PREPARING FOR DISASTER
DISASTER IS AT THE HEART OF IT
by Hon. Pio Tikoduadua, NFP President
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 15th December 2022
We are back in cyclone season and, before we are even hit by a serious storm, the usual litany of failures is already occurring.
Floods have overtaken the same Western towns. The power and water seem to be like a bad boxer – going down before even taking a punch. We cannot even provide food in our evacuation centres.
Two Government Ministers say it is “routine procedure” that no food goes to evacuation centres in the first 48 hours that they are open, and people are expected to bring their own food.
This is a pathetic response. It says “this is the way we have always done it, so we will keep doing that.”
It was unbelievable, earlier this week, to see the Government asking business organisations for tenders for best prices for food and other essential supplies. How can it be doing this in the middle of the cyclone season? Why was this not done months ago?
Poor or no planning is wasteful and expensive. It is more difficult and costly to react to a disaster than to prepare for one. Most preparedness costs nothing. It is about working together and communicating well.
NFP has a vision for a completely different form of disaster preparedness. At the centre of it is not bundles of cash, hard biscuits or Ministers running around for the cameras.
At the centre of it is:
Disaster preparedness is not a top-down Government exercise. It is exactly the opposite.
The big difference between the new government and the old one will be partnership. Fiji is not about the Government telling us what to do. Fiji is about all of us working together.
An NFP government intends to rebuild community organisations so that they are at the centre of everything that is important – education, health, crime prevention and support for the poor and the sick.
These organisations will also lead the way in disaster preparation and relief. The government will use their knowledge and their networks. It will then be able to allocate resources to them – money, supplies and personnel.
The community, through its schools, churches and temples, business relationships and volunteer groups, is already strong. Think how much stronger it could be if the government worked with it.
Every community in Fiji should have a disaster preparedness committee. These committees should be organised now. They should be supported by Government personnel who link back to the National Disaster Management Organisation (NDMO).
NDMO should have a ready-made network of leadership in every community so that it can act. That committee will have a disaster preparedness plan that helps in early preparation and disaster response. If disaster strikes a community, NDMO should already know who to contact and where to go.
The business community has risk managers, engineers and builders who can identify risks and suggest simple solutions.
Volunteer organisations such as the Fiji Red Cross, Rotary Clubs and FRIEND have already demonstrated their knowledge and strength in disaster response, much of it learned from overseas. They need to be directly involved in preparation and planning. And when a disaster is active, they should be in the same room as the NDMO.
For example, some of these organisations pre-position relief supplies so that they can respond quickly. They have volunteers who can be quickly rostered to staff and support evacuation centres. They can prepare food, provide security, counselling and first aid. Not everything has to be done by civil servants.
Disaster preparedness is not seasonal. It is year-round.
Once again, the community are the eyes and ears of disaster preparedness. They know which trees are vulnerable and could damage key buildings such as health centres and schools. They can tell us when a river was last dredged. And they can quickly identify which people will need help first in a disaster, including the elderly and disabled.
There must be a documented community response plan, shared and stored with NDMO. The committee must brief its community year-round on disaster preparedness. They should check to see if hurricane shutters are ready or roofs in the village need to be better secured. They should check to see if their own evacuation centres are secure.
These are off-season activities, to be undertaken before it is too late.
As the cyclone season approaches, every community committee should be ready to know who will lead the immediate response and the post-disaster response and which organisations will be contacted for support.
Flooding is a feature of nearly every Fiji weather event. It causes loss and damage to property, crops and livestock. We know this. And yet nothing changes.
Dredging of rivers in flood-prone towns and cities appears to be a random event. We know also that in some urban areas simple tasks like clearing blocked drains is not done on time. In rural areas simple tasks like clearing blocked irrigation channels would keep flood damage down.
Communities know their problems the best because they go through them. What they need is year-round support to fix the problems before it is too late.
Thee is a clear role for the military in these preparations. The military has muscle and personnel – and it can always use the effort as a training exercise, an opportunity to learn about disaster preparedness and a way to build its knowledge and contacts with the community for when it may have to come back.
We know that Energy Fiji Limited does some off-season work such as tree-cutting to minimise line damage. But it, too, needs to plug into the community.
One of the frequent complaints after disasters is that the power goes off, even though there is no damage. EFL says that it must inspect every length of power lines before it can reactivate power.
But EFL could be using the community for this. It should be providing basic training to designated people in community organisations to help with inspection and communicate problems so that power can be restored more quickly.
No plan will ever be perfect. A century ago the famous General von Moltke said “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Things will still go wrong. But good plans take this into account –they have a ‘Plan B’.
Finally – communication. If the community becomes organised as we intend, there will be year-round, ongoing communication. But this must take place at national level also. We must share the information.
There should be websites, SMS numbers and apps which can quickly give people the information they need. Communities should know who in their district to contact. As part of early preparedness they can share information about potential risks.
Government and community leaders
Yesterday the Met Office warned us of a possible new cyclone. They said that they could not see it yet or identify its characteristics but it could be out there. This is exactly the type of information we need.
The Met Office has done its part. If we had a proper network of disaster preparedness committees, the message would be going out now and people would be preparing well ahead of time, while the weather is good and work can be done.
How will we make this happen?
The Government’s new laws forbid politicians from making “commitments” without talking about what they will cost, how they will be funded and which “budget sector agency” will get the money. So we cannot make a “commitment”.
What we can say is that one of our first acts in government will be to bring people together to discuss these plans and how we can turn them into reality.
The difference between us and the government is that we don’t need to control everything. We don’t need to get the credit for everything. All the knowledge and experience is there. We just need the will and the leadership.