It has been 10 months since the worst tropical cyclone in over 20 years hit Samoa. Among its many effects, Tropical Cyclone Evan brought a flood that devastated families residing within the Vaisigano catchment area, a key watershed for the island nation’s main population downstream in the capital city of Apia.
Despite a major national cleanup, remnants of debris remained, posing a major risk to the three villages in the area. If there were to be another flood, these pieces of debris could again be swept up in the current, surge downstream and act like battering rams, destroying the many homes in their path and wreaking renewed havoc on the families still suffering from the previous flood.
In order to reduce the risk of this potential disaster, Oxfam New Zealand together with CI and the Samoan Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) Water Resource Division, partnered on a project to remove the debris and reforest this area of the watershed, which had been largely depleted of trees thanks to human activities and the force of the flood.
As part of the team, I spent a week talking with communities about their experiences since the storm. The damage the cyclone had done to the villages of Lelata and Ma’agiagi was still evident in the broken houses and vehicles washed up from the flood, as well as the large piles of logs along the riverbanks. Most houses have been abandoned due to deteriorating conditions left by Evan.
Some families can’t afford to rebuild new houses, so they have either moved in with relatives or made temporary homes using tarpaulins that were distributed by the Red Cross. As you can see in these pictures, some families are still living under tarps.
It was truly eye-opening to hear the many different stories from families who lost their homes in the flood. The Lelata community, which is mainly made up of the family of Tuiletufuga (the high chief of Apia), welcomed the support from the NGOs and government.
The chief commended us for coming to his village and offering to help, noting that until now they had not received any assistance despite the many stories of aid he had heard about and seen on TV. He said that most members of his family who had lost their houses in the cyclone were now living with other relatives, with grim uncertainty about what the future held.
The MNRE representatives assured the people of Lelata that they were committed to conducting long-term efforts to reduce adverse impacts of future floods, promising to work with all the families that live in the area and help them understand that it is prone to flooding. MNRE will also be building a rock wall along the riverbanks to limit flood damage.
In each village I visited, I gave a presentation about the importance of community watershed management. I explained why the areas within the Vaisigano catchment area are so critical for sustainable management and protection of the water supply that supports Apia. Unsustainable upstream development can lead to more soil erosion from deforestation and a greater amount of sediment in the water. These conditions affect downstream water quality and can exacerbate impacts from potential flooding events.
One great outcome for the community has been the employment of local people for the cleanup and tree planting. During the cleanup effort, more than 3,000 native tree seedlings were planted throughout the three communities, mainly along the riverbanks. As these trees grow, their roots will hold the soil in place and reduce the likelihood of flooding.
The tree plantings also demarked and enforced the 20-meter [66-foot] buffer zone around the water catchment area where construction is not allowed. This buffer zone had previously been announced as law, but not implemented because many families lived along the riverbanks before the storm. However most of these homes were lost in the flood, and families will not rebuild in these same precarious locations. Instead, they are choosing to move inland.
All people, from all walks of life, need to understand that water catchment areas must have no political boundaries. Water is a common resource, and therefore must be respected and protected by all. We all have a responsibility to ensure our water resources are properly managed in a sustainable manner so that our actions do not create negative impacts for others.
CI’s partnership in this project with Oxfam New Zealand — a humanitarian organization — was a great demonstration that in order for people to truly thrive, they need intact, healthy ecosystems. By engaging in conservation activities, local people themselves can improve their own well-being. It is my hope that more such projects will be carried out and this message will spread to all the corners of the Pacific.
Leilani Duffy is the regional terrestrial program manager for CI-Samoa/Pacific.