The Jakarta Post
Touching down in Samoa, a small Polynesian island state located northeast of Fiji, is to be greeted by the aquamarine seas, verdant forests and unhurried pace of life in the South Pacific.
However, there also a celebratory tone to the display of flags, banners and painted coconuts along the road from the airport to the capital, Apia.
The United Nations (UN) was coming to Samoa for the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States, a four-day talkfest about sustainable development running from Sept. 1 to 4.
Behind the scenes of paradise, many small island states are developing countries striving for economic independence, employment growth, social development, resilience against climate change and disasters and a balance between conservation and exploitation of natural resources.
Next year, only two of 14 Pacific Island Forum countries, Cook Islands and Niue, are expected to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals.
World leaders and delegations from 52 island countries, including Jamaica in the Caribbean, Guinea Bissau off the west coast of Africa and Tonga and Palau in the Pacific, were joined by international donors, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society.
How are some of the topics discussed impacting real people's lives?
It took a sedate two-hour journey in a distinctive Samoan bus playing blaring music all the way from Apia to reach Lotofaga, a village of 5,000 people on the south coast of the main Upolu Island.
In the village, Laisene Nafatali lives in an expansive house with a family of six, but she has no access to fresh water. She is without a nearby natural water source, such as a river or spring, and her only supply comes from rain collected in two one-gallon buckets.
'We have one bucket there to store the water for the toilet, but that is not enough for the whole family and if it rains the whole week, most of the water is lost,' as she does not have the means to store it, she explained.
Most people in the village are subsistence farmers who are unable to save enough cash income to pay for substantial water tanks, which cost about 2,700 tala (US$1,158).
So, Nafatali pays for a truck to obtain drinking water.
'We put all our containers on the truck and we go to find families who have pipes and then we ask for some water. That lasts only for two to three days and then we have to go again,' she said.
People in Samoa are heavily dependent on surface water and shortages often occur during the dry season, which is from April to October. The shortages are made worse by increasing demands for water from residential and commercial developments, agriculture, tourism and hydropower stations. An estimated 40 percent of the population have access to safe drinking water.
Constructing large-scale water infrastructure remains a challenge for many island states that have limited financial, technical and human resources.
Farther along Upolu's coast, the 200 residents of Saleapaga village lost all their water tanks, homes and belongings when an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit and a resulting tsunami engulfed the coast five years ago.
Most people live on the low-lying coastal areas of the island and Saleapaga, situated on a narrow strip of beach in front of a steep cliff, was especially vulnerable.
Rosa Tapu and her husband were up early in the morning in late September 2009, when the earthquake shook the village at 7 a.m. They received no warning of the tsunami, but ran to collect their family and flee to higher ground when they noticed the sea dramatically change.
'We had a big cement tank and I saw the waves pick it up and throw it near another house. Everything was destroyed. There was nothing left standing,' Tapu recounted.
The tsunami destroyed 20 villages in Samoa, left 143 dead and 3,500 homeless.
Today, Saleapaga has been relocated farther up the mountain that rises behind the coast. Water, sanitation and community resilience are being improved as part of a government-led program aimed at equipping every village in the country with disaster plans. Since 2011, the initiative has been rolled out in 27 of 361 communities in Samoa.
'We spend at least two months in each village to assess the hazard areas, identify evacuation shelters, build water tanks and then co-ordinate training for the community,' said Tala Mauala, secretary-general of the Samoa Red Cross Society, which is implementing the program.
Every person in the community is trained to take a specific responsibility in the event of a catastrophe, such as conducting search and rescue, delivering first aid or preventing disease outbreaks.
The impact of natural disasters on the country has been severe in the past 20 years. Two cyclones in the 1990s destroyed infrastructure and crops with economic losses totalling $300 million to $500 million. Three years after the 2009 tsunami, Cyclone Evan again wrought havoc on communities and on water and power services on Upolu Island.
Back in the capital, Jennifer Fruean, chairperson of the Samoan National Youth Council, took a break from a conference session to talk about some of the concerns of local youth. One was high unemployment.
Slow job creation in small island economies is not matching the growth of young bulging populations. More than half of the people in the Pacific Islands are aged less than 24 years and youth unemployment is estimated at 23 percent compared to the global average of 12.7 percent.
'Youth unemployment is one of our highest priorities,' Fruean emphasised. 'In the villages, I think, that is where most of the youth are static, but there is also a very noticeable shift to urbanisation that is causing youth to come to Apia.' She added that not many find paid work.
However, she pointed to the success of a local NGO, Samoa Women in Business Development Inc., that supports youths and entire families to create sustainable livelihoods producing organic fruit and vegetables for the domestic and international markets.
The creative industries, such as weaving, printing and music, could also be developed far more, she said.
'There are signals that the formal sector is saturated, so the informal sector is certainly an area we can capitalise on, as well as agriculture, which is a huge opportunity,' Fruean claimed.
Sustainable development also depends on there being economic and social prospects for the next generation.
' Photos by Catherine Wilson
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