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St Vincent: Volcanic Eruption

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 14 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the (1) humanitarian, and (2) environmental, impact of the recent volcanic eruption on the island of St Vincent; and what representations they have made to the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines regarding aid.

My Lords, I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted and affected by the shocking volcanic eruption in St Vincent. We, the United Kingdom, have pledged, and I have personally approved and ensured, £200,000 to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency—CDEMA—to help to address the immediate humanitarian impact. This will be used for emergency supplies and other immediate needs, including to allow technical experts to support relief efforts on the ground, support emergency telecommunications and restore critical lifeline facilities. We stand ready to look at further support.

My Lords, while thanking the Minister, we can and must do more. I have been in touch with St Vincent and Barbados overnight. The position is that ash continues to fall, and there is a shortage of water. The reality on the ground is of the loss of livelihoods and a continuing threat to life. This is a major environmental and humanitarian emergency, and £200,000 will not cut it. The CDEMA needs technical support. I hope the Minister will authorise that a team go out from the UK to assess the needs. It needs help with the field hospital. Barbados is taking a lead, and is responsible for the emergency relief in the area, but it is hard pressed, and the time has come for this country to act. After all, the prosperity of these islands was based on the labour and sugar of those islands. They deserve more than £200,000.

My Lords, first and foremost, let me assure the noble Lord that I, too, am in touch with the authorities. Even this morning, I spoke to the high commissioner of St Vincent and the Grenadines and assured him of the initial support we gave, which, as I outlined, is specifically for emergency support. The noble Lord rightly articulates the importance of technical support. We are already providing that; we are working closely, including with some of our overseas territories. The noble Lord will be aware of the challenges that Montserrat faced two decades ago and, based on that experience, we are working directly with the Montserrat authorities. We have a volcanologist already on the ground supporting relief efforts, and we are providing technical support. This was the initial, immediate response that we gave last week. There has been some negative press. The only reason why we have not articulated the number of steps we are taking, as the noble Lord would expect, is the current respect and reverence we owe to the demise of the Duke of Edinburgh. However, we are supporting fully the authorities on the ground in St Vincent and the Grenadines and stand ready to offer further support.

My Lords, we have a ship based in the Caribbean specifically for disaster relief. Ships, of course, can make fresh water and they have engineers and all sorts of things needed for disaster relief. I am amazed that it does not seem that this ship, HMS “Medway”, is working in the Grenadines at the moment. Of course, because she is not a destroyer or a frigate, she does not have an organic helicopter, which is very useful in disaster relief circumstances. Are we going to airlift out a helicopter for her and when will she be working in the islands, assisting those who need so much help?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out that we have a permanent presence in the Caribbean and work very closely with the relief organisation CDEMA. We have invested, since 2017, on specific relief efforts, not just for the overseas territories but for the Caribbean. I note what he has said and we stand ready to provide whatever assistance is required, not only to St Vincent and the Grenadines but to Barbados as well. On the specific issue of aircraft and helicopters in the area, the volcanic ash over both islands at the moment is causing an added challenge. But I assure all noble Lords that we are working closely with the authorities on the ground to see what further assistance can be provided.

My Lords, we understand that only those who have been vaccinated are being evacuated, potentially leaving behind children, young people and others. What engagement are we having with the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the WHO, to ensure that all who are vulnerable can be evacuated?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point to the issue of vaccinations. Currently, about 12% of the population in St Vincent has been vaccinated and there is a lot of reluctance to have vaccinations. She may be aware that Prime Minister Gonsalves announced on 12 April that their Government will not be looking at evacuating through cruise ships. There are green zones on the islands, which are currently being used to house about 3,700 people who have fled their homes, while about 16,000 are being sheltered by families and friends. There is now a significant number of vaccines on island; the great challenge—and again, in my conversations this morning, I offered any learnings we could bring to address the issue—is the reluctance of the population to be vaccinated.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as a teenager I lived in St Vincent, at Calliaqua? It is the most magical place, with delightful people. I experienced a hurricane there and was nearby when La Soufrière blew her top last time. It is not a wealthy area by any means. The main sources of income are agriculture and tourism; both have been devastated by this natural disaster. It will take a long time for the place to recover, as it will the islands around there. Agriculture, especially, will take a while to recover, because of the thick covering of volcanic ash. We must help these islands in every way we possibly can, whether financially or with military personnel, or a combination of both, but we must help them all.

