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Commonwealth pleads for better disaster finance for Pacific

Small islands need more money to manage climate change and COVID-19 simultaneously, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, has warned.

In the wake of Tropical Cyclone Harold earlier this month which left tens of thousands of people homeless, with decimated businesses and damage to crops across the region, the Pacific Islands are still working to keep the pandemic COVID-19 off their shores, and contain it where it has landed.

Storms, Ms. Scotland wrote in a piece published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, will only get worse and more frequent thanks to the impacts of a warming climate, and since 2014 have cost US$2 billion in damages at least. 

And in Vanuatu, worst affected by Cyclone Harold, relief supplies are waiting in quarantine before they can reach their destinations.

“Meanwhile the storm has wrecked health centres across the country and damaged the water supply, hindering basic actions like washing hands,” Ms. Scotland said.

“Fortunately, Vanuatu remains COVID-19 free, but with less than two doctors for every 10,000 people and only two working ventilators in the whole country, there is little room for error.”

The Secretary General said the international community needs to coordinate better on a long-term approach to improving resilience so that countries can manage multiple disasters at once, as it becomes a more likely scenario in the future.

But small islands are unable to easily access the money they need to actually deal with disasters before they happen.

“Research shows that disaster risk reduction remains a low priority in terms of financing,” Ms. Scotland said.

“Over the 20 years from 1991 to 2010, just […] 40 cents for every $100 was spent on pre-disaster risk management.

“This is despite evidence suggesting it is more cost-effective to tackle risks before a disaster strikes, than reacting afterwards. Information on funding in this area is fragmented and complex, making it even harder for small and vulnerable states to tap into the limited money.”

She said donor processes can be too “onerous” for small island states with limited human resources and capacity, leaving them with years worth of paperwork that leave communities at continued risk.

Since submitting a proposal in 2017 for 16 kilometres of coastal protection, Tonga has suffered two storms (Cyclone Gita in 2019 and Harold in 2020), Commonwealth advisors told their leadership.

“Less red tape and better coordination amongst funders, leading to common templates for proposals, harmonised sets of conditions and a simplified approval system would no doubt make life easier for those vulnerable countries that need financing the most,” she said.

The Commonwealth has established a Climate Finance Access Hub to help countries with their applications to international climate finance, an otherwise deeply difficult process.

And soon, its Disaster Risk Finance Portal hopes to do even more to help Governments get money with its “one stop shop” approach to financing tools available to small island states specifically on risk finance.

“Small island developing states are known to be especially vulnerable to climate-related disasters, which can cripple economies and thwart their ability to cope with other crises such as pandemics,” Ms. Scotland said.

“It is therefore extremely worrying that so many small states still find it difficult to secure funding to help reduce the risk of disasters and adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

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