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“Learning from previous cyclones and Winston” (edited version in FT, 27 Feb. 2016)


Learning from previous cyclones and Winston
(edited version in Fiji Times, 27 Feb. 2016)

Note: Cyclone Winston’s death toll of 42 (estimate 26/2/16) for Fiji, relative to population, is the equivalent of

               1,167    deaths for Australia
              14,900   deaths for United States
              63,000   deaths for China

Our many previous disorganized responses to natural disasters suggests that the Bainimarama Government is correct to request NGOs, humanitarian agencies and donors, to co-ordinate their responses with Government.
A previous article of mine based on Fiji’s inefficient and delayed response to the extreme 1998 drought (and no doubt many other reviews since) outlined the many natural conflicts of interest that can easily undermine our response to Cyclone Winston (The Fiji Times, 15th October, 1998: “State, NGOs must agree on disaster roles”).
It is unfortunate that despite the frequency of our national disasters, like droughts and cyclones, there is still no Blueprint that all NGOs and donors can follow, for responding coherently to disaster relief, in coordination with the Government of the day.

Indeed, I suspect that the important NGOs and humanitarian agencies usually involved with Fiji natural disasters, are still not centrally involved with Government in the disaster management.

One indication is the less than useful website of the National Disaster Management Office which gives little indication to the public how exactly and where they can co-ordinate with Government (I hope that the website is still under development, and totally  out of touch with the actual coordination that does occur between Government and NGOs).

This article recalls some previous weaknesses (some of which are still relevant today), and makes some suggestions for rebuilding the homes of the poor.

I would suggest that, with a FICAC on guard, that there is little need for bureaucratic permission to bring in aid and assistance duty and VAT free, which can only delay the aid in reaching those who need it, and annoy the donors no end.

Concerns of NGOs versus Government

Of course, some NGOs and donors are understandably reluctant to channel their resources through government:

* their constitutions may prevent them from giving resources through Government;

* some may have specified target groups, such as children;

* some need to be seen to be giving aid because this helps their future fund-raising efforts;

* some may be concerned about the lack of efficiency in Government departments;

* and some may worry that Government will use the aid for political priorities rather than humanitarian.

All of these concerns have been very real in all of Fiji’s disasters.

Nevertheless, the humanitarian organizations should be relieved that the Commissioner Western, Manasa Tagicakibau clarified (Fiji Times, 24 February 2016) that government is happy to let NGOs do their work.

But he has requested that they MUST notify the National Disaster Management Office where they are visiting, who and what numbers of people they are helping, and with what items, so that government can plan accordingly.

That is surely a quite reasonable request in the public interest.

Government ultimately responsible

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that ALL affected areas are helped on an equitable basis, in all areas of need, without duplication of efforts and “double dipping” which would end up wasting scarce resources.

Official agencies can be expected to look after electricity (FEA), health centres (Ministry of Health), schools (MoE), Water (WAF) and road infrastructure (FRA).

But government has no particular agency to look after food and water (which usually takes immediate priority) and assist systematically in the rebuilding of homes.

Government is also responsible for ensuring that the assistance is spread evenly over time, as typically most aid pours in immediately after the disaster, then interest of donors declines.

The government’s Disaster Management Office is in the best position to ensure the overall planning and coordination of disaster responses.

It does not of course, have to deliver all these services, which is where NGOs and donors can take a leading role.

Which is why there needs to be agreement between Government and NGOs on their respective roles.

It is important however that Government does not insist that duty and VAT exemptions will be allowed only on assistance channeled through government.

Let me address one aspect of the longer term problem of rebuilding the simple homes of the poor, devastated by Cyclone Winston.

Weak house construction

Rich people’s houses are usually properly designed and constructed, and suffer little from the typical cyclones, although Winston was an extreme.

Almost always, as every structural engineer in Fiji knows, the most devastated houses are those of the poor, because of poor construction methods.

The lessons from Winston ought to be documented by the technical people and students at FNU and USP, and learnt from.

Almost certainly they will find that the central problem often is not the availability or cost of appropriate materials, such as metal straps and hurricane screws, but poor basic designs, made up by “Do It Yourself” home builders, often unskilled carpenters.

