Tsunami offers a chance for change in the Solomon Islands

Published: 16 April 2007 0:00 CET
Water and sanitation engineer Victoria Fray,left, speaks to Rosemary Vaka about cracks in the soil in her village. (p15627)
Water and sanitation engineer Victoria Fray,left, speaks to Rosemary Vaka about cracks in the soil in her village. (p15627)

Rosemarie North of the International Federation on Vella Lavella Island, Solomon Islands

It was volunteers from the Solomon Islands Red Cross who brought the first emergency relief to Jay Hong's village on Simbo Island, following a devastating earthquake and tsunami on 2 April, which killed seven villagers and destroyed dozens of homes in the area.

Their visit inspired Jay, a graphic designer, to become a volunteer for the Red Cross himself. "Material things can be gone in five seconds," says Jay, on a Red Cross relief boat bound for Vella Lavella Island.

"We don't have a lot of things here, so when whatever you have disappears in a disaster, it's very stressful," he says, adding that visiting affected villages to assess their needs makes him feel like he’s doing something worthwhile.

"It is a good feeling to help with the Red Cross… Rather than try to get material things, I've decided to work for the Red Cross."

Moving forward

The relief boat moors in a bay on Vella Lavella. A woman from Tiberius Village rows a dugout canoe out to the boat and Jay steps in.

The woman leads Jay and other members of the relief team up a steep hill track. Under shade, Jay gathers the villagers. "You are ok," he reassures them. "You're still alive. These things happen. Now we must move forward."

Jay gets out his forms and starts recording statistics on the number of people in Tiberius, their ages, health, housing, water, food supplies and other needs. Once he's finished, volunteers on the Red Cross boat will unload 20 kilogramme bags of rice, water containers and other emergency supplies.

While Jay carries out his assessment, local women take a group of disaster specialists from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on a tour of the hillside village. On the crest of the ridge are long cracks in the soil.

Risk of disease

Victoria Fray, a water and sanitation engineer from New Zealand, who is with the International Federation team, looks worried.

"In the next big rainfall, water will get into those cracks and there could be a landslide," she says.

That's bad news for Tiberius, where houses cling to the side of the hill.

Villager Rosemary Vaka takes the team to her home, which is badly listing. At her sister's house, nearby, a water tank was knocked off its stand and now lies in blue plastic shards.

As a result, their flushing toilet is not working. Many other toilets are also damaged, so people are going down to the beach instead. Victoria says using the sea as a toilet is risky.

"If people are swimming where they're defecating, they could get sicknesses like cholera, or if someone's got diarrhoea and goes in the ocean, then other people are at risk," she points out.

Building back better

The visit gets Victoria thinking about longer term programmes the local Red Cross could run.

While tragic, disasters can sometimes offer a chance to make communities safer in the long-run, by opening the door to improvements in areas such as water and sanitation, reconstruction, and health care.

"This could be a really good opportunity for a community-based solution, where the local people get together with the Red Cross to understand all the different health risks they face in their village," says Victoria.

The villagers then come up with some workable solutions to improve the situation.

"There’s no point in building new latrines unless the community is on-board and agrees that they offer a viable, sustainable solution," says Victoria. "People have to decide for themselves what their priorities are, or they will never use them."

As well as delivering emergency relief, the International Federation and the Solomon Islands Red Cross are planning longer-term programmes to help people in the Solomon Islands recover from the devastating tsunami and earthquake, which claimed at least 35 lives and displaced around 9,000 people.

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