Solomon Islands, January 5, 2019
Loti Yates, Director of the Solomon Islands Disaster Management Office, is used to dealing with floods. But even he is getting worried with what he has to deal with – and how often.
“When I first come … 15 years ago, we were dealing with floods only on the Guadalcanal plains around this time of year,” he said. “Very rarely you would hear of flooding on other parts of the Solomon Islands.”
But that is no longer the case. Much of his year can be consumed dealing with floods right across the archipelago, he said, in as many as eight provinces at once.
That is exactly what he is dealing with right now.
For two weeks, much of the country has been drenched by heavy rain that has caused flooding and landslides across the country.
Two people have died and as many as 22,000 have had their homes or food crops destroyed, the office estimates.
Many of those people were staying with relatives or sleeping in churches, he said.
“When it comes to seeing the changes over the years – I can vouch for that. Things have just been getting worse and worse,” Mr Yates said.
In several provinces, rivers have burst their banks and swept through villages. Flood water has contaminated drinking water and destroyed crops. Strong winds blew off rooftops and flattened homes. Landslides have cut access to roads in some districts.
Weeks of unrelenting rain has unleashed floods across much of the Solomon Islands. Loti Yates says the rainy season is becoming increasingly so. Photo: The Island Sun
January has always been the rainy season in the Pacific, but the volume and frequency in which the region is being struck is alarming scientists and aid agencies and adding significant pressure to the limited resources of the region’s disaster offices.
Since 2015, the Pacific has been hit by a category five cyclone — the highest category possible, with minimum mean winds of 198km/h — four times. Cyclone Liua, the first of this season, developed near Solomon Islands on 26 September, the earliest in recorded history.
This past fortnight, the Solomon Islands has had to contend with three storms that have pelted the country in rapid succession. First, there was the tropical depression that slowly crossed the country, later turning into Cyclone Mona, which is now menacing Fiji. Then, another tropical depression formed nearby, and has been held over the country because it’s sandwiched by Cyclone Penny to the south and another system to the west.
That has brought two weeks of unrelenting rain, Mr Yates said.
“We have not had a big cyclone since Tropical Cyclone Zoe in 2003,” he said. “But Solomon Islands doesn’t need a cyclone to get severe flooding. What we go through, maybe two or three tropical depressions which have very high rainfall and consequently, there is huge flooding.”
Mr Yates said that one of the deaths was in Isabel Province, when a man died while trying to swim across a river to get home. Police confirmed another death when a boat with eight people on board capsized in the Marovo Lagoon in Seghe on New Year’s Eve, three people from the boat are still missing.
“We have been trying to warn people not to travel across the islands or rivers, It is unfortunate though that despite all these warnings people are still crossing islands on banana boats and risking everybody’s lives,” Mr Yates said.
He said that these figures were likely to change, as his office was yet to make contact with more remote areas. Thousands more could be affected, he warned.
“We have had very little information coming in because of the continuing bad weather. People could not travel and therefore only now in the last day or so, we are starting to receive people coming in or people have managed to get their cellphones working and are able to pass on information to us, Mr Yates said.
“We are expecting this figure to increase because we haven’t got anything from Temotu Province yet and we’ve heard very little from Makira Province.”
The effects of these floods are likely to linger for a long time, Mr Yates said. Eighty percent of rural communities rely on solar power for electricity. But such little sun has made charging cellphones problematic, restricting communication across the island.
The Guadalcanal plains, which he described as the ‘Capital’s Food Basket,’ had been inundated, with many crops washed out.
“When you look at the amount of water running through and it has been inundated for five or six days in most cases, you will know that root crops, vegetables and everything that usually gets tracked into Honiara markets will be very less now.”
Farmers adversely affected
Eighty-five percent of Solomon Islanders lived off subsistence farming, Mr Yates said, and the increasing frequency with which crops had been affected was hampering community life.
“They only grow just enough to live on and any extras that these people plant in their lands, can be sold in markets and that would go to servicing other needs such as school fees and stationery for their kids,” explained Mr Yates.
“So that is what we are looking at here. We do not have the dole system where the government gives funds to people to help them every week. These are farmers who work their land just enough to eat and survive and whatever extras they can get out of their lands, they can sell in the markets. Now that’s gone.”
Fishermen, too, were struggling with not being able to go out for two weeks, as have the cocoa and cassava industries, two of the country’s main drivers.
Mr Yates said aid was urgently needed, and people were being told to boil their water before drinking it. The risk of water and mosquito-borne diseases had increased dramatically because of the floods, he said.
“Many people don’t have proper water systems. Communities use wells or streams so now their water systems will be gone. But the secondary impacts are health issues like diarrhoea and with too much water around, it is good nesting places for mosquitoes so increases the chances of having malaria and dengue outbreaks,” Mr Yates said.
Hillsides have buckled in many areas as a result of two weeks of heavy rain. Photo: Katelyn Mola
“We need food and hygiene kits. Washing is a critical issue here. We need to get clean water, sanitation and hygiene because consequences of not dealing with this will have bigger consequences on the health, disease outbreaks.”
This season has already been pretty bad for Solomon Islands, but for Mr Yates, it’s becoming a new normal. While it’s been more than a decade since the last significant cyclone, the country has been regularly ravaged by some kind of storm or floods.
He said it’s getting worse.
“People are aware of the change. You sit down and listen to the elders in the communities and they’ll tell you, ‘Oh we used to be doing this here…and now these years, we can’t.’
“The land size is decreasing because of erosion over the last 20 years, and so you need to worry. There are more remote islands and our population is increasing.”
And with the changing climate, he fears the country cannot prepare enough.
“That is a concern for all of us, for the Disaster Management team, for the government, for everybody here. You need to start considering resettlement polices and maybe polices that will help decrease the ongoing issues of greenhouse gasses etc.
“Not that countries like Solomon Islands contribute much to this. But we are victims of what is going on globally.”
Indira Stewart is a Journalist at Radio New Zealand International. Indian Newslink has published the above story and pictures under a Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz