With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai'i
PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Post-Courier/PINA, Jan. 18) - The region's biggest country, Papua New Guinea, has swung behind calls for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to coordinate regional disaster warnings and relief work.
Foreign Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu said the recent devastating cyclones in Solomon Islands and Fiji highlighted the need for Forum countries to set up a coordinated response.
As Sir Rabbie spoke, Fiji news media reported 10 confirmed deaths and at least 17 people still missing after Cyclone Ami. Police worry the toll could rise as news comes in from cut-off areas, they reported.
Sir Rabbie said the region seemed to be suffering more and more from natural disasters such as cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
"The capacity of the smaller island nations to respond effectively to major disasters is clearly very limited," he said. "Our own capacity, as the largest of the island nations group, to respond quickly and effectively to major disasters is quite clearly limited as well."
Sir Rabbie said the region was fortunate that Australia and New Zealand responded to requests for disaster relief assistance in the Solomons and Fiji.
Calls for the Forum to take a bigger role first came after the slow official response when Cyclone Zoe blasted the remote Solomon Islands of Tikopia and Anuta late last month.
Fiji is currently trying to respond to the aftermath of Cyclone Ami in its northern and eastern islands.
Communications and power were cut, water supplies cut and polluted, and schools, homes, roads, bridges, and island jetties damaged when Ami hit on Monday and Tuesday. It blasted the islands with 200 kph winds, rain, floods and high seas.
Tens of thousands of people are believed to need help with fresh water, food, and rebuilding their homes.
Fiji navy and government boats have taken relief workers to the worst hit islands to assess damage and provide immediate help.
Suggestions that the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum must play a greater role in disasters have been led by Australian Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Kevin Rudd.
Rudd - speaking amidst concern that it took a week for official rescue efforts to reach Tikopia and Anuta after Cyclone Zoe - told Australian journalists:
"The question arises ... whether there is a better system which can be developed for better co-ordinating natural disaster relief efforts."
Solomon Islands, Australian and New Zealand government officials were embarrassed when a New Zealand photojournalist flew to Tikopia by helicopter from northern Vanuatu.
He brought help to the islanders while government-organised relief boats, funded by Australia and New Zealand, were just sailing from the Solomons capital, Honiara.
Senior Australian and New Zealand officials admitted that they had not known Tikopia could be reached by helicopter from neighbouring northern Vanuatu.
Mr Rudd said the Pacific Islands Forum should consider setting up a regional command centre.
He said: "This could rapidly relay not just meteorological information, but equally critically, immediately relay needs for disaster relief efforts, particularly for Australia and New Zealand.
"We need to learn from this to ensure that we don't encounter such delays in the future."
Mr Rudd said the damage and criticism of a slow humanitarian response by regional nations indicated a need for action at the regional representative body, the 16-nation Forum.
Mr Rudd said this should be high on the agenda for this year's Pacific Islands Forum meeting in New Zealand in August.
The Forum currently operates a regional disaster relief fund. It normally waits for requests from member governments before responding.