SEATTLE — The Turks and Caicos Islands are home to just over 50,000 people, making it one of the smallest countries in the world. The archipelago has a local government, but it is still a territory of Great Britain and is located just south of the Bahamas.
Turks and Caicos’ economy—which relies heavily on fishing and tourism—is growing, and so is its population. But the small country deals with a range of issues associated with poverty; some are deep-rooted; others may intensify in coming years.
Concrete data on poverty in Turks and Caicos is scarce, but there are distinct challenges related to poverty facing the islands, many of which are already affecting the country’s poor.
Overfishing threatens the economy
Booming tourism in recent years has strained Turks and Caicos fisheries. Huge influxes of tourists, mostly from the US, have hiked up the demand for local fish and the industry has struggled to keep up in a sustainable manner.
An oceanographic study from August found that catches have been hugely underreported, suggesting that fish stocks are at greater risk than previous regulations accounted for.
Not only are fish a common source of food, but as many as one in four locals living on the islands are involved in the fishing industry. If stocks of popular fish and shellfish species are decimated, there could be profound environmental and economic effects on the islands.
The government has proposed new regulations, some already implemented, hoping to revive and sustain the islands’ crucial fisheries.
The islands are vulnerable to climate change
In coming years, rising temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of hurricanes. While all countries near the Gulf of Mexico will feel the effects of bigger storms, they pose an immense threat to Turks and Caicos.
Hurricanes can annihilate homes and municipal infrastructure and cripple economies. If populations are unprepared, hurricanes will kill.
One 2014 study found that among 25 nations in the Caribbean and Central America, Turks and Caicos is the most vulnerable. Along with geographic distribution of homes, poverty in Turks and Caicos is one of the key factors contributing to the islands’ vulnerability.
Infrastructure is underfunded and weak
According to local news, Turks and Caicos’ infrastructure is literally crumbling and water shortages are rampant. Seaside roads are especially vulnerable to erosion during hurricane season.
Poor infrastructure stymies economic activity and sudden erosions of roads have made it harder for kids to commute to school.
Journalists have accused local officials of misusing funds from the British territory finances and failing to adequately maintain the islands’ infrastructure. By withholding funds, the government can come out with surpluses, hoping for the appearance of efficiency.
Zika is a looming threat to public health
In August the Center for Disease Control released a travel alert for the Turks and Caicos, warning of the recent arrival of Zika to the islands.
Zika is a mosquito borne virus that can cause mild or no symptoms. But if pregnant women contract the virus, their babies are at a great risk for severe birth defects that can cause lifelong health issues. Lasting disabilities can be an emotional and financial burden for families as well as health systems.
Zika disproportionately affects marginalized and poor women, so if the disease spreads in Turks and Caicos, it will likely weigh most on those living in poverty in the islands.
There is no specific budget from USAID dedicated to Turks and Caicos, but many pan-Caribbean programs include the islands. Indeed many of the issues that Turks and Caicos faces are characteristic of Caribbean.
The challenges in the region are dynamic—climate change, disease, fragile ecosystems—and helping those living in poverty survive them will require more adaptability from local and international organizations.
– Charlie Tomb