Floods Are A Test For The Solomons


Recent flash floods have caused extensive damage to the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, to surrounding areas of Guadalcanal and across into Malaita. The damage to infrastructure and the fiscal ramifications of the clean-up of such a storm would be complex for any state. For the Solomon Islands — where the development of basic services and state infrastructure was just beginning to gain momentum after the most recent violence in 2006 — the clean-up effort is much harder.

Although a 2013 tsunami hit Temotu, where development was thinner, this is the first sizeable natural disaster to strike Honiara, the centre of Solomon Islands urban development and central governance institutions. The ABC is reporting 12,000 homeless in Honiara, 40,000 in wider Guadalcanal, a lack of sanitary services and outbreaks of diarrhoea.

The Australian-owned Gold Ridge Mine on the outskirts of Honiara is currently under police protection to ensure the safety of surrounding communities and the ongoing feasibility of the mine, after local security contractors deserted the site in the week after the floods.

A host of foreign states have responded to the flood crisis with food aid, supplies and disaster relief for the state. Australia has provided a $3 million assistance package, including vital supplies and 16 Defence personnel who have reportedly reopened Mantioko Bridge to heavy traffic. Mantioko is one of the only bridges in Honiara to have (barely) survived the rain, and is located between the airport and CBD. Without direct access to Honiara, many villagers who live on the city's outskirts have been forced to swim across rivers to sell their produce at the markets in Honiara, their only source of income.

The Solomon Islands government will struggle to maintain governance structures in coming weeks. There will be ongoing calls for monetary assistance and flood relief from affected areas. Stories of special treatment, or corruption associated with the distribution of relief funds, have already begun to be reported by the mainstream news. The complexity for the government will lie in maintaining the lines of transparency and accountability recently instilled by RAMSI’s machinery of governance programs, which concluded in September 2013.

Already, only weeks into rebuilding, Transparency Solomon Islands International (TSI) have raised concerns that the Constituency Development Fund, provided for politicians by regular Taiwanese aid donations, have been tapped into without due process by ministers, potentially extending to ministers outside of the affected areas.

TSI claims the CDF has been opened early and without justification, pointing directly to the SBD$300,000 allocations given to 50 MPs. TSI has further argued the distribution of funds through MPs, rather than through the National Disaster Management Plan, provides a greater potential for flood relief to be politicised.

Solomon Islands locals have also queried usage of relief funds on Small Malaita by local MPs stating that Rick Hou, their representative and former head of Solomon Islands Central Bank, has reportedly released funds to his supporters and relatives.

The diversion of funds to close relatives and supporters raises questions as to whether the institutional reforms championed by RAMSI, concerning the enforced separation of socio-cultural links from political processes, have had any success in improving the level of accountability and transparency in government structures.

The wider implications of this disaster for Australia come in the form of both aid and defence expenditure in assisting our neighbour in times of crisis. Australian Defence personnel only withdrew from Solomon Islands in September 2013, while the Australian Federal Police still remain as part of ongoing police capacity building until 2017, after having actively assisted with security in the state for the previous 10 years. The key point may indeed be that while the presence of military personnel was considered to be temporary, their logistical capability is still required in emergencies.

There are new challenges associated with rebuilding in Honiara, including reinstalling access to basic clean water and sewerage. A recent ABC report stated over half of Honiara is without access to water, because the pipes to one of the main water supply depots are broken and could take weeks to repair. Social media has also reported that clean water is a pressing issue, and that the Honiara hospital was running short of toilets, leading to people defecating in the open. The associated public health complications will become evident in the clean-up.

But if the rebuilding and clean-up efforts are completed effectively, there is the potential for the water supply in Honiara to be rebuilt with better capability than before the floods. Ailing systems will likely be replaced, rather than the wholesale repair and rebuilding of damaged basic services.

The Solomon Islands government requires extensive international assistance to adequately rebuild infrastructure in the aftermath of flood in Honiara and its surrounds. However, it remains to be seen if the reforms implemented under RAMSI’s programs will withstand the emergency situation and endure through the clean-up period.

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