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Earthquake and tsunami in the Solomon Islands

by Penelope Kerr, (c) 2007

 

Background

The Solomon Islands is a group of approximately 1.000 islands situated to the North North East of Australia, stretching from the Santa Cruz Islands in the South East, close to Vanuatu, to the Shortland Islands approximately 5 nautical miles from Bougainville. The population is approximately half a million, 40% of whom are under 14 and 56% from 15 to 64 years. The median age is 19 years. 1

The Solomon Islands: Chart from the CIA World Fact Book

CIA Map

 

The country is poor with a gross domestic product per capita of US$600 (estimated 2005). Most Solomon Islanders depend on agriculture, fishing and forestry for their livelihood. The World Fact Book does not give an unemployment rate. With so many people engaged in subsistence farming and fishing, it is difficult to estimate. It is however safe to say that few people outside the major towns have much money. The ethnic tensions on Guadalcanal since 2000 have meant the scaling back of businesses associated with tourism which previously employed a substantial number of people. The worldwide downturn in the copra markets has also had a significant effect on village incomes. Paid employment is believed to be less than 10%.

Photos of the 2008 Disaster are at

http://www.kerr.net.au/gallery/index.php/SolomonsDisaster

 

Government services function poorly. For example, in 2002 no Government salaries were being paid. This included the police, air traffic controllers, customs and immigration and teachers. The teachers went on strike and so there was no school for several months.

The RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) intervention in 2003 resulted in immediate improvement to law and order. Government salaries were at last paid and Government workers received assistance and training from their counterparts in the countries which were part of the Mission. However, there are still problems. For example, in August 2006, grant money given by the New Zealand Government to allow schools to buy paper, pencils, chalk and other supplies was nine months overdue. In April 2007, teachers at one school at least had not recently been paid their salaries. Hospitals depend on donations from overseas to keep up supplies of drugs and even goods like rubber gloves are often in short supply.

There are some towns (Honiara and Gizo are the largest) but most people live in villages on the many populated islands. Air transport is available between the main centres for those who can afford it. Local people normally travel by water, either on ferries or by canoe. There are few roads except in the main towns and the logging areas. In general, transport is extremely difficult and unreliable. For example, in 2006, no boat took passengers or goods from Gizo ( the nearest port) to the Shortland Islands for three months, despite their being many people and a great deal of cargo to be transported there.

The country is divided into nine provinces with a National Government based in Honiara.

Earthquake and Tsunami

On April 2nd 2007 an earthquake of magnitude 8.1 occurred 45 kilometres SSE of Gizo, the capital of the Western Province. 2 It was followed for several days by after- shocks of 6.0 or greater. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami which spread to the North but did not affect points to the south, even those quite close to the earthquake's epicentre. It devastated many coastal towns and caused widespread damage and loss of life in two provinces, Western Province and Choiseul. The number of fatalities is difficult to estimate, as some villagers buried their dead quickly once people were found. The official death toll is 68, with 131 others missing. 3

The Western Province covers an area of 5,279 square kilometres and is home to about 63,000 people. It consists of many small Islands spread from the Marovo Lagoon in the South to the Shortland Islands in the North. Gizo is the capital. Choiseul Province is based on the Island of Choiseul and small islands adjacent to it. The Provincial Capital is Taro, a small town on its North Western shore. It has a population of about 20,000 people.

In villages directly exposed to the sea, the tsunami came as a series of waves, with the sea emptying between the waves. The heights varied between two metres and five metres. Where it was focussed by a bay, the wave was bigger. In Toumoa (near the Shortland Islands) and perhaps in other places, the second wave was at right angles to the first.

Where a village was on the protected side of an island or where a reef broke the wave, the tsunami was experienced as a swell, reaching up to 2 or 3 metres. The swell came and went, pulling things back and forward in its path. In at least two cases where an island was separated from the mainland by a channel (Moli, a small island off the West Coast of Choiseul, and Nila, on the island of Poporang, separated from Shortland Island) the water came from both ends of the channel and met in a huge crest in the centre.

Some people were able to escape by running to higher ground. For those villages near the earthquake's epicentre, there was a period of between one to three minutes between the quake and the tsunami, giving little time to run, especially for the old and the young. In Ranonnga there was a choice between the sea and landslides which swept huge boulders down the mountain. In Simbo the decision was also difficult: running away from the sea took people up an active volcano. On this Island, North West of Gizo, the United Church Bishop of the area and some of the parishioners were drowned by the tsunami which arrived during an ordination. In more distant villages (for example in the Shortland Islands about 250kms away) there was about 15 minutes before the wave arrived so more chance of escaping to higher ground, if the danger was anticipated. In the North there were two sizable earthquakes felt before the tsunami arrived.

