Climate Change

How Barbados is using data and technology to build climate resilience

New solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI) applications for climate resilience are especially promising in Barbados.

New solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI) applications for climate resilience are especially promising in Barbados. Image: Unsplash/Brian Yurasits

Alison Buckholtz
Writer, World Bank Group
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Climate Change

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  • Unpredictable weather events are reshaping the future of small states and island nations, like Barbados.
  • Barbados’ technology-focused, data-driven response to climate change points the way forward.
  • “Without technology and data … we don’t have a chance at sustainability,” says Shantal Munro-Knight, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with Responsibility for Climate Resilience.

With a palm-sized notebook in one hand and a pencil in the other, Katrina Chapman surveys a stretch of beach near Bridgetown, Barbados and looks out to the calm, turquoise waters of Pile Bay. But she’s not just admiring the view.

Chapman, the manager of the Pile Bay Fish Landing facility, is tracking the influx of sargassum – ropy, brown seaweed that’s smothering coral reefs and snarling the nets of fisherfolk whose income depends on their daily catch. Warming waters and other factors are speeding sargassum’s growth throughout the Caribbean, and Chapman, a third-generation Barbadian fisherwoman, admits that she’s worried.

As a small wooden fishing boat returns to shore, she writes down the fishermen’s observations about the sargassum’s spread and direction. Then, back at Pile Bay’s processing facility, she turns to the fish, documenting in her notebook the species, weights and size of each boat’s haul, along with where and how the fish were caught.

This will be one of the final weeks Chapman uses paper and pencil to document Pile Bay’s busy days. Digital tablets are en route to the facility – a tool supporting the new DigiFish initiative, a collaborative programme between government, civil society and the private sector to capture and digitize data. The data collection project aims to improve efficiency, facilitate entry into new markets, integrate generational knowledge, and navigate the consequences of global warming.

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But in Barbados, global warming is not just a problem for the fishing industry. The country’s geographical location leaves it and its people vulnerable to multiple consequences of the climate crisis. Unpredictable weather events, coastal erosion, soil depletion and groundwater instability all add up to what the country’s Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley calls an existential threat.

For Barbados and other coastal nations and cities, “Our very survival is at stake,” says Mottley. “This is why we must act decisively and act now. The challenges we face are daunting, so we are meeting them head-on, pairing bold policies with practical, community-based measures that are already helping us move towards our climate targets. The time is now to do even more."

Digitization delivers sustainability

To confront climate change and unpredictable weather-related events, the government of Barbados launched a national strategy called Roofs to Reefs. Digitization, and the use of data to identify hazards and set targets, is a key element. The delivery of tablets is part of this technology-focused, data-driven approach to fortifying infrastructure, promoting renewable energy, and cultivating green jobs.

“Without technology and data that allow us to set climate resilience targets, we don’t have a chance at sustainability,” says Shantal Munro-Knight, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with Responsibility for Climate Resilience. “When we can deploy resources that match the data we have about vulnerability, we can be systematic rather than scattershot…and protect our environment as well as the communities that need [help] most.”

“The scope and impact of the climate challenge demands leadership,” says Makhtar Diop, Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group. “Barbados’ Roofs to Reefs programme is innovative and practical, and has the potential to be adapted across the Caribbean and other vulnerable island nations.”

How data informs development

Officials like Munro-Knight are well-versed in the consequences of climate change in Barbados. In 2021, Hurricane Elsa’s record-breaking number of lightning strikes resulted in a five-day power outage across the island. The first hurricane to hit Barbados in 65 years, Elsa came on the heels of the catastrophic eruption of the La Soufrière volcano in nearby St. Vincent, which blanketed Barbados in ash, killed food crops, shuttered the island’s only airport, and caused respiratory distress for many people. Critical infrastructure is also at risk because salt water is seeping into the local water supply – the result of rising levels of sea water.

But knowing what’s ahead, Munro-Knight says, isn’t the same as preparing.

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To better plan for Barbados’ future, IFC worked closely with the government to develop a digital climate risk identification and resilience planning tool called the hypervisor, which identifies hazards, offers options to potentially mitigate impacts, and allows users to prioritize investment imperatives based on national resilience targets. The tool aggregates data from a range of sources, and the resulting three-dimensional visualization includes the country’s topography, built environment, and key assets – existing and planned – overlaid with climatic and other environmental hazards. Users can zoom in on any point to view a location’s susceptibility to weather events, such as potential droughts or storm surges, along with areas vulnerable to coastal erosion, inland flooding, and seismic risk.

“Even though there’s plenty of institutional and community knowledge, with people who can tell you things like, ‘There’s always a landslide on this hill when a tropical storm hits,’ that information can’t be used for government planning purposes unless it’s codified,” says Pepukaye Bardouille, who, as an IFC Senior Operations Officer, conceived and oversaw the tool’s development as part of a Global Platform for Resilient Infrastructure Investment Identification in Small Islands and Small States. (Bardouille is now Special Advisor on Climate Resilience, Barbados Prime Minister’s Office and Director, Bridgetown Initiative.)

This data is critical because it informs policy, planning and investment needs for future development as well as where grants or grant and concessional financing are required, Munro-Knight points out. She has championed the data resilience tool, emphasizing its role in strengthening infrastructure that impacts people’s lives. The hypervisor shows, for example, that the main hospital in Barbados, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was built on a flood plain, leaving it vulnerable if a major storm were to hit the island.

“When we have this kind of information, we can mitigate the effects of a potential disaster and start considering the resources that need to go into building a future hospital,” she says. This could include laying new roads and water pipes, setting up distributed power generation systems, and building nearby neighbourhoods and schools – long-term plans that require cooperation among many government agencies as well as the private sector.

Confronting water scarcity

Technology and data modelling also have the potential to strengthen individual sectors, such as the water sector, according to Karl Payne, a lecturer and the water resources management programme coordinator at the Center for Research Management and Environmental Studies at the University of West Indies, Cave Hill campus. Barbados, like half of the Caribbean islands considered water-scarce, is confronting the seepage of seawater into its aquifers and rainfall that might drop by as much as 40% by the end of the century, UN research shows.

New solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI) applications for climate resilience are especially promising in Barbados, Payne says, noting the “democratization of AI tools” such as open-source cloud computing and machine learning. Data can train AI models to place wells in locations that will minimize salt water intrusion, for example, or propose scenarios for reuse that will bolster food security and prevent a food crisis.

Amgad Elmahdi, water sector lead at the Green Climate Fund, also thinks that the use of new technology can unlock solutions for Barbados and other small island developing states that face long-term water security challenges. “Many water authorities confronting climate change, ageing assets, growing populations, expenditure constraints, changing customer expectations, and growing sustainability, environmental and governance expectations…[can] leverage the rapid advancement in digital technology and use data-driven modelling and decision-making,” he says.

Barbados is on the right path, Payne believes. “As we start applying more scientific and technological approaches to our water resource issues, I’m optimistic that we will make progress in other areas as well.”

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