by Sir Ronald Sanders, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies
People on the East Coast of the United States of America (US) and the Caribbean should consider how best they might lend a helping hand to the people of the islands of Tuvalu and Vanuatu in the Pacific whose lives have been shattered by Cyclone Pam that struck them on the night of March 13.
In the case of the Caribbean islands, it is a case of “there but for fortune go I”.
A category five Cyclone, called Pam, ripped through both Vanuatu and Tuvalu – two archipelagic countries consisting of several small islands and atolls – creating widespread destruction. Damage was so intense that all the inhabitants of one of the Tuvalu islands had to be completely evacuated. They left behind everything they hold dear, and they now live in uncertainty about when they can return and how to start to reconstruct their lives.
The capacity of these countries to cope with ferocious cyclones, such as Pam, and the resilience to rebuild in the wake of huge damage, simply do not exist. Both Vanuatu and Tuvalu are confronted with immediate humanitarian needs for food, shelter and fresh water. Reports indicate that residents on some of the distant islands have resorted to drinking salt water.
The level of the immediate suffering can only be imagined by those who have not experienced the cruel conditions in which people are forced to live in the aftermath of natural disasters of this magnitude.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand, which are the two most developed Commonwealth countries in the area, have been quick to help with humanitarian assistance. But, the islands in the two archipelagic countries are so scattered that distribution of supplies is severely constrained, particularly as many have no landing strips. Britain, too, has offered help amounting to £1m. That money will be made immediately available to UN organisations and international aid agencies already working in the region.
But the lack of aid co-ordination has resulted in uneven assistance to the people of the islands, and in some cases to no help at all. At the time of writing, the government of Vanuatu announced that food will run out on some islands within a week. The deputy chair of the National Disaster Committee, Benjamin Shing, has said the while the country appreciated the aid, the initial response could have been handled better. He claims that the aid agencies are working on their own rather than in co-operation with the government. He added that “in nearly every country in the world where they go in they have their own operational systems, they have their own networks and they refuse to conform to government directives”.
In the situation that Shing describes it is the already-suffering people who are hurt more as resources are duplicated or wasted in one area, and little or no help reaches others.
If, apart from Australia and New Zealand particularly, the response to the tragedy in Vanuatu and Tuvalu has not been impressive, the greater and more profound problem will be the rebuilding process. These islands, like many in the Caribbean, do not have the capital formation in their own banking system to finance reconstruction. They will have to turn to international financial institutions for help. But, if the experience of the Caribbean is a measure of what they can expect, rebuilding will be a long and agonizing process.
Many Caribbean countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Dominica, lost more than 3 years of gross domestic product (GDP) in 24 hours when hurricanes devastated them. Anxious to rebuild in the wake of such massively destructive hurricanes, the governments of these countries were forced into the commercial market to secure financing to rebuild infrastructure, even while their revenues were declining from decreased production. Hotels closed, agricultural production ceased and manufacturing halted. The result was an increase in the national debt and uncomfortable levels of debt to GDP ratios of more than 100%.
These countries had no option. They either had to borrow to rebuild and re-start their economies or face soaring unemployment, increase in poverty and inadequate investment in health and education services.
Right now, Vanuatu and Tuvalu are rightly focused on alleviating the suffering of their people. But, the bigger and more fundamental problem of rebuilding – and how to pay for it – already looms large. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has told the Tuvalu Prime Minister, Enele Sopoaga, that her government would support longer-term recovery and reconstruction efforts. Vanuatu will also need that help. Australia alone cannot provide it, nor should it be expected to.
As Richard Bourne of the Ramphal Institute observed recently, “with erratic climate events and sea level rise it is time for the global community to take more seriously the growing risks for island archipelagos, especially low-lying atoll states in the Pacific and Caribbean. In a single year a storm can knock 10 per cent off GDP, and certain communities are already being withdrawn from shorelines where ocean levels have risen. This is a particular challenge for the Commonwealth, where the Ramphal Institute estimates that there are some ten independent and dependent territories which might be under water in 2100”.
In its report to Commonwealth Heads of Government, “A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform”, the Eminent Persons Group of which I was a member had recommended that the 53-nation Commonwealth establish a disaster management capacity. Unfortunately the recommendation was not implemented. The details of the mechanism are laid out in the report. Suffice to say that the proposal sought to establish a rapid Commonwealth response to natural disasters; machinery for disaster preparation and mitigation; and the means to help mobilize concessionary financing for rebuilding.
Both Vanuatu and Tuvalu could have benefited enormously from such a disaster management capacity within the Commonwealth of which they are two of the smallest and most vulnerable of member states. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, called for Commonwealth help immediately after the destructive passage of Cyclone Pam, but the Commonwealth should be doing more at times of tragedy if it is to be relevant to the people of its member states.
Let us hope that the tragedy in Vanuatu and Tuvalu is a wake-up call. Hurricanes in the Caribbean and cyclones in the Pacific are not going away. They are clear and present dangers.
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