Flooded Faleolo raises planning questions

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

Friday’s flash flooding was surprising in so many ways. 

Few can remember flooding of such intensity outside the context of a cyclone.  

That reflects a future in which our essential infrastructure is tested by the new and harsh realities of a changing climate. 

And it also prompts a question about whether our Government has done enough to anticipate a threat about which it has been aware for so long. 

Several memorable images emerged from yesterday’s destruction.

We saw villages being evacuated as residents surrendered their homes to the uncertainties of nature. We saw bursting riverbanks make light work of newly-laid infrastructure such as the now torn-up Moamoa Road.

But one of the most jarring sights was the scene of floodwaters sloshing through the check-in areas of the recently renovated Faleolo International Airport.

Two things made that image so powerful. 

The first, was the floodwaters reaching Faleolo. Few can recall the area ever being inundated as it was on Friday and that reflects a future in which the challenges of the weather that are not unfamiliar to the Pacific are going to become more intense and far-reaching. 

The second was the symbolism of watching polluted water overpower what was but two years ago a pristine building that reflected ambitions for a new chapter in our country’s development.

These hopes did not come cheap. At some $147 million the Faleolo development was one of the most significant infrastructure contributions to the nation in recent times, funded courtesy mostly of the Chinese Government but also multilateral donors.  

The newly renovated Faleolo International Airport was intended to bring with it new opportunities for an economy that was cresting a wave of a then-surging tourism industry.

Expectations for what this infrastructure could deliver were set very high indeed, 

“For those who will be using these new airport buildings, its longevity can only be assured through appropriate usage, care and maintenance,” the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Dr. Malielegaoi said at the building’s grand opening in May 2018. 

“It is your Government’s hope that this upgrade project will meet our country’s airport needs for the next 50 years”.

The Government continued to stoke those expectations with the next stage of the airport’s upgrade, completed last year. 

The airport was hailed as the best in the Pacific with state-of-the-art check-in facilities and freight capacity and a future regional hub for air transport. 

The Prime Minister described it as little less than one of the “most exceptional milestones of Samoa’s history”.

But Tuilaepa praise extended even to the more pedestrian aspects of the airport upgrade, including those from aerobridges for incoming arrivals. 

“It also enhances passenger experience especially by providing shelter from the hot sun and the pouring rain,” he said in May 2019. 

Well on Friday the many hopes that have been pinned on this piece of infrastructure (and its longevity) appear to have come into question. 

The airport’s terminals were flooded but its perimeter fence was also totally overrun by the combined force of flood waters and debris.

We do not pretend to be engineering experts. But as Samoa Airport Authority staff were photographed hosing down the $147 million facility there was plenty of conjecture about whether the building being at the bottom of a sloping hill near to the sea contributed to the inundation. 

Such questions are beyond our expertise. 

But the Government has had information foretelling of the possibility that the Faleolo facility could fall victim to precisely what we saw transpire on Friday: flooding from rising sea levels.

Fewer than nine months after the Prime Minister was hailing the airport’s longevity, the Government revealed it was in possession of information to the contrary.

A research team from Japan had studied the airport’s elevation and its proximity to the nearby sea and found that it could potentially be rendered unusable at times during cyclone season due to the risk of inundation.

That was the justification for a $17 million investment in the Tiavea airport as an alternative landing facility. 

(The problems with that project, which were exposed by this newspaper after its runway was found to be too short to land major international planes have been well covered in these pages). 

But the fact that the Government had warnings that the airport was vulnerable to flooding so soon raises questions about how much planning went into the project and the promises that were made at its unveiling. 

We do not know when the Government was first advised of Faleolo’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. We would like to. And we have previously asked but received no response. 

We do know that construction of the runway at Tiavea began after the contract was awarded in September 2018.

That would suggest that the Government, if its justification for building that second runway was indeed the reason for pouring money into the Tiavea project, knew of these issues some time ago. 

But in the absence of the Government revealing what it knew and when we might instead ask a question about whether a proper environmental study was ever conducted before the airport underwent renovation.

And if such a study was done how did it miss the vulnerabilities that the Japanese research would identify so soon after?

The Government is fond of unveiling major showpiece infrastructure to the public; they have become a key part of its policy legacy.  

As the dangers of climate change become realities we should ask if these showy projects are being accompanied by the thankless but necessary planning work that ensures they stand the test of time. 

After all, neglect of details risks leaving the grandest of ambitions underwater. 

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

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