BOGOTA, Nov 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With thousands left homeless by hurricanes in Caribbean island farming and fishing communities, international donors have pledged more than $2 billion to support rebuilding efforts.
The announcement was made at a New York donor conference held by the United Nations (U.N.) and CARICOM, the Caribbean's largest cooperation group, where countries promised $1.3 billion in aid and more than $1 billion in loans and debt relief.
Hurricane Irma, packing winds of 185 miles (298 km) an hour, ravaged a series of small islands in the northeast Caribbean in early September, followed by Hurricane Maria.
Tourism-reliant Dominica and the two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda were hardest hit, and require billions of dollars in long-term aid to recover, experts said.
"The magnitude of reconstruction will require significant levels of financing which we are unable to generate on our own," said CARICOM Secretary-General, Irwin LaRocque.
"Countries are highly indebted, with limited access to financing due to their middle-income status ... The task of rebuilding is beyond us," he told the conference on Tuesday.
Rebuilding Dominica, Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands will cost more than $5 billion, according to latest U.N. estimates, and the figure is expected to increase significantly as damage assessments on other islands are completed.
Initial recovery efforts are focusing on repairing and building homes, roads and bridges, restoring power and communications and ensuring people have drinking water, especially in Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, the U.N. said.
As scientists say climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods and droughts, donors will also help the Caribbean anticipate or better prepare for such disasters.
"Climate change is not a theoretical question for the people of the Caribbean," said U.N.'s General Assembly president, Miroslav Lajcak.
"You live this reality daily. Our sentiments and well wishes will not be enough ... Right now, it is time for us to act."
In Dominica, Hurricane Maria has erased decades of development gains and poverty is likely to significantly increase, the U.N. said.
"We have the goal of rebuilding Dominica as the world's first climate resilient country," said its prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit. "It's an existential matter for us. It's the only way forward."
The largest pledges were made by the Netherlands, which pledged $702 million, followed by $352 million from the European Union, $140 million from the World Bank, $78 million from Canada and $30 million from China.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Katy Migiro.
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