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By Tukaha Mua Fiji TV

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (July 2, 2002 - PINA Nius Online, 2 July 2002)---Imagine an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale, and then a six-meter (almost 20-foot) high tsunami shattering Rarotonga, Alofi, Honiara, Port Moresby, Apia, Suva and Tarawa all within the space of two days. Imagine the thousands of buildings and assets lost in the devastating wave of destruction.

Thankfully, it’s all imaginary. For now.

Papua New Guinea has had its share of earthquake and tsunami problems in recent times. Other Pacific Islands countries are well overdue for their share.

The human aspects aside, imagine the costs Pacific Islands countries would have to meet just to rebuild their shattered economies and infrastructures. These would be damaged not if, but when, the next natural disasters, on a truly regional scale, hit.

Those are some of the questions to be raised during catastrophe insurance presentations at this week’s Forum Economic Ministers Meeting (FEMM) in Port Vila.

The South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) has done initial groundwork in the area, and the future does not look good.

SOPAC’s Director, Alfred Simpson, summarizes it as: "What I want to tell the Forum Island countries is if they’re serious about development, if they want to build safer cities, run these scenarios we’ve given you. Look at what’s realistic and maybe there are some solutions for future planning."

The scenarios, which include a projected tsunami strike on Port Vila, mean a sizable insurance commitment from Forum countries.

With a host of natural disasters that threaten the region, SOPAC’s Geological Engineer Dr. Graham Shorten says catastrophe insurance isn’t only about assets.

"It about agriculture, tourism and a way of life. If a huge earthquake struck a Forum member country and took out an international airport and telephone systems, for many Pacific Island countries it simply means you can forget about talking to the world for a long time."

While the pilot project only looks at assets and infrastructure, the figures alone are staggering. At least one insurance brokerage firm has described as "conservative" the initial estimates of the numbers of people who would be affected by significant catastrophe damage.

Port Vila has around 35,000 people and 360 buildings, and the region an estimated 1.6 million people with over 300,000 buildings of all types.

Factor in a visit by a one-in-100-year cyclone and the damage in Vanuatu alone is estimated to be somewhere in the region of AUD$ 260 million (US$ 146,198,000), or 80% of Vanuatu’s gross domestic product (GDP).

However, the worst estimates are reserved for earthquakes. Many of the region’s wharves, airports, gas, oil and petroleum supplies are located in areas particularly susceptible to earthquakes. Never mind the tsunami that will follow.

With recent changes to the risk-management approach adopted by insurance companies following the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States, observers say regional governments need to take on the burden of insuring themselves.

Said Atu Kaloumaira, Disaster Mitigation Adviser: "Even though the pilot project only looks at infrastructure and assets, it can be developed into other income generating areas like tourism and agriculture, because the base lines are being done now. It’s all a question of making use of the tools we have available now."

Simpson though says the issue for regional governments is simple.

"They spend so much time planning the little details of monetary policy, budgets, surpluses and what not; all it takes is one huge earthquake and you can bet your bottom dollar all those things are going to be shelved.

"What we’re saying is do something about it now. Plan and put money aside for this, and the recovery phase, when a disaster strikes, will take care of itself."

The matter was first tabled before the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting in 1997. Part of the delay in making a decision is blamed on the huge cost of taking out premiums on a national-asset scale.

Some observers suggest the way ahead will be to get the Pacific Islands Forum to set up a group type plan covering assets, including airports, ports, bridges and other structures belonging to the state.

Five years on, Simpson is still hoping ministers make a decision soon.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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