWS in 2022, and the government says its funds have helped 35 countries, including those in the Caribbean, to strengthen early warning systems.

Additionally, Canada’s climate financing for developing countries includes a feminist approach to environmental action. This focuses on ensuring climate-related planning, policymaking and financing address the particular needs and challenges of women and girls.

At COP27 in late 2022, participants agreed to contribute to a loss and damage fund that helps struggling countries to rebuild after climate disasters such as hurricanes.

The creation and organization of the fund was furthered a year later at COP28, where representatives agreed that UN organizations dedicated to risk reduction and project services would meet.

The Globe and Mail, May 28, 2024