by John Sparrow
and volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides, floods and tidal
waves wreak havoc across the Pacific. For island communities,
often in remote areas, preparedness is a priority, self- reliance
a must. But as new efforts are undertaken there are still lessons
to be learned from the past.
By UN criteria they form one of the world’s least-developed
nations. But the high volcanic islands with the splendidly
rugged interiors, rising from the South Pacific 2,400 kilometres
north of New Zealand, are naturally blessed. A tropical climate,
dark fertile soil and plentiful rainfall from November to
April make for a Polynesian garden. What they can grow provides
work for more than half the population.
Indeed, for the steadily growing stream of tourists discovering
Savai’i, Upolu and the seven smaller islands of Western
Samoa, this is somewhere close to paradise. Of course, tourists
are not there in the cyclone season.
Western Samoa lies where tropical cyclones have roared across
the Pacific for centuries, and today they seem to do so on
an ever more frequent basis. This decade alone two have reached
the islands, causing widespread devastation. Cyclone Ofa swept
in in February 1990 to leave 10,000 islanders homeless, and
worse was coming. When Cyclone Val arrived the very next year
13 people died and, in four horrendous days, countless crops
were destroyed, huge numbers of livestock killed, many buildings
flattened, and fisheries and infrastructure damaged.
For Maka Sapolu, Secretary General of the Western Samoa Red
Cross, Val was a turning point. The Red Cross had long sought
to soften a cyclone’s passage by preparing for disaster.
A National Disaster Management plan had been developed with
the government, and Red Cross public awareness campaigns had
spread information widely. So why, he asked, as he toured
devastated villages, had so many people been so vulnerable?
A clue came as Red Cross workers uncovered a lack of response
to the government’s radio warning. Some villagers simply
hadn’t heard it, others had, but failed to understand.
Terminology was one reason, but it wasn’t only that.
After centuries of cyclones, many rural Samoans still did
not fully comprehend them. What were needed were village training
Since Val, the Western Samoa Red Cross has covered close
to 80 villages, and the plan is to cover them all. Sapolu,
a 50-year-old microbiologist, says he has 150 to go. It is
a tall order but with Britain’s Overseas Development
Administration (ODA) now funding the project, 18 months to
two years should see the training finished.
Disaster preparedness is a high priority throughout the Pacific,
from the Coral Sea to the Doldrums, and improving it is one
of the tasks of the Federation’s Strategic Workplan
for the Nineties. Natural calamities plague the region, and
the situation is often exacerbated by the remoteness of islands
scattered over a wide area. Community-based self-reliance
is of the essence, and what is happening in Western Samoa
is being watched carefully by others.
The case of Safai, a village on the coast of Savai’i,
illustrates well the direction the Samoans are taking. Safai
was a wonderful spot, a community of 500 to 600 people near
the mouth of a river, but when the Red Cross reached it in
the wake of Val there wasn’t much left of it.
The village was one of the first the Red Cross revisited
for a training programme. They set about explaining the nature
of cyclones, teaching people about speed, distance and direction.
They talked of warning systems and procedures, mitigation
measures, questions of health and first aid. The sessions
were interactive; Sapolu wanted to stimulate discussion and
understand public perception of cyclones. It was enlightening.
“Some people”, he says, “associated cyclones
only with wind, and not with the storm surge and the flooding
that they can bring. So we explained. Safai could be hit by
all of these things in the future.’’ The message
struck home. Safai did not rebuild. It moved to a safer location.
Confusion would appear to be widespread in the islands. A
radio warning of a cyclone maybe 500 kilometres north-east
of Samoa, travelling south at 15 kilometres an hour, can be
meaningless to many. Some older people know directions only
by traditional terms, and many a villager cannot locate north,
south, east or west when standing outside his home. Simple
direction posts in every village are putting an end to that.
Speed and movement need clarification. Villagers are often
unaware of the double momentum of a cyclone: one that pushes
the front along, and the other one moving around the eye.
Hearing a storm is approaching at 15 kilometres an hour has
led many to expect a gentle blow, when behind lurks a circling
Contemporary science isn’t all. Elderly islanders who
don’t know north from south can have a great deal to
contribute. Lessons can be learned from the past, says Maka
Sapolu, and the Red Cross is uncovering traditional ways of
preparing for disaster: ways disused but not yet quite forgotten.
Food for a start. Western influence in Samoa has changed
crop-growing patterns. Coconuts, cocoa, taro and taamu are
today important export products. But, as Val so cruelly illustrated,
they are not much good in a disaster. “We must bring
back the humble yam,” says Sapolu, “and start
to bury our breadfruit.”
The islands have a special strain of yam that has fallen
out of favour, but once it was grown as a relief crop. Hurricanes
would howl overhead but never destroy the tuber. Hunters uprooted
yam from the forest and planted it on steep hillsides, away
from any rooting animals. Years might pass before they needed
it but the tuber doesn’t rot, it simply grows bigger
And the breadfruit? According to some village elders, cut
and buried it too stays good for ages.
About 4,500 kilometres west, on the other side of the date
line, Janet Philemon is likewise seeking to revive traditional
preparedness. In Papua New Guinea she needs all the help she
can get. Volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, floods, tidal
waves and the occasional straying cyclone, can at times make
life for the Red Cross here resemble a permanent disaster.
Volcanoes erupt with frightening regularity in Papua New
Guinea, and Secretary General Philemon is currently dealing
with the aftermath of the most recent eruption on Manam island
off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. Thirteen people
died and the Red Cross evacuated 3,000 when it blew in December,
and the population of three villages will have to be resettled
– their homes lie under the lava.
In June last year, Philemon had another volcanic disaster
on her mind when she visited the port town of Rabaul, on New
Britain island. Back in 1994, two volcanoes, Vulcan and Tavurvur,
destroyed it. Most of the town’s inhabitants lost everything,
some lost their lives. Now partially relocated, it was a poignant
setting for a work-shop on community-based prepared-ness organised
with the Federation’s Regional Delegation in Sydney.
The workshop – to which Western Samoa’s Sapolu
contributed – was one of a series of pilot projects
to develop materials for a training programme to be used throughout
the Pacific. It was aimed at community leaders, for it is
not new structures that the Red Cross seeks to introduce but
greater coping capacity for existing ones. Says Janet Philemon,
“Ninety per cent of our people live in traditional villages
in a traditional system. You don’t teach your grandmother
to suck eggs.”
Significantly, too, the workshop encompassed health and first
aid. The Federation is encouraging the merger of disaster
preparedness, first aid and health-care training in a single,
community-based, self-reliance programme such as Western Samoa
has pioneered. Philemon argues they are integral parts of
each other, and at community level indistinguishable.
For her, in any case, there is no other way. Already she
faces a logistical struggle; separate programmes would be
out of the question. The Papua New Guinea Red Cross covers
a territory of 462,840 square kilometres, with 700 language
groups spread over New Guinea itself, the Bismarck Archipelago
and the northern part of the Solomon Islands. The population,
just under four million, is scattered so thinly and remotely
there is an average of 8.5 people per square kilometre. When
disasters occur it can take weeks of work to evacuate a few
But for the majority of people in Papua New Guinea life is
tough most of the time, life expectancy is low, and health
vulnerable. The maternal/child death rate is the Pacific’s
highest. Janet Philemon’s programme needs to cover more
than calamity: “Parts of the programme are designed
to help with everyday life, it’s not just volcanoes
and earthquakes,” she says. “Our aim is to make
people more aware, and help them cope better on a daily basis.”
John Sparrow is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam.
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