The critical environmental and sustainability issues of Barbados:
- Disaster Risk and Resilience
Barbados, the most easterly of twelve small island developing states (SIDS) in the Caribbean basin – is situated at the edge of the Atlantic storm zone, and is extremely vulnerable to tropical storms common to the region. In recent years, Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria, among others, have had a catastrophic impact on the nation’s population and economy. Most climate models suggest that temperatures will continue to rise, making Barbados susceptible to severe drought and serious health risks like dengue fever and gastrointestinal diseases. Highlighting the gravity of the situation, a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would destroy about 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs in the Caribbean. The region is expected to reach these levels by 2030.
- Water Scarcity
Barbados has been facing drought-like conditions since 2015, and is especially vulnerable to water scarcity due to an absence of freshwater resources in the country. The small island nation has a water availability of just 306 cubic meters per capita per year, making it the 15th most water-scarce nation globally. Changing rainfall patterns, depletion of freshwater aquifers, salt water intrusion, groundwater pollution, sea level rise – all of these and more make Barbados exceptionally vulnerable to water scarcity due to climate change. In 2017, the Caribbean Drought and Precipitation Monitoring Network (CDPN) predicted a decrease in annual rainfall by 30-50% for the Eastern Caribbean, indicating worsening water scarcity. Highlighting the water crisis in the nation, the World Resources Institute has identified Barbados as one of 37 countries with “extremely high” levels of water stress. Unless prompt and substantive action is taken globally, the water crisis will be disastrous for public health in the country.
- Poverty and Gender Inequality
While the Human Development Index released by UNDP places Barbados in the high human development category, studies show that poverty levels in the country have been worsening in recent years. The Barbados Survey of Living Conditions 2016-17 reveals that household poverty levels in the country rose to 17.2% in 2016 from 15.1% in 2010. Household poverty levels stood at a relatively low 8.7% in 1996.
Additionally, the unemployment rate for 2018 was a relatively high 9.57%, a 0.08% increase from 2017. A gender gap is evident in income levels: as of 2017, 21.02% of women counted as poor, compared to 13.96% of men. Additionally, 4.15% of women experienced extreme levels of poverty, while the percentage of men experiencing the same stood at 2.4%. Gender inequality is also reflected in wages: women are paid 0.75 times as much as men in similar roles, and are also kept out of certain jobs. The percentage of non-earners is also highest for women-headed households.
Malnutrition and obesity present a critical public health challenge in Barbados, particularly among women and children. Based on UNICEF and WHO data, the Global Nutrition Report reveals that Barbados has failed to meet a number of nutrition targets for 2019. Malnutrition is a challenge for the country’s female and under-five population: 21.6% of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia, while 7.7% and 6.8% of under-five children suffer from stunting and wasting respectively. Obesity among women has been steadily worsening; female obesity prevalence has increased from 20% in 1997 to 31.3% in 2016, an average increase of 2.39% per year. Consequently, 13.7% of adult women suffer from diabetes. Obesity among men, while lower than the rate for women, has also increased from 7.1% in 1997 to 14.7% in 2016. Adolescent overweight and obesity also constitutes a nutrition challenge: WHO data from 2015 reveals that adolescent overweight stood at 32% and obesity at 14%.
- Fiscal Deficit and Structural Challenges
Barbados has been struggling with slow economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis; the country’s average annual real growth rate has been just 0.6 percent for the past decade. The IMF and the Central Bank of Barbados forecast medium-term economic growth to remain under 2% per year. Weak growth has been worsening the country’s public debt and deficit, leading to credit rating downgrades and pressure on foreign exchange reserves. According to the World Bank, after Japan, Greece, and Sudan, Barbados has the world’s 4th highest debt-to-GDP ratio, which stands at 175% as of 2018. Public debt was 157.3% of the GDP in 2017, and 149.1% of the GDP in 2016.
Along with fiscal policy reforms and budgetary measures, the small island nation needs to address the structural challenges in its economy, including low levels of diversification, high dependence on imports, and poor levels of competitiveness. The country’s tourism and financial services sectors made up 33.9% of the GDP in 2017, and weaker tourism performance in recent years has impacted growth severely. Moreover, Barbados has always maintained a negative trade balance; in 2017, the country exported $422M and imported $1.7B, a negative balance of $1.28B. Additionally, competitiveness and ease of doing business is impacted by rigid labor laws, small market size, and high trade tariffs. In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 rankings, Barbados stood at 132 out of 190 countries.