The Pacific region can be split into three sub-regions: Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, each with their own cultural and historical identities. Island demographics and geographies vary greatly. Widely dispersed atoll-dwelling communities characterize Micronesia, and Melanesian countries have more dense populations on larger volcanic islands. Polynesian countries and territories are often composed of highly dispersed small-island groups and large diaspora communities in Australia and New Zealand. Different cultures, country sizes, geographic realities, economic resources and cultural ties with regional powers result in widely varied government structures and national emergency management capacity.
Pacific island communities are exposed to a wide range of natural disasters, as well as to the adverse effects of climate change, such as coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion into farmland and freshwater sources. Drought caused by El Niño and La Niña weather patterns affect different parts of the Pacific regularly. In the past decade, PICTs also experienced coups d’état, civil unrest and armed violence.
In island communities, the absolute number of people affected by disasters remains small, but even minor damage can have a large social and economic impact. Vulnerability increases with the highly dispersed areas over which people live, and the limited transport and communications infrastructure that exists. The isolation of many communities complicates disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts.
In the last decade, some PICTs have experienced natural disaster losses that in any single year have approached and in cases even exceeded their GDP. Examples include the 2007 earthquake and tsunami in the Solomon Islands, which caused losses of around 90 per cent of the 2006 recurrent government budget; the 2004 Cyclone Heta on Niue, where immediate losses amounted to over five times the 2003 GDP; and the 2009 Fiji floods, which affected Nadi, Ba, and the entire sugar belt area and which caused losses of US$200 million.
Internal migrants, the marginalized and the poor are more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters in the Pacific Islands. They often live in poor-quality housing in marginalized areas, lack assets or access to land and are typically not included in disaster preparedness efforts. External shocks stemming from the global economic, fuel and food crises tend to disproportionately affect the small and dependent economies of Pacific Island communities who experience high transaction costs to enjoy imported goods and services.
Civil unrest and conflict have heightened vulnerability in the Pacific Islands over the last decade. The regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) has been an important force for stability in the region since civil conflict broke out in the Solomon Islands between 1999 and 2003.
Fiji experienced four coups since 1987 and has been under a military Government since 2006. The Kingdom of Tonga suffered serious looting, violence and property destruction following pro-democracy protests in 2006. Vanuatu remains politically unstable and has been compounded by several natural disasters that have continued to drain its limited resources since 2010. Increased international interest and investment in natural resource extraction continue to be potential triggers for small-scale conflict.
Natural disasters continue to cause forced internal displacement across the Pacific. However, poorly informed and inadequate preparedness measures have failed to protect affected populations. In light of these challenges, OCHA has maintained an office in Fiji to support 14 PICTs since 1999. In 2008 it initiated a regional humanitarian network, the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT), with regional, open-ended clusters. The PHT cluster arrangements were formalised by the IASC in January 2012.
Implication of Regional Trends
The reality in the island region of high-disaster risk implies that virtually every community – men, women, girls and boys – can become vulnerable in a very short time due to external shocks. Most PICTs lack the resources for ongoing coordination of emergency preparedness and response. This is partly due to multiple demands on small, under-resourced National Disaster Management Organizations (NDMOs), and to the varied geographical and thematic focus of development organizations working in these areas. National-level inter-agency coordination on these issues is often weak. Governments frequently lack the capacity to provide assistance at the community level, and instead rely on and often overburden traditional structures and civil society organizations. This results in gaps in service delivery, monitoring and evaluation. National Disaster Management officials have repeatedly emphasized their lack of capacity to implement systems for effective disaster preparedness, management, response and recovery. These gaps have been echoed by successive post-disaster evaluations, reviews, training needs analysis and lessons learned exercises. One of the major deficiencies of Pacific disaster risk management is its ongoing failure to be inclusive, to adequately involve women and other stakeholders, and to contribute to gender equality.
Regional Capacity for Preparedness and Response
NDMOs tend to be small, with much of their intended value resting in the ability to oversee and coordinate the range of activities and actors involved in the various stages and phases of DRM. Their inability to effectively take up this leadership role has been one of the greatest barriers to improving the quality of DRM in Pacific countries.
Multi-sector involvement is another frequent coordination challenge. In some PICTs, civil society is weak and the contribution of faith-based organizations and NGOs in DRM has not been fully utilized or harmonized with government efforts. NDMOs struggle to be active on preparedness and response, to link with disaster risk reduction, and promote climate change adaptation. Stretched in many directions, these under-funded and under-staffed NDMO units can have political, as well as other, challenges in focusing on the coordination central to their mandate.
The varied geographical and thematic focus of development organizations makes information sharing, documentation, and communication difficult; and information management in government bodies is generally acknowledged as weak. As a result, inter-agency coordination on disaster risk management at national and sub-national levels is often inadequate.
Few international humanitarian and development organizations have a physical presence in the island states, and regional responders operate from different locations around the Pacific. When a disaster exceeds national response and resource capacity, international humanitarian organizations are also faced with the challenge in responding to a localized humanitarian need from a regional capacity.
Disaster preparedness is improving in the region, although still few international humanitarian organizations have an established presence in the PICs. Many IASC partners are based in Fiji, others are in Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia. A number of UN entities, inter-governmental organizations, NGOs and faith-based organizations operate with a combination of regional and multi-country (development) programmes, surge capacities and dedicated country offices. As a result, the challenges are twofold. Disaster partners in the region have different levels of expertise. While there is good collaboration through the PHT, their respective initiatives and training are often disparate and not integrated. Coordination among partners is also hindered by the fact that they have different areas of “jurisdiction” within the region and do not have uniform capabilities throughout the Pacific.
The creation of the PHT in 2008 has improved regional disaster planning and response coordination. However, the team is severely constrained in its ability to carry out timely and predictable work in the absence of reliable and effective national structures. Cluster lead agencies, particularly those without a physical presence in PICs, often lack the resources to contribute consistently to national-level inter-agency planning and coordination. OCHA and PHT partners are supporting information management (IM) and national coordination structures. The Red Cross Movement, UN agencies (UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA), some of the larger international NGOs, and Australia and New Zealand, have pre-positioned emergency stocks in various PICs.
In the current UNDAF, covering 14 countries, there is a specific output for disaster risk management (DRM) and coordinated humanitarian assistance. An integrated approach to DRM, climate change adaptation and sustainable environmental management will feature prominently in the next UNDAF cycle that starts in 2013.