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How a small Caribbean island has become the world's first climate-resilient nation

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As the morning sun rose above the Kalinago Territory on the Caribbean island of Dominica in September 2017, Faustulus Frederick was putting the final touches to a traditional wooden sculpture at his home in the small village of Salybia. 

Frederick, an artist and former Kalinago Chief, was finishing his latest masterpiece when an emergency alert blared on a nearby radio. The warning advised residents to prepare for an incoming storm that would intensify into Hurricane Maria, a category five superstorm that devastatingly hit the island.

The hurricane claimed lives and cost Dominica over 3.5 billion Eastern Caribbean Dollars, equivalent to 226 per cent of its GDP in 2016, in losses and damages, reported BBC. For Frederick and other residents of the Kalinago Territory, it was a particularly harsh blow. But it was also a wake-up call for the entire country.

Dominica, an island nation located in the Lesser Antilles, is considered one of the most vulnerable places on the planet regarding climate change. Despite this, the government has set an ambitious goal of becoming the world's first climate-resilient nation.

Dominica's prime minister recognised the island's vulnerability to climate change and declared that the country was 'on the front line of the war on climate change.' He announced plans to build resilience into every aspect of society and make Dominica 'the world's first climate-resilient nation.'

The ambitious plan aims to protect the island from future natural disasters and ensure it remains habitable for generations. For Frederick, who now resides in a shelter, it is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise uncertain future.

As Dominica works towards becoming a climate-resilient nation, the world will be watching to see if this small island nation can achieve what many consider an impossible feat.

Dominica's early warning system is an innovative approach to mainstreaming resilience that warns residents of dangerous weather events. The unique system includes a grassroots approach of support and communication using traditional conch shells. 

Ilan Kelman, deputy director of the University College London (UCL) Warning Research Centre, the world's first research centre dedicated to the science of warnings, told BBC that warnings are essential for everyone as they support livelihoods, save lives, and make places habitable. 

The challenge for small island developing states like Dominica is that they are disproportionately impacted by climate change, meaning they stand to lose more than other countries if the global community and big greenhouse gas emitters fail to meet commitments to cut emissions. 

Dominica's unique system of early warnings is especially tricky due to its mountainous topography, which makes generating accurate extreme weather forecasts complex, particularly for floods, said Emily Wilkinson, a senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, to BBC. 

The early warning system starts with urgent official information at the national level, which is then trickled down through various stages until it reaches the community. The Kalinago council, the local governing authority led by the Kalinago chief, is at the heart of the system. 

The emergency warning system receives information from the National Disaster Office, starts working with each hamlet head receiving instructions, and takes the information throughout the community. Each hamlet has five or six people trained in community emergency response. 

The conch shells play a vital role in the intricate communication chain, providing important layers to reach people in more ways than warnings sent to smartphones.

The Caribbean island nation is now taking steps to become a model of climate resilience. Following the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Maria, Dominica is building resilient infrastructure along with early warning systems to protect its coastal communities from flooding and storm surges. 

The country has also embraced ecosystem restoration as a buffer against natural hazards, focusing on stabilising slopes and protecting vulnerable communities. The Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (Cread) has assessed the vulnerability of all communities in the country to different natural hazards and prioritised which communities are the most vulnerable and what kind of support they would need. 

The government has also revised the building code to ensure that only homes and buildings that can withstand natural disasters are approved for construction. 

Dominica's efforts to protect its citizens from climate change are urgent, and its success in this mission hinges on cooperation from people on many different levels. And most importantly, countries like Dominica need support from global communities to fight the uneven battle.

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