Infrastructure failing rain's test
This new year’s seemingly incessant flooding has been a glimpse into a future where heavy rain poses a challenge to the most basic aspects of everyday life.
After extreme weather did not come to pass on Tuesday, there have been some murmurs about the accuracy of our forecasting - and the appropriateness of our response.
Schools across the country were closed yesterday and today, an early disruption to classes after a year in which students missed more school than most.
We can’t find fault with those practising the imperfect science of weather forecasting. Had no warnings been issued but bad weather ensued then critical voices would doubtlessly have been louder.
But the more alarming warning this week has been that sounded by the failure of our essential infrastructure in the wake of the heavy rain.
There is unlikely to be a starker illustration of this point than the photo found on our front page today. The residents at Fugalei are paying the price for an overwhelmed ford. Their homes have been overrun with the most unsanitary water.
A similar story is playing out in villages across Samoa, where locals have told of long-made but unanswered requests for new roads or bridges that can withstand hard rain.
The retreat of the Samoa Shipping Corporation’s fleet to Savai’i also raises questions about its confidence in its Upolu infrastructure to withstand heavy conditions.
Meanwhile other roads from Taufusi up to Pesega and the ford at Moamoa have all also been overrun this month.
Flooding and heavy rain are hardly new in Samoa.
But warnings have been sounded for more than a decade now that climate change is posing new threats.
The 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change perhaps put it best when they said: “In Samoa, everything is increasing”.
The flooding we see before us now is a result of the twin tyrannies of rising sea levels (which are predicted to rise by up to 17 centimetres by the next decade) and an increase in the number of rainy days.
Changing water temperatures and rising surface temperatures have created a new dynamic for weather fronts, one we are seeing play out during the wet season.
These challenges are putting our transport infrastructure under great strain.
We should acknowledge the recent investments in critical choke points at the Vaisignao Bridge and the new Mali'olio Bridge in Savai’i. The latter, despite being struck by delays, is a welcome move to address what has been a bottleneck preventing travel across the big island since time immemorial.
But instead of focusing on centrepieces we could use more investment on infrastructure which is less prominent but still critical to everyday life.
Residents at Moamoa, for example, have complained of long traffic queues, the cutting off of their road access to town during continuous flooding.
And then there are safety concerns.
“We cannot leave the village, and people cannot come back home,” resident Monica Malaki told this newspaper earlier this month.
“When there is flooding, I receive a call from [my children] saying that they cannot cross the ford so they spend hours waiting on the opposite side of the village for a safe time to cross.”
The chronic flooding of a river passage is also affecting people at Tulaele. We have seen the results of several vehicles being swept into the Fuluasao River at a point at which local residents say safety measures are inadequate and too often ignored.
Concerns about the flood-readiness of our infrastructure have hardly been overlooked.
Foreign donors spent more than $800 million on transport infrastructure projects in Samoa between 2011 and 2017.
But in retrospect we would have benefited if more of that sum were directed to developing infrastructure that is capable of withstanding the new realities of climate change.
A recent joint commitment of $175 million to flood proofing infrastructure along the Vaisigano by the Government and the United Nations is a good recent example.
These new realities mean that continuing to function and even staying in place demands constant effort.