In total, over 10,000 people were affected by the earthquake and its aftermath.4

Damage

The effect of the earthquake and tsunami were felt widely throughout the Western Province and on the Western Coast of the Choiseul. In some villages, (for example, Titiana on the western side of the Island of Ghizo) every building was destroyed or damaged. Other villages experienced 75% damage while in others, those close to the water were swept away while buildings higher up a slope survived.

Some of these buildings were substantial Western style structures, others of traditional construction. Many houses were completely washed away. In other cases, the water picked up trees and building debris which then acted as battering rams to destroy walls and pylons. Two Western style buildings at Toumoa in the Fauro Islands were picked up off their pylons and carried 100 metres up the hill.

The force of the water coming and going undermined footings. They were loosened when the structure was moved back and forwards in the earthquake, then the water came swirling up to wash away the sand around them. As a result many buildings are leaning at a dangerous angle. Added to this is the fact that some islands appear to have changed their height above sea level. The Island of Ranongga has risen so that the reefs which previously provided fishing grounds for the local people are now dry land. Other villages (for example, Maleai and Pirumeri in the Shortland Islands) have dropped from 300 to 600mm so that previously dry areas are under water at high tide. In one case (Pirumeri) the water table is now only 600mm deep. It is clearly necessary to rebuild these villages on higher ground. However, there is no money and no equipment to do this.

Mud slides and land slides caused by the earthquake and the tsunami were responsible for damage and loss of life in several villages. In Sasamunga, the most seriously damaged village in Choiseul, the water washed in about 500 metres and caused a serious landslide. Several people were killed and the hospital made unusable. On Ranonnga, the earthquake caused boulders to roll down the mountain, destroying houses and knocking over trees.

In Gizo and villages close to the epicentre, the earthquake itself caused major damage to many buildings and destroyed people's possessions. In Gizo, the front was of the Catholic Cathedral collapsed, bringing down a bell and bell tower, fortunately missing several people who had been standing underneath moments before. Most of the walls of this building are unsafe and will have to be re- built. Many stores in the main street were damaged or their contents ruined by the earthquake. The arrival of the tsunami completed the process.

Effect on the population

Trauma

The people of the Western Province are severely traumatised by the events of April 2nd. Many lost relatives or fellow- villagers. For others it is difficult to get over the fear engendered by the severe earthquake and the incredible damage done by water. Added to this is a lack of knowledge about the cause of the earthquake and the wave. It was important to have available accurate and clear information which allayed some fears. A month later, many were still reluctant to return to their homes even when they were made habitable, as after- shocks or further earthquakes were still being felt. Even more people have no homes to return to. They are living in makeshift camps or in any building which has survived the destruction.

It is worth remarking on the success of the UNICEF and Save the Children Fund's initiative in supplying boxes of toys for the children who are in camps in Gizo. Word- of- mouth reports suggest that they are helping to keep the children occupied during this difficult time.

Housing

After careful surveys by the main agencies responding to this disaster, it is estimated that 1,000 homes have been destroyed and a further 1,000 damaged. Clearing and rebuilding are already beginning, but it will be very difficult to get enough local materials to rebuild quickly. On the positive side, there is a great spirit of co- operation in villages and in Gizo, with people working well together to achieve results.

Some villages (eg Toumoa) had stockpiled sawn timber for later use, but this was picked up by the waves and swept away.

Infrastructure

Rebuilding of homes and public buildings will be a long and expensive process. Many public buildings were damaged- clinics and hospitals, churches and meeting places all suffered and probably their replacement will need to wait until people are housed.

The main hospital in the area, Gizo Hospital, occupied a water- front position and it was badly damaged by the tsunami. Fortunately everyone was able to be evacuated to higher ground, but for some weeks afterwards no areas of the hospital itself were able to be used. A field hospital was set up above the town and serious cases were evacuated to the Island of New Georgia.

In a country which depends mainly on the sea for its transport needs, jetties are vital pieces of infrastructure but most jetties in the affected area have been washed away or damaged beyond repair.

