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Protecting the Pacific Island Countries from Cyclones
The World Bank

February 6, 2006

Pacific Island countries rank among the most vulnerable in the world to natural disasters. In the 1990s alone, reported natural disasters cost the Pacific Islands region US$2.8 billion. A new report says there’s no doubt disasters in the region are becoming more intense and calls for urgent action to reduce the risks facing the island countries.

As Cyclone Heta powered towards the Pacific island of Samoa in early 2004, many Samoans recalled the terrifying impacts of Cyclone Val.

Then, 13 years earlier, Cyclone Val caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage – equivalent to a massive 230 per cent of the small economy’s GDP, and killed 13 people.

But in the years since Cyclone Val, the Government of Samoa embarked on a program aimed at bolstering their island nation against the more intense and more frequent cyclones predicted under climate change scenarios.

With the assistance of a World Bank risk management team, Samoan coastal communities worked together on hazard maps, which identified areas prone to erosion, flooding and landslides. These maps helped them agree on what needed to be done most urgently to upgrade shoreline protection systems – including replanting mangroves, shifting vulnerable housing from coastal zones and upgrading sea walls. Key public assets such as the airport, major roads, bridges and hospitals were assessed for their vulnerability and adapted to withstand cyclone-force winds.

The test came with Cyclone Heta, which bore down on Samoa with even greater ferocity than Val, although on a different course. Once the cyclone blew over, Samoans emerged to find their adaptation efforts had paid off. The total damage bill amounted to just nine per cent of GDP.

“Heta proved that Pacific island countries do not have to surrender to climate change and other natural hazard threats,” says World Bank natural resource management specialist, Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough. “With commitment from the community and all levels of government, it’s possible to put very practical measures in place that reduce risks, save lives and insulate the economy.”

Bank natural resource economist Sofia Bettencourt (in pink) works with representatives of the Government of Kiribati on that country’s adaptation program.

Helping Kiribati

Since 2003, a Bank team has been working with the Republic of Kiribati – one of the Pacific’s most remote and vulnerable island nations – to mainstream natural hazard adaptation into every aspect of government planning and budgeting.

Two national consultations have been held involving representatives from every inhabited island of the 33-island group. They identified the major hazards each island faced and proposed coping strategies such as planting mangroves, limiting development in vulnerable areas, boosting protection of safe water supplies and raising community awareness of the risks. The measures needed were categorized into levels of urgency. Some required changes to government policies and national law, while others required more consultation with communities, while some needed immediate engineering works.

According to the office of the President of Kiribati, which coordinates the resulting Bank-funded program, adaptation was a matter of survival.

“Environmental issues and in particular climate change and sea level rise constitute security issues for low-lying coral atoll countries such as Kiribati,” says Ms Teaa Tira, from the President’s office.

A Matter of Survival

“It is an issue of security in the short to medium term and a question of survival in the long term. In practical terms, the adaptation measures adopted in our program have served to inform our people of the reality of the threat and provided them with response options thus removing somewhat the sense of hopelessness.

“There is much that has been achieved under the program but then of course there is a great deal more that needs to be done in Kiribati and for neighbouring countries in the region.”

To inform and guide other countries facing similar or even worse threats, the Bank has released a report ‘Not if but when: Adapting to natural hazards in the Pacific Islands region’ which highlights successes and identifies obstacles to the adaptation challenge.

Perverse Incentives

The report found that Pacific Island countries have a “perverse incentive” in dealing with cyclones and other natural disasters. It says the tendency of donors to pay for reconstruction after a natural disaster has created a ‘perverse incentive’ which encourages countries to simply wait for the disaster to hit and then rebuild.

One of the 14 international expert authors and Pacific Islander Alf Simpson says little will change until “donors and governments recognize the danger of continuing down this path.”

“There’s a growing awareness now that the old wait-and-mitigate approach just cannot continue,” he says. ”Countries that spend the time and money on adaptation are seeing the benefits in their bottom lines. But while donors prefer to spend money on more visible projects like roads and schools, the incentive is always there for at-risk countries to put risk management of natural hazards at the bottom of the to-do list.”

High Level Support

Another key issue for the Pacific is that responsibility for risk management of natural hazards is often placed within one junior or very weak ministry yet natural disasters tend to unleash impacts, which cross over many ministries – finance, planning, health, public works, agriculture and environment. The report strongly recommends one central agency – preferably within the office of president or department of the prime minister – oversees the whole program while holding the implementing agencies responsible for results and finances.

“Without the support of leadership at the highest level, all the best intentions can come to nothing,” says Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, who took over the Kiribati Adaptation Program last year.

“Because natural disasters tend to unleash their destruction indiscriminately, every sector has to have a plan for reducing the risks associated with natural hazards. Those plans can include actions as diverse as preparing school kids for what to do in a tsunami to changing the building code so that all housing is cyclone proof.”

Climate Change Forecasts

Climate change forecasts underline the Pacific Islands region’s increasing vulnerability. Along with the increased intensity of cyclones and associated increased significant wave heights, there has been rising economic impact from disasters in the Pacific.

According to recent climate change forecasts, Fiji for example, could face a 100 per cent increase in cyclone damage, a 20-30 per cent increase in the epidemic potential of dengue fever and a 9-15 per cent decline in the yield of major crops.

“If Pacific countries don’t take adaptation seriously, the impacts of climate change are likely to fall most heavily on the poor,” Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough says. “With cyclones becoming more frequent and intense, we are going to see water supplies inundated, crops destroyed and mosquito-borne diseases spreading. That’s why we say adaptation is a matter of when, not if.”

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