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Preparing paradise

by John Sparrow
Cyclones 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.




Turning point

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 programmes.

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.




Traditional terms

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 hurricane.

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 bigger.

And the breadfruit? According to some village elders, cut and buried it too stays good for ages.

Permanent disaster

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.”


Community health

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 hundred people.

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
John Sparrow is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam.

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