Water warnings – Mitigating the effects of flash flooding in Pacific Island communities

When we think about the impacts of climate change on Pacific Island countries, sea level rise often springs to mind. And while this is a very real phenomenon receiving due attention from governments, aid agencies and NGOs, there is another huge climate change threat to many Pacific Island communities: catastrophic rainfall events.

Pacific Island countries are already experiencing more frequent and severe rainfall events as a result of climate change. Short, steep catchments and a lack of protective infrastructure make many communities vulnerable to life-threatening floods and landslides, and to serious health and economic impacts associated with damage to infrastructure and environments.

While these extreme rainfall events can’t be avoided and are expected to further worsen, measures can be put in place to minimise risks. These measures include early warning systems which would alert authorities and communities to any impending danger.

Small group discussion for the Early Warning Framework (Image: SPC)

Warnings in the past and present

In Samoa, heavy rain during the wet season causes frequent flood events, particularly around the capital city of Apia. And while local authorities make efforts to issue warnings about associated dangers, often these warnings come too late when communities are already inundated.

Samoa’s Director of the Water Resources Division in the Ministry of National Resources and Environment, Malaki Iakopo, says that while the nation’s weather predictions are accurate, more can be done to understand and prepare for the consequences once the water hits the ground.

“Hydrology falls quite a bit behind when compared to the meteorological services, so we are trying as much as possible to bridge that gap, and to bring not only the instrumentation and equipment but also the technical capacity of our service providers up to par,” says Mr Iakopo.

The Australian Water Partnership has partnered with The Pacific Community (SPC)—the principal scientific and technical organisation in the Pacific region—to improve early flood warning systems in Samoa—as well as Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands—through surface water hydrology. Australian Partners Alluvium International, BMT and Dr Jan Edwards are providing technical expertise, research and stakeholder engagement activities in order to improve existing flash flood early warning systems via catchment prioritisation and piloting.

Communities front and centre

Because flooding typically affects some communities disproportionally, project partners are paying particular attention to the way floods and flood warnings impact women and girls, people with disabilities and those living in poverty. Traditional Knowledge is also playing an important role, with stories being gathered from community members on historical flood events and their impacts.

And while some families know a great deal about flood risk from Traditional Knowledge and/or lived experience, others don’t have the same awareness. Unfortunately, this leaves them further at risk. For Mrs Mere Vinaka and her family, those risks became reality after moving to a new town in Fiji.

Mrs Mere, her husband and her five children moved to the Fijian town of Ba on the banks of the Ba River in early 2018. Three months after arriving, it had been raining for several days when early on Easter Sunday she saw water entering the house while cooking breakfast.

“I assumed a bucket of water had spilled at the door so I rushed outside to see what was happening,” said Mrs Mere. “When I opened the door, I saw fast and deep flowing floodwaters surrounding the house. The water was too deep and moving too fast to evacuate and so my children and I were forced to retreat to the second story of our home.”

Because she was new to the area and the flooding took her by surprise, she had to look to her neighbours for cues on how to respond to the rainfall and flooding.

“The water in the house was so deep and the current so strong it was difficult to get the kids and to move upstairs,” said Mrs Mere.

“The floods were so extreme that only the roof of the Ba market, where I am a vendor, was visible.”

While Mrs Mere and her family weren’t physically harmed on this occasion, their home and belongings were damaged and their income was greatly affected.

Looking and planning ahead

With the Pacific Islands having entered the 2022-23 cyclone season, locals are on tenterhooks, aware that floods could arrive at any minute. Authorities acknowledge that it is crucial for action to be taken now to alleviate some of these worries in future.

“Our region is at a critical stage to try and improve our early warning systems in order to provide our communities with as much information as possible to safeguard their livelihoods and also our national economies,” says Iakopo.

Over in Fiji, where a National Flood Stakeholder Workshop was held in August 2022, the project’s community-focused approach and inclusion of both meteorology and hydrology principles appears to have secured the confidence of authorities.

Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Meteorological Services in Fiji, Mr. Taitusi Vakadravuyaca, was encouraged by the many participants at the workshop and optimistic about future outcomes.

“The workshop you’re gathered in today is an important step in this project, bringing together a diversity of stakeholders and gathering your valuable feedback that will undeniably help the Fiji Meteorological Service improve flood early warning in Fiji,” said Mr Vakadravuyaca.

We hope that this engagement will also be an essential mechanism that will promote a shared understanding of the value of flood early warnings as well as foster a shared understanding of different stakeholder’s requirements of flood early warning in Fiji.”

Chief Guest, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Meteorological Services, Mr. Taitusi Vakadravuyaca opening the workshop. (Image: SPC)

SPC Acting Director Geoscience, Energy and Marine Division, Mrs. Rhonda Robinson, acknowledged the significance of both the partnership with AWP and the workshop itself.

“Flooding affects all of us and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to engage with a broad cross section of the practitioners, and community alike, to better understand how we can improve our response to the floods that affect us every year,” said Mrs Robinson.

“As the principal scientific and technical organisation supporting development in the Pacific region, we here at SPC were delighted to link with the team from Australian Water Partnership in developing a modest but critical first step towards re-establishing and strengthening the regional support we can provide in hydrology to member countries to address flash flood early warnings.”

Through projects like this which improve the ability for Disaster Risk Reduction, Pacific Island countries will become increasingly resilient to climate impacts. This creates happier, healthier communities, better economic stability and greater hope for future generations.

Featured image: Tom Steward SPC and Jonah Taviti DoWR analysing hydrological data in the Tideda database (Image: SPC)
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