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Four years before Cyclone Gita struck Tonga, heavy rains, brought by a tropical depression that developed into the powerful Cyclone Ita, swept through Solomon Islands with catastrophic effects.
The tropical depression dumped huge amounts of rainfall on the island of Guadalcanal in April 2014, triggering massive flooding, killing 23 people, and leaving devastation in its wake.
Another 52,000 were affected. The island’s infrastructure, including water supply systems, major roads, and bridges, was mostly damaged or destroyed. Honiara, the capital city, was particularly hard hit.
“It was the most severe flooding I had ever seen,” says Loti Yates, director of the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), who was in the city at the time. “And it was the first time I can remember a big, highly populated area being so badly impacted.”
“Many people panicked trying to get home, especially those in Honiara,” he says. The Mataniko River had burst its banks near the capital’s business center and the informal settlement where many of the city’s low-income families lived. Few had experience with such dangerous flooding, and some were trapped by the rising waters. “That is where most of the deaths occurred.”
Travel between different parts of Guadalcanal and within the capital itself became difficult or impossible. Sections of the province’s single east–west highway had been erased by flooding rains. The bridge over the Mataniko River, which divides Honiara into two, was washed out. “We couldn’t access the airport, the hospital, or any of the shops or services,” says Mike Qaqara, acting director of transport infrastructure management services in the Ministry of Infrastructure Development.
“It was 4 or 5 a.m. when the floodwaters came pouring in,” recalls Clifton Muaki, who was a 14-year-old Form 1 student when he and more than 500 others were forced to scramble to evacuate their dormitories at Selwyn College in West Guadalcanal. Their teachers had managed to wake them in time, and they reached Honiara just before the school was cut off and the classrooms and staff housing were inundated.
ADB’s response to a government request for help came through the August 2014 approval of a loan and Asian Development Fund (ADF) grant financing totaling US$13.2 million for the Transport Sector Flood Recovery Project.
By completion in June 2018, it had helped reinstate bridge approach roads, culverts, and stream crossings and rebuilt three elevated bridges, reestablishing a seamless east–west road link on Guadalcanal and within Honiara. All works incorporated climate- and disaster-proof design.
More than simply restoring basic links to the usual standards, the project took a build-back-better approach. Household surveys show that travel times to markets, schools, health care services, and for business and trade are now shorter than ever before. In addition, getting from A to B is not as dependent as it was before the 2014 disaster on the current state of the weather.
The Mberanda and Mbalasuna bridges—two of the three built with decks higher than historical and most projected flood levels—provide direct benefits to about 7,300 households and 39,000 people in East Guadalcanal.
“Communities in the east and west can still get to town now even when some main rivers are flooded,” says the Ministry of Infrastructure Development’s Mike Qaqara. “That means sick people can reach clinics and hospitals in town for treatment during heavy storms.”
Daniel Manengelea, principal of Ruavatu Provincial Secondary School in East Guadalcanal, has noticed that the two bridges have made life much easier and likely more profitable for the area’s farmers. “People previously had no choice but to carry their heavy market-bound loads of coconuts, pawpaw, and potatoes through the river in wheelbarrows to get to a truck on the other side,” he says. “It took time, and produce was often spilled and lost in the waters. If you missed the truck to town, that was it. Now, with the better roads and bridges, there are several market trips a day.”
The project ensured that women would also benefit from the reconstruction activities. Contractors were required to give 10% of all laboring jobs to women, and the bridge designs included pedestrian walkways with railings, and stairs to allow safer access to the river water beneath the bridges, especially for women and the elderly.
The Government of Solomon Islands knows that another such emergency is inevitable, so it has taken major steps since 2014 to strengthen its disaster management capabilities, including raising public awareness of the dangers of building shelters on riverbanks and improving resilience to disasters across multiple sectors.
“Most people have moved their food gardens to higher ground or inland,” says Daniel, “and our school has established a committee for safety preparedness and drills for emergency evacuation. The students will know what to do if new flooding occurs.”
Regina Pokana, sustainability and quality manager in a palm oil company in East Guadalcanal, was part of the team that helped evacuate employees from a local palm oil company in East Guadalcanal during the flooding and says plans are in place to respond quickly in the event of another weather emergency.
“We’ve marked the new bridges to track current water levels,” she says. “If the river rises above a certain point, our evacuation plan goes into motion.”
Much remains to be done, according to the NDMO’s Loti Yates. “The NDMO can only inform and advocate for greater preparedness and try to help people help themselves,” he says. “At the end of the day, disaster preparedness is everybody’s responsibility.” .
*From NEW ADB publication, Together We Deliver-Grants for a Brighter Future, Asian Development Fund: https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/535676/together-we-deliver-2019.pdf
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