In general most school buildings were not severely damaged although there was a great deal of cleaning up to do, and many lost books and materials. Unfortunately the education infrastructure in the Solomon Islands has not been operating well for some time, so it is going to be very difficult for schools to recover their losses except through outside donations. Some schools have been unable to reopen because they are being used as temporary homes by those who have lost their dwellings.

In general, villages treasure their two- way radios as their window to the world, so most made sure that the radio and its batteries were kept safe. This was not always possible and some were lost. Other “luxury” items such as generators were frequently damaged by the salt water, even if they were not washed away. Some villagers had the knowledge to attend to them to minimise the damage. Others did not realise that there was a chance to save them, or were too preoccupied with other worries.

Water

The supply of water has been a major problem throughout the area, exacerbated by the uncharacteristic lack of rain during April. Every type of water source supply was affected. Tanks were destroyed, whether they were of fibreglass, aluminium, corrugated iron, plastic or concrete. Some villages had reliable wells to provide water: they were filled with salt water and many collapsed internally, so these people too have been without water. In other places the water supply is delivered by pipes from streams or springs above the village. In many cases the pipes were ruptured. In one village, Gaomai in the Shortland Islands, there is now an 8km trip by canoe and on foot to fetch water whereas previously there was a good supply from wells in the village.

Food

The food supply has also been disrupted. Many canoes were swept away or destroyed so it is difficult for people to go out fishing. There was a belief at first that there should be no fishing after the tsunami because the fish would be poisonous, so that even those who had access to a canoe were unwilling to go fishing. Fortunately this misunderstanding has been addressed.

Some villages had clam farms that were destroyed, and others lost fishing platforms that helped them to catch their food.

Many gardens were washed away or killed when the salt water covered them. It will be a long and difficult process for some villages to recover their normal food supply. Many are still hungry despite the best efforts of aid agencies to distribute food to them, and though rice is appreciated and fills the urgent need to eat, it is not an adequate long- term food source for the whole population.

Goods

Even where houses withstood the tsunami, many possessions were swept away. It is common for people to live in a house supported on poles and to store their goods underneath. In these cases, the goods would be washed away, including clothing, cooking utensils, gardening implements and fishing gear. The water entered the main living area of many homes, and picked up anything in its path. Some schools lost all their books and materials, and clinics were particularly hard hit because they are often situated near the water. Most clinics in the affected area lost their supplies of medicines and equipment.

In some cases people literally lost the clothes off their bodies as the water picked them up and dumped them. Many others were left with only what they were wearing at the time. The problem of clean clothing especially for children becomes more serious in view of the shortage of water. Bales of clothing have been delivered to the most needy and have been warmly welcomed.

Health

There are fears of a rise in malaria in villages and in Gizo where large numbers of people are sleeping outside. There is also a concern about water- borne diseases. So far there has been no widespread report of ill- effects on the health of the population. The loss of supplies from the clinics could prove serious. They always struggle for supplies and can ill- afford to lose the little they have.

There have probably been secondary effects of the disaster, with cases reported of new babies and old people dying in recent weeks. It is difficult to be sure if these deaths would have occurred in any case.

 

Aid

Aid agencies were reasonably quick to respond to the disaster. The tasks were divided both regionally and by function, with some attending to general needs while others specialise- for example in overseeing the provision of water.

In general the result has been satisfactory in the short term, though there are cases where needy villages were not reached quickly enough and others were overlooked and where unnecessary aid was given (eg a water purifier for Nila which has a spectacular and unaffected water supply). Perhaps the most serious concern was that a major agency decided prematurely that the “emergency” phase was over and therefore no more food would be distributed, even though many people still had no access to anything to eat and were in danger of starving.

The arrival of US Navy Helicopters helped with the urgent distribution of rice to the most remote places. If the helicopters had not come, it is possible that some of these villages would have been without help for weeks as the only other way to get there is by canoe over open seas. Most of the agencies are based in Honiara about 400 kilometres away and so are most of the boats which could be chartered to distribute aid, so there was necessarily a lag. Also, the Gizo airport was out of action for the first few days because of tsunami damage. All these factors slowed the initial delivery of assistance.

The task of reconstruction is going to be long and expensive, as there are so many diverse but urgent needs to be addressed simultaneously- housing, water, food, clothing, education, health needs as well as the need to address the mental well- being of a traumatised people. Many people are helping in this effort and if they continue to work together well the process should be ultimately successful.

 

 

 

3United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) April 2007.

4United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) April 2007