UN Disaster Risk Reduction Representative Visits Tonga

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Wahlström: natural disasters costly for Pacific economies

By Linny Folau

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, July 2, 2013) РPeople living in the Pacific region should be concerned over the threat of natural disasters, because its geographic location is vulnerable to increasing intensity in cyclones, as well as earthquakes, said Margareta Wahlstr̦m, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, who is visiting Tonga.

"Take a look at your environment, learn more about early warning signals and take them seriously," she said.

During two-days in Nuku’alofa, July 1-2, the high level UN representative said that another concern is that the losses caused by a disaster detracts from the economic development of a country.

"It costs your government every time to pay to restore roads, buildings or schools, and detracts funds from what could have been used for an alternative positive purpose," she said.

"Ordinary citizens should be concerned because you live in an environment where you can anticipate there would be another cyclone or earthquake and you can lose your personal belongings, or your production like a farmer loses his harvest. In addition, very few people have insurance or any financial buffer let alone the risk of losing healthcare and education time if schools are closed, or you even lose a member of your family," she said.

She said everyone should look at this as something that affects the society that we are a part of. We should worry about what we should do to mitigate its impact.

Challenge

Ms. Wahlström said the Pacific is very conscious of the risks associated with the adverse impact of climate change and associated natural disasters.

"The challenge for the region is the economic basis because economies cannot be very diversified because your islands are small and you have seen people going away to find other incomes, which reduces the talent pool in the islands to tackle some of the potential economic development issues," she said.

While it was clear that small islands had limitations, she believed collaboration and learning from each other's experiences was critical.

"We are trying to stimulate in every way the acceleration of countries learning laterally. For climate change, there are resources to be drawn down and countries are planning and collecting evidence-based data for preparedness and disaster relief, and I believe through collaboration we can achieve a lot," she said.

Partners

The UN Special Representative noted that the Pacific also had its partners.

"Some are not really part of the Pacific but are constantly present, while others are neighbors such as New Zealand and Australia, who are very important for disaster response, and I know there is collaboration with Japan - a country that understands natural disasters very well. It’s a bit of work to keep partners together but if you have a clear national plan it helps to ask specifically on what is good for you," she said.

The UN does not specifically have a plan to assess the impact of people living in low-lying areas in the Pacific region.

"The way the UN works is that we have UN Development Assistance Frameworks, where the UN aligns its priorities for effort with government priorities. We are present in the Pacific and the impact of climate change and natural disaster is one of our priority areas that we align with governments.

"Do I think whether that’s specific enough and high priority enough? Not yet. I think it must have a much higher priority in order to get all the support for economic development, stability and sustainability," she said.

Tonga

Ms. Wahlström who met Tonga's Prime Minister and other stakeholders said issues raised revolved around Tonga's vulnerability and exposure due to the nature of the island, the proximity of seismic risk, the Tonga Trench and the regularity of cyclones.

"I believe there is a very high degree of awareness and anxiety about these threats to your economy and the way of living for your people. I had a chance to congratulate the government and the people that have worked on Tonga’s National Plan, which integrates the risks generated by the combination of the environmental damage, climate change disasters and the lack of resilience economic basis."

She said the main issue she got from everyone was public education because typically when there is an acute emergency everyone is interested and then they go on with their life.

Individuals

"Tonga is trying to build a system that is on alert all the time, so that individual citizens will be responsible for preparedness. The other aspect that was not so explicit, but I heard, is that Tonga is working on how to mainstream climate disaster risk into all sectors of society. It is not just a responsibility of the national emergency system but a responsibility of everyone from agriculture, health, education, planning and information," she said.

"The awareness level is high but it is the action that counts and what happens next. The major challenge is how to quickly get the understanding fully enforced into the society so it could become more resilient, better informed and thinks long term," she said.

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