Development, Government and governance, International relations, National security, Food & water | Asia, The Pacific

5 May 2020

With international help hard to find due to COVID-19, Pacific countries have been forced to go the homegrown route in responding to a more traditional disaster, Ben Bohane writes.

People across the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga have been picking up the pieces from another devastating cyclone – Tropical Cyclone Harold – which recently wrecked its way through the region. Vicious cyclones are bad enough, but that this has come amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has added further complexity to an already fraught situation for the region.

As many as 27 people appear to have been killed in the Solomon Islands, swept off an inter-island ship as the cyclone developed. Three people were killed in Vanuatu with more injured, along with more in Fiji and Tonga. Stories have emerged of those literally hanging onto their roof using rope and body weight. From Pentecost Island in Vanuatu came reports of men forming a tight protective circle around women and children huddled in the local church as its roof blew off and debris flew about, cutting many of them.

After the storm, as so often happens in the Pacific, people emerged with smiles and determination to rebuild without waiting for government assistance. This is truly resilience in action. Vanuatu appears to have been worst hit with the northern islands of Santo, Pentecost, Ambrym, and Malekula copping the brunt of the storm. 92,000 people have been affected, according to Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO).

Aerial images show hundreds, possibly thousands of roofs and gardens destroyed, including valuable kava and cocoa plantations. Infrastructure in Luganville, Vanuatu’s main northern town, has been badly affected, including the destruction of its municipal headquarters.

This cyclone is different from others in recent years, because with borders closed, nations are responding without much international help. No foreign aid workers are coming and each nation is having to dig deep and respond using its own resources. However, this could potentially have advantages, especially in terms of responding with local capacity and direction.

More on this: Confronting the regional challenge of COVID-19

Australia and New Zealand have both assisted with military flights and several million dollars in aid funding into affected countries, with a ‘drop and go’ approach being used due to the coronavirus.

There were some initial questions as to why a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) plane dropped its aid packages in Port Vila instead of Santo in the north, but Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office clarified that COVID-19 protocols require all international assistance be quarantined and sprayed before being deployed to affected regions in the north.

This disaster has also been an opportunity to rethink approaches to humanitarian response, and Vanuatu, for instance, appears to have learnt from past cyclones in a number of ways.

Vanuatu’s caretaker Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, before the formation of a new government, said this time the government would prefer not be supplying rice, noodles and tinned fish as emergency food like it has done in the past – but was aiming to provide traditional island foods including root crops to build self-reliance with more nutritional local foods .

Salwai also said the government would no longer provide plastic tarpaulins like in past recoveries, but this time will aim to supply tin roofing, which is permanent and assists with water collection.

Vanuatu’s government agencies have been effective in providing information and support services as the crisis unfolded, as well as leadership at a time when a new government had not yet formed following recent elections. This preparedness has been demonstrated through text messaging during the crisis, publicly available cyclone tracking maps and pre-positioned relief.

NDMO’s handling of the crisis has not been without criticism however. Glen Craig, head of the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council claims the recovery effort has been hampered by restrictions on in-bound cargo which require 72 hours of quarantine once landed.

More on this: COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 29 April

“It has taken six days for (Australian aid) to go from the day it was offloaded at the airport to actually get it to the wharf to be distributed out into the outer islands” Mr Craig said. “COVID-19 restrictions for cargo should be removed. They are not required”.

Non-governmental organisations are also using new methods. For instance, Oxfam are providing direct cash to affected people to spend as they see fit.

This is because one of the lessons of previous cyclones was that affected nations cannot deal with a large influx of second-hand clothing and food sent from overseas, despite the best intentions of the givers.

There have been many instances before of containers sitting at ports waiting for clearance, clogging up space, sometimes with food and material rotting before it has a chance to be deployed. What really helps is if donors buy direct from local businesses on the ground, who try to keep employing locals and stay afloat, and provide affected communities with cash so families can make their own informed choices about what they need most.

Nations affected by Cyclone Harold are leveraging their external relationships to assist and this has mostly gone smoothly. Pacific nations are open to assistance from all external partners, but co-ordination among donors, especially where China is involved, remains complicated.

On Easter Sunday morning, an RAAF flight laden with cyclone and COVID-19 assistance tried to land in Port Vila, only to find a Chinese plane that had arrived the night before had reportedly blocked space. The RAAF flight was forced to turn around to come back the next day instead.

While lessons have been learned, there is more to be done. For example, governments and donors should consider building permanent shelters across the islands that can be a sanctuary during times of disaster, rather than expecting residents to risk storms in their homes or try to find caves or churches that may not withstand extreme conditions. Health clinics in rural areas have been destroyed along with vital medicine and equipment inside; perhaps the government with donor help can build small bunkers across the islands as a safe refuge for medical supplies and pre-positioned aid, even valuable cultural items.

More attention should also be paid to how community-based solutions can be leveraged to secure food supply chains, and collaboratively respond to shelter and other basic needs.

Out of the Cyclone Harold tragedy, green shoots of home-grown and sustainable solutions are growing, and despite the complexity of dealing with the cyclone during a pandemic, the response of Pacific governments and people has been heartening.

Successful disaster response is building trust in experienced national leaders, showing that lessons have been learned from past experiences, while innovation is taking place in the vacuum that foreign aid workers have filled in the past. If the Pacific and its people can only hold out against the spread of COVID-19, they may emerge stronger than ever.

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