Temporary shelters are set up for the tsunami victims. (Courtesy of the Solomon Islands Red Cross)
On the remote island of Nende in the far eastern province of Temotu in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands, thousands of people remain homeless after an 8.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami demolished their coastal villages, homes, fishing boats and food gardens.
The Solomon Islands is an archipelago of more than 990 volcanic islands located southeast of Papua New Guinea on the Pacific Ring of Fire, directly above the collision zone of two tectonic plates in the earth’s crust where the Australian plate slides beneath the Pacific plate 94mm each year.
Thirty six percent of the population of 552,000 is exposed to earthquakes with many parts of the country also at high risk of tsunamis, cyclones, floods and active volcanoes.
Temotu Province is more than 500 kilometers (km) from the nation’s capital, Honiara, and many communities can only be reached by boat.
The undersea quake that struck on Feb. 6 at a depth of 28.7km and only 33km from Nende and the Santa Cruz Islands was identified by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii, US.
But the first warning for most people was the roar of the sea and the sight of an enormous wave gaining height as it raced to engulf the shore.
Many earthquakes had shaken the Solomon Islands during January, the previous month, but on this day, the earthquake generated a 0.9 meter tsunami wave, which increased to a maximum height of 3.5 meters in some areas of the province.
It hit Lata, the main town of Nende, damaging roads, wharves, the airport, water and power installations, and devastated villages along the island’s west coast.
In other areas of the island, homes, water sources and crops sustained damage from the impact of the earthquake and landslides.
Nende has a population of approximately 12,000 and according to the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), 6,482 people were affected by the combined disaster. Fifteen people, many elderly, lost their lives and 588 homes were destroyed. The western coastal village of Venga, home to about 300 people, was one of the worst affected.
“My young daughter heard the waves and went down to the edge of the sea for a closer look,” Rachael Lano, a villager, recounted. “But her father saw the waves get bigger and bigger and rushed out, grabbed her and ran to the hills.”
More than 3,000 people were displaced as people fled to seek refuge on higher ground.
“I was shocked when it happened. We’re still traumatised,” Lano said. “My village has been destroyed and we’ve lost our homes and possessions.”
Under the leadership of the NDMO, the Solomon Islands Red Cross and other emergency relief organisations have worked to distribute tarpaulin shelters, rice and water and address hygiene and sanitation needs.
According to the Red Cross, which arrived on the island to distribute relief and supplies two days after the tsunami, water was one of the most urgent needs of communities as many natural water sources had been contaminated by seawater and earth from landslides. A Nomad water purification unit, capable of producing 15,000 liters of clean water per day, was immediately shipped in.
“It was very slow at the start, because transportation to the villages was difficult,” Clement Manuri, deputy
secretary-general of the Solomon Islands Red Cross told The Jakarta Post. “But as time went on we were able to bring clean water to communities across the whole western area of the island.”
The tsunami devastation of coastal villages on the Island of Nende, Santa Cruz Islands, Temotu province, Solomon Islands. (Courtesy of the National Disaster Management Office)
The disaster is not yet over for many people. Lano, her family and many others from coastal villages have no homes to return to and remain camped in nearby hills.
“We have a problem with water and sanitation,” she said. “We have had lots of rain and the tarpaulins leak. We’re also running out of rice.”
“Water and sanitation is still a need of the people as well as shelter,” Manuri confirmed.
He added that it was important to start building the confidence of people to return to their villages.
“There’s a real need for counselling and psychosocial support, so people will start making decisions on their own again,” he explained.
At present, many are living in limbo.
“Some are still in the camps. People are moving back and forth. Some say we will go back to our villages and others say they will have two places, one here and one up there. Others want to move to a totally new place.”
Lano said that at a recent community meeting, changes were agreed. “We decided we wanted to relocate our village and rebuild on higher ground. So we could be living in camps until our new homes are ready,” she said.
For communities in the Solomon Islands affected by more than one natural disaster in recent years, the thought of losing everything again is prompting plans to ensure greater resilience in the future.
In December last year, Cyclone Freda caused flooding on Makira Island, located southeast of Honiara, while in 2010 an earthquake and tsunami devastated Rendova Island in Western Province, leaving one-third of the population without shelter. Another earthquake and tsunami impacted Western Province in 2007, resulting in 52 deaths and the widespread loss of homes.
“People permanently moving to new locations happened during previous disasters,” Manuri said. “But customary landownership is likely to determine the movement of people and their location for rebuilding.”
More than 80 percent of land in the Solomon Islands is under traditional landownership and negotiating to acquire new land can be a complex process.
The NDMO is now planning for the recovery phase, which will include reconstruction. However, the full recovery of communities from the disaster is a long term challenge and will need to be incorporated into development strategies for the province during the coming years.