But why reinvent the wheel?  There are people in Fiji who have already tackled this problem of constructing hurricane-proof homes for the poor, such as my old classmate, Peter Drysdale, of Lautoka with whom I climbed Joske’s Thumb fifty years ago.

A former forestry expert, Peter has recently organized the construction of a hurricane-proof village of houses in the west (Koroipita). Peter Drysdale deservedly received the Order of Australia for his humanitarian efforts. Read here:

It should not be difficult for the Disaster Management Office to get the assistance of knowledgeable persons like Peter Drysdale and many other like-minded structural engineers, to agree on some basic construction methods, and publicize them through the Fiji Times and Fiji Sun for all our amateur home builders to use.

There is no time to lose as already our independent and resilient people are beginning to rebuild their destroyed roofs and homes, and a few structural improvements may mean a secure home, come the next cyclone.

Appropriate donor assistance

Most hurricane relief is given as food rations, easily bought and delivered. Rarely, if ever, has there been any coordinated assistance in the reconstruction of houses which have lasting benefits.

Cyclone Winston gives Government and donors a good opportunity to improve the productivity of house construction with lasting benefits, by donating simple specialist tools to be used under expert supervision.

The building time of roofs and walls can be halved by electric drills to insert the bolts and hurricane screws, electric nail staplers, and circular saws.

Fiji knows that China gave a great boost to the productivity of Fiji’s rural women (and some politicians) by donating hundreds of sewing machines.

China (and other donors) can equally give a great boost to the industrial productivity of our semi-skilled carpenters involved in rebuilding houses, by donating hundreds of electric drills, nailing machines and circular saws.

These tools can be based with the RFMF Engineers Section and established humanitarian organizations (like Red Cross) who can use this aid in an accountable manner, not just for this cyclone but future ones (more likely now with climate change).

Government also needs to accelerate the production of roofing irons, timber joists, flooring and walls,  hurricane straps and screws, all to be sold to the Disaster Management Centre, at strictly controlled prices and minimum quality.

FICAC and Commerce Commission need to be on their toes to ensure that hardware merchants and suppliers do not dump old poor quality stuff at exorbitant prices, as has often happened before.

Better Safety zones

It seems clear that right around the country, houses or churches which were safe havens under previous cyclones, failed their people with the much more powerful Cyclone Winston.

Climate change experts are predicting that there may be an increasing frequency of extreme weather including more powerful and more frequent cyclones.

There is therefore an urgent need to identify “safe houses” for powerful cyclones such as Winston. It would seem that every village needs to consider underground shelters, perhaps tunneled into hill-sides, as built during World War II, with proper ventilation, toilet, water and some basic food stocks (including baby food), in case cyclones hang around for more than a day.

Post script (27/2/16)

When I wrote the article a few days ago, I had a concluding paragraph which expressed some delight that Government and Opposition Parties were all co-operating in tackling this terrible national disaster rather than engaging in “oneupmanship”. I expressed the hope that this spirit of cooperation would spill over into Parliament and ongoing serious differences of opinion. That paragraph had to be deleted.

It is abundantly clear now that the Bainimarama Government is still going around scoring political points, with continuing claims of “first government ever to do this or that”, and the continued focus on building personality cults around some Ministers ever ready to use taxpayers funds for personal fame.  Once again, the media reports (especially from government controlled and funded media) seem to suggest that no one else in government is working, other than these ministerial super stars.

Not surprisingly, Opposition parties are accusing Government of political biases, and they are also mounting their own separate cyclone relief campaigns. But in a political point-scoring game, Opposition parties will never be a match for the Bainimarama Government which has complete and unlimited access to tax payers’ funds, international donor funds, corporate giants who benefit from Government largess.

There are also other private companies feeding off the massive budgetary allocations Government has given them these last few years.  Road construction companies in particular, whose pure profits easily amount to more than $100 million over the last four years, can easily “donate” one million dollars to the “Prime Minister’s Cyclone Relief Fund”, of course, an investment into ensuring future flows for themselves.




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