Avoiding million tala losses from extreme weather

The flash floods on Friday over a fortnight ago caught everyone off guard and has come at a high cost for both the Government and the private sector as well as affected families.

The National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) Interim Chair Agafili Shem Leo has put the damage bill from the 18 December 2020 natural disaster that engulfed the Apia town area at approximately $71.8 million.

He said the cost comes from damage to electricity, telecommunications and road infrastructure as well as water catchment areas which were highlighted in a preliminary report that was submitted to his Committee.

And the overall cost could rise even further as more information becomes available, including the impact of the deluge from a health perspective.

“Cabinet has already allocated 3 per cent of the Government’s total budget for unforeseen expenditure for times like these,” Agafili said, confirming that a part of this expenditure has already been used for the most immediate repair works of the damages.

“As you all have seen, the flood happened on Friday but on Saturday, it was as if there was no flood had occurred and also a few days later."

The fact that no lives were lost after the heavy downpour, some 6-8 hours before the Apia township was inundated that Friday morning, is a testament to the quick action by the authorities to get families living close to the Lelata Bridge and Vaisigano River to move to higher ground.

But basic science teaches us of the role that tropical rainforest play in preventing flooding as trees prevent what is called sediment runoffs and rainforests are known to hold a lot of water.

That is remove the forests – through various forms of land development – and you take away nature’s ability to absorb water, which then trickle into rivers and increase the risks of flooding further downstream. 

Was the 18 December 2020 flash floods connected in any way to the land use practices surrounding and within the vicinity of water catchment areas?

Do the relevant Government agencies keep track of human-induced land use and developments in areas such as Malolelei that are natural water catchment areas and play a critical role in ensuring sediment runoffs are minimised?

We note Agafili indicating in a press conference after the 18 December 2020 flooding that the findings of the Government’s preliminary report will be discussed with donor partners with a view to seek their assistance.

But we believe more should be done to address the vulnerability of our capital city to natural disasters such as flash floods, especially at the extreme weather events brought on by climate change, when more rainfall is projected coupled with increases in air and water temperature as well as a rise in sea-level.

The 18 December 2020 flash floods have been described in some quarters as the worst in the country’s history. 

Therefore how many more similar extreme weather conditions can we expect in this year’s November 1 to April 30 Tropical Cyclone season or even next year? 

And is Samoa prepared when it comes to extreme weather such as the 18 December 2020 flash floods?

We ask these pertinent questions while being mindful of the various donor-funded climate resilient infrastructure that have been built in the country in recent years, in a bid to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Samoa has over the last five years been the recipient of funding support for climate-resilient infrastructure and mitigation programmes, courtesy of foreign governments and multilateral institutions such as the Australian government, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (A.D.B.) and the United Nations (U.N.).

However, heavy rainfall in the lead-up to the flash floods two weeks ago has exposed some of these recently commissioned climate-resilient infrastructure such as roads, resulting in damage that will now cost millions of tala to repair.

The key question that needs to be asked is the quality of the workmanship and whether the new roads or bridges have structural integrity and are able to withstand the pressure of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and flooding.

The decision by the Samoa Government in March last year to ask the World Bank to lower its requirements – in order for other local road contractors to also participate in a World Bank-funded road project – might also need to be revisited after the Washington DC-headquartered organisation agreed and asked that the local companies form a joint venture in order to be part of the project.

While local participation in donor-funded projects is important, in order to create employment opportunities for locals, this should not be done at the expense of quality wherein the transport and road infrastructure remains susceptible to extreme weather events due to poor workmanship.

The evacuation of 30 people during the flash floods also confirms the vulnerability of families who live in flood-prone areas, and the need for the Government to consider their re-location to higher ground as a long-term solution.

The U.N. Resident Coordinator in Samoa, Simona Marinescu, is correct in saying that the 18 December 2020 flash floods were exacerbated by climate change.

“I do believe the extreme weather is intensified by climate change,” she said, in an interview with the Samoa Observer conducted earlier this month. “There is a lot of work in Samoa to improve infrastructure and have an effective flood management system.”

There was no doubt that Apia’s flood management system was overwhelmed so the Government should make this a priority in the New Year, if the country is to avoid the million tala losses that it incurred a fortnight ago.

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