'This bridge has been destroyed six times so now we build it higher and stronger'

By Andy McElroy

GENEVA, 19 July 2013 - The leader of Fiji’s disaster-hit Western Division has pledged to forge an integrated cross-sectoral strategy to achieve a safer and more resilient future.

Western Division Commissioner Mr Joeli Cawaki and his team of technical experts told the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), Ms Margareta Wahlström, that integrated planning and action was vital after being hit by two serious floods and a major cyclone in 2012.

Standing on the banks of the River Ba, in Vitogo village, Commissioner Cawaki told Ms Wahlström: “This bridge has been destroyed six times in recent years from various floods so this time we are building it higher and stronger.

“At the moment the children in the village on the other side, which is called Naviago, have to take a long bus ride all the way round to reach the school which is here on this side. If they could walk across the bridge it would take a minute or two.

“The floods were so powerful that mature trees and other debris were swept downstream and devastated lowland infrastructure and businesses.

“We believe the best way forward is what could be called a ‘whole of nation approach’ that has communities in the lead but involves all relevant government ministries, including agriculture and forestry, as well as NGOs, and the Red Cross.

“It is not easy but after the recent experience we are convinced that this is the best approach as before people were not talking to each other.”

Ms Wahlström said Fiji was experiencing “the new normal” of more unpredictable and extreme hazards but was responding impressively to the challenge. Commissioner Cawaki told her that he still spends more than half his time on disaster recovery issues among the many other pressing agendas he has to deal with.

“The importance of working together cannot be over-stated and I have heard here in Fiji how they are determined to be proactive and collaborative to improve and widen their approach to disaster risk management in what is a hazard-prone country,” Ms Wahlström said.

“Disaster management is much more than preparedness and response and the Fijian authorities have grasped this very well in their ongoing efforts to protect lives, livelihoods as well as public and private investment.

“A mix of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ approaches is needed and here I have seen a combination of good technology and systems and community ownership that is the key to effective early warning systems.”

Ms Wahlström was in Fiji as part of a regional tour that included a headline address at the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Pacific Platform for Disaster Risk Management and Pacific Climate Change Roundtable, in Nadi.

At the closing of the meeting, the Minister for National Disaster Management, Mr Inia Seruiratu, affirmed the direction Fiji was undertaking: “I am a firm advocate of mainstreaming climate change and disaster risks to development planning.”