The Pacific islands are some of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the human and economic devastation of natural disasters.
This decade has seen an increase in the number and severity of natural disasters, from Tropical Cyclone Gita, which struck Tonga in 2018, causing damage of about 38 percent of GDP; to Tropical Cyclone Winston, which struck Fiji in 2016, causing damage of about 29 percent of GDP; to Tropical Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in 2015, causing damage of about 60% of GDP.
The smaller scale of economies in the Pacific makes them less able to prepare, and recover from, these impacts.
Natural disasters are four times more likely to affect people in Asia and the Pacific than those in Africa, and 25 times more likely than those in Europe. The smaller scale of economies in the Pacific, moreover, makes them less able to prepare, and recover from, these impacts.
To counter this, the Asian Development Bank has developed a five-tool approach to increase resilience to climate change, disasters, and economic shocks by: (1) financing climate-resilient infrastructure; (2) improving disaster risk reduction, response, and management; (3) promoting low-carbon development; (4) increasing access to climate and disaster risk finance; and (5) building core capacities to plan for, and respond to, climate change and disasters.
Since 2015, ADB has helped five Pacific island countries—Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, and Tonga—access and administer $133 million in concessional financing from the Green Climate Fund.
Four Big Questions with Emma Veve, ADB Pacific Department's Director of Social Sectors and Public Sector Management.
Q: How big is the problem of natural disasters in the Pacific?
A: For the Pacific, disasters unfortunately are a really big problem. The Pacific countries, many of them are on the ring of fire, so they’re exposed to earthquakes, volcanoes. They’re also in the cyclone belt, so they suffer from cyclones quite frequently, sometimes multiple times in one season. Typically, you can see losses of 30% to 60% of GDP in a single country from one event.
Q: What are the unique challenges the Pacific faces?
A: When Pacific countries do get hit by a natural disaster, quite often it disables a large proportion of their economy. Take a cyclone, for example. It might, both cause damage to the infrastructure, peoples’ houses, it will cause shops to shut, but it might also put tourists off coming for quite a period of time. Governments in the Pacific really have quite limited flexibility to deal with those significant economic downturns that happen because they just don’t have the financial resources to tide them through for what can be several months, if not longer.
Q: How is ADB helping Pacific countries combat the impact of natural disasters?
A: What ADB has been doing recently in the Pacific is to both climate proof infrastructure, so when we build something to think of the potential impacts that a disaster might have on it and build those protections into a project. For example, we built a road in Kiribati recently, in fact it’s 40-odd kilometers of road, the biggest road in the whole country, and ensuring it’s high enough to avoid the tide coming over it in periods of high tide was one factor we built in. Also important is preparing governments financial for disasters. Recently we’ve approved some contingent financing lines for countries and in fact this actually got tested out in reality in Tonga in February 2018 when they got hit by Cyclone Gita and the government needed some money fairly quickly to help finance the immediate recovery and we were able to release $6 million within a day or two of the disaster.
Q: What is Disaster Risk Management and how is it helping?
A: Traditionally in the Pacific, a lot of the disaster preparedness and disaster planning has happened in bits and pieces. Disaster management officers will develop plans and awareness campaigns, the public works department will think about climate-proofing infrastructure, finance will think about how these things might be financed. But really Disaster Risk Management is pulling all of these elements together and importantly the people who are going to be most impacted by disasters and getting all of those different pieces of the economy or the country talking and working together to come up with a cohesive and collaborative plan about how to manage disasters.
ADB has supported the establishment of disaster contingent financing arrangements through its policy-based instrument in five countries in the Pacific to date. In December 2017, ADB launched the Pacific Disaster Resilience Program, which provides Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu with a timely source of disaster contingent financing for early response and recovery activities following disasters, while supporting priority actions in disaster risk management. Tonga’s $6 million contingent financing under the program was disbursed in full just three days after the country was struck by Tropical Cyclone Gita in February 2018, demonstrating the fast-disbursing capability of this instrument. ADB also has country specific disaster contingent financing programs for the Cook Islands and Palau.
ADB is committed to preparing climate change risk assessments for all its infrastructure investments in the Pacific.
In Fiji, ADB helped to mobilize $50 million to reconstruct schools destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Winston, while, in Papua New Guinea, ADB is also helping to “climate proof” maritime infrastructure in Milne Bay; and in Tonga, ADB is supporting the climate- and disaster proofing of power networks.
Across the region, ADB is committed to preparing climate change risk assessments for all its infrastructure investments in the Pacific.
The next priorities are to further integrate climate change and disaster risk management into national development plans and programs. Doing so, will strengthen preemptive measures and improve the capacity of each country to respond to disasters in the future.