20 October 2013

Doing our part in Disaster Preparedness

By Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative

Girl paddling canoe, Malaita © UNICEF Pacific/2013/Allen
The UN, Governments, and NGOs are all about Disaster Preparedness these days, and rightly so. "Get Ready. Disasters Happen" is the slogan for a UNICEF Pacific disaster preparedness package of assistance to disaster prone areas.

Last week I was in the Solomon Islands talking to people involved with disaster preparedness and response. While impressed with our systems and knowledge for disaster risk mitigation, I was also reminded that we have to recognize the limits and really commit to helping people quickly and effectively when disaster strikes. Jacob, a UNICEF WASH staff, told me,

“I was doing some work with people in six villages of Temotu Island Province. After the earthquake and tsunami, I went there to do a rapid assessment. The village buildings were entirely gone, and even some of the village land was gone, having gone under water to become part of the sea.  And elsewhere, there was a huge uprising of coral that had come out of the sea. Everything was changed. The people lost everything.”
At least the earthquake and accompanying tsunami happened during daytime in February 2013. People were awake, felt the first tremor, gathered each other and what precious things they could carry, and climbed up to the highlands in the island's centre. If it had been at night, many lives would have been lost, not only by the tsunami, but because the paths up the mountain are steep, slippery and dark. In fact, two people did die in a landslide.  It is good that through preparedness measures, people knew what to take, where to go and to take special care of children, the sick and elderly. Having evacuation sites prepared with supplies, including clean water and medicines, is another good preparedness measure. Yet, there is clearly a limit to what disaster preparedness can mitigate when people are faced with earthquake, tsunami and landslides.

The Malaita Provincial Premier told me that to reach the outer islands of his Province, is a distance of hundreds of kilometers, and there is only one ship that stops at each island once in a month. These are atoll islands that are slowly drowning as the sea rises due to decades of carbon emissions done by millions of people far away from them. Government is trying to identify land on the main island of Malaita for them to move to. Most of them do not want to move because they feel a strong sense of belonging to their island, and they do not even speak the same language as people on the main island.  They fear for their way of life, including livelihoods.  Land ownership has been a conflict provoking issues for centuries. Some families have, rock by rock, bucket by bucket of soil and vegetation, built artificial islands. So any place that is found for them for the drowning islands people will likely be the least wanted land.

Those of us from big carbon emitting countries and lifestyles owe these people. We must help.

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