Floods show Samoa's uphill climate race

By The Editorial Board 19 December 2020, 12:00AM

The flooding that engulfed our nation on Friday was a humbling reminder of the power of nature to which there is often little we can do but yield.  

And so we must applaud the Government for taking early action in response to fast-changing forecasts.

Up until Thursday afternoon, the appearance of the morning sun through the clouds and the brief cessation of showers even led to some optimistic forecasts of easing conditions. By the evening, though, those were replaced with much more severe warnings. 

Residents in low-lying areas and near the Lelata and Vaisigano River areas were advised to evacuate immediately or call for emergency help. 

But as much as we appreciate the Government’s response to late-changing conditions, it was obviously no match for what was to follow. 

Drains were spurting in Tiapapata; gutters overflowed in the centre of town and floodwaters enveloped vans driving along arterial roads all across the nation to Savai'i. 

But this - unconnected to any cyclone - was a sight without precedent for many Samoans who have lived on an island that has experienced more than its share of its extreme weather.

It would strain memories and records to think of a comparable time when a mere convergence zone created inland seas of equivalent size to that which struck many parts of Samoa yesterday.

We could chalk this up to a rare, once-in-a-generation event.

But there is probably another lesson to be learned from Friday’s flash floods.

The first is that the results of the long-forecasted impacts of climate change which have previously been long observed in the abstract are now bringing bearing down on us - hard. 

Samoa is now stuck in a paradox equivalent to what the author Lewis Carroll in "Alice in Wonderland" called the Red Queen’s Race: we have to keep running faster and faster just to stay in place. 

That is because all that is around us is changing quickly.

And the cruelest part of it all is that the worldwide phenomenon of climate change is hitting Samoa unusually hard even though we have contributed almost nothing to the problem.

Seawater levels around our islands have been rising above the global average at a rate of three millimetres a year for more than a decade.

But a 2019 study found that these will increase at levels of between three to six times that forecast because of the impact of seismic disturbances on island.  

Damaging winds have been increasing, most pronouncedly those of lesser speeds, or below 40 miles per hour. 

Property damage, tropical storms, and a complete interruption to commerce are far from unknown in this country but they are only going to grow in intensity in the coming decades.

And as yesterday’s events make clear, we are not, as a country, running fast enough to stay in place.

We may in fact not be beating against the tides that are eroding our coastlines and invading our infrastructure but inadvertently helping them. 

We have seen some recent laudable developments in Apia as an attempt to better prepare the city for the onslaught posed by climate with more on the way.

The recently completed Vaisigano Bridge project with accompanying flood protection measures is a notable example of one recent centrepiece engineering project that was designed to mitigate the ongoing problems of flooding.

But it did stop the hotel from being flooded on Friday.

Similarly, the construction of a new Parliament building by the Australian Government was accompanied by geospatial surveying designed to build the area to best divert the arrival of floodwater.

As road infrastructure was damaged on Friday, the rehabilitation and expansion of the Cross-Island Road and the extension and improvements to the resilience of the West Coast Road are ongoing. 

Before these there was the much-debated raising of the seawall in the years after Cyclone Evan. 

But there is only so much we can hope will be achieved from any single project. 

Circumstances are conspiring against Samoa.

And when the elements of nature converge upon our villages no bottleneck can stop the combined effects of water flowing down from deforested areas uphill; high tides; and increased rain.

It will always find its way around any obstacles.

We instead require an entirely new approach to planning that better prevents future disaster. 

And that means paying greater attention to modest concerns such as drainage and assessing the environmental impacts of development applications thoroughly rather than grand projects. It means details; it means engineering.

The Planning and Urban Management Agency, currently under a cloud over an alleged case of someone improperly qualified being hired to senior planner’s position, needs a top-down review of how our planning approval process is conducted. 

But it should also review the areas of greatest priority for floodproofing and those which can deliver the most impact for the least investment.

The speed at which water was shooting out of drainage holes aligning roads leading down roads leading into Apia catchment show how overwhelmed the modest measures to alleviate flooding have now become. 

The climate is stacked overwhelmingly against us.

We must place greater priority on how our built environment affects flooding when we make decisions about new buildings. 

Making our country’s critical infrastructure resilient to the tyrannies of climate change will require thoroughgoing work from Samoa's own planners. It is not a job that can be left to international donors alone. 

Much of our major infrastructure, from the Faleolo Airport to the national hospital is hugely vulnerable to the effects of flash flooding.

When the current floodwaters recede and we count the cost of the damage we should remember it is only going to increase in years to come.

It is up to us to stop that. 

By The Editorial Board 19 December 2020, 12:00AM

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