My Lords, I welcome the insights that my noble friend has provided. I reassure him that we are working very closely in any support we can provide. The noble Lord, Lord West, asked about HMS “Medway”. To be quite specific, prior to the volcanic eruption that vessel was undergoing routine operational updates and repairs. That is why it has not been immediately deployed, but I assure him that it is one of the immediate questions I have raised. I emphasise again that we are working directly with the authorities on the ground, whether it is with technical or long-term support. I have visited Montserrat and seen the impact of a volcano that erupted more than 20 years ago; the fact is that its impact is still felt today. We seek to provide long-term support and, I assure noble Lords, we will do just that.

My Lords, what direct contact have the Government made with any NGOs working on the ground in St Vincent, particularly local churches working with evacuees, such as Marion House in Kingstown and St Vincent Girls’ High School?

My Lords, our primary contact is through the relief efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross. As for specific liaisons on the ground, we are working directly with CDEMA and the St Vincent and the Grenadines government authorities.

My Lords, the diocese of the Windward Islands is linked with my diocese here in St Albans and I have been in touch with the bishop, Bishop Leopold Friday, overnight. The churches are already doing a huge amount of work and stand ready to help in any way they can, not least because here in my diocese, in Luton, we also have a large Vincentian population and this matter is affecting people’s families. If there are people who are forced to evacuate from the country, will the Government consider a temporary resettlement scheme for those with family links here in the UK?

My Lords, I fully acknowledge what the right reverend Prelate says about the important role that church authorities play. Indeed, on the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, about the vaccine rollout, I suggested to the high commissioner this morning how the churches can also assist. On the right reverend Prelate’s wider question about long-term impacts, we will obviously remain engaged with the authorities of St Vincent and the Grenadines about their medium and long-term requirements.

My Lords, I share my noble friend’s concern at the amount of the initial response on the humanitarian effort but, of course, it is not just a humanitarian effort. At the request of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, the UN Environment Programme is now developing and implementing a debris management plan to clean up ash and promote environmental health and safety in the longer term, so that we are getting the economy back on track as soon as possible. Are we working with the United Nations Environment Programme, and have we offered professional support to that programme in the near future?

My Lords, we are working with all international agencies, including the United Nations, but I reiterate that the lead agency on disaster response is CDEMA. We are working constructively on all elements including immediate responses, medium-term responses and additional responses that will be required.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of Fauna & Flora International. While I completely understand that the priority must be the safety of the islanders and their economy, may I gently remind my noble friend of the unique endemic wildlife, such as the St Vincent parrot? Will Her Majesty’s Government consider what assistance they can offer in due course to the various NGOs to ensure that the endemic wildlife of the island is conserved and protected from any potential accidental introduction of non-native species by those providing much-needed relief to the island?

My Lords, I always welcome gentle reminders from my noble friend. I assure him that we recognise the importance of biodiversity, especially in the context of climate change and our chairmanship of COP26. He made some notable suggestions and recommendations and I certainly look to take them forward.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned Montserrat. When Montserrat was devastated by that volcanic eruption, I was the Minister at DfID dealing with it and we sent out emergency relief teams immediately to help. Why is that not being done now? We also committed long-term help, not of thousands of pounds but of millions. Are these poor people going to be the first victims of the cuts in DfID assistance?

My Lords, while I also welcome the valuable insights of the noble Lord, first and foremost, I assure him that we have given an immediate response, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng. What we have announced thus far is immediate support. The reason we are not sending out direct support is because we have invested, since 2017—I can speak with some insight and expertise—in CDEMA and in the structures in the Caribbean and the region to ensure that the response can be as effective and co-ordinated as possible. The noble Lord talks about Montserrat, which I continue to support. Indeed, it is this Government who have provided close to £30 million of capital spending to continue to help Montserrat. We are also supporting, through the Caribbean Development Bank, specific projects including roadbuilding in St Vincent. That kind of long-term infrastructure support will also continue.