Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life on an Outer Island

The Mitiaro coastline.

In early December Communications Advisor Pip Robertson and NZAID Manager Julie Affleck visited two outer islands in the southern Cook Islands. They accompanied Cook Islands government officials and a team of engineers from Beca International who were working on designs for two harbour upgrades, which NZAID is funding. Pip shares her impressions of Mitiaro, one of these islands.

Flying over the Mitiaro and coming in to land, the view from the aeroplane window is startling. The island is tiny - just 6km across at its widest point - and ringed by a wide coral reef. The terrain is extremely flat and there is only a scattering of buildings on the south coast, where the population of less than 200 people live.

In these main village areas, brilliant orange pumarumaru and fragrant tipani (frangipani) trees line the streets laid with crushed white coral. Gardens are well-tended and rubbish non-existent. Inland, communal village plantations yield kumara, taro, corn, bananas and watermelons all produced without pesticides or fertilizers. As a visitor it would be easy to idealise life on Mitiaro, but there are serious issues Mitiaro residents face in their everyday lives.
A church, Mitiaro.
Mitiaro is 50 minutes by air from Rarotonga, with flights scheduled just twice a week. This provides a supply link, but the vast majority of goods (including fuel for the island's generators and all imported food) are transported to the island by a cargo ship that docks in the open sea. A barge then ferries goods from the ship to the shore via Mitiaro's harbour. This harbour is really just a channel through the reef to an excavated area and dock where goods can be unloaded. Weeks, and sometimes months, pass between the cargo ship visits and because conditions can be treacherous in this small channel, the ship sometimes returns to Rarotonga without the cargo having been unloaded.

Making the harbour safer and therefore more efficient was the main purpose of the visit to the island. The team of engineers from Beca were there to gather information to redesign and upgrade Mitiaro harbour as well as the harbour in Mauke, another of the outer islands east of Rarotonga. Both harbour projects are funded by NZAID.

The Beca engineers did a lot of technical work on the islands: measuring water depth, observing wave patterns and the condition of the sea bed, and testing the strength of the existing rock and coral to ascertain how best to design the harbour. They also investigated materials that exist on the island that could be used as the aegrogat to make concrete from, reducing the need to import materials from Rarotonga.

However, the engineers’ trip was not just about materials and measurement. Equally important was meeting with the community who use the harbour and gaining information from their long term experience of the sea conditions. This was also a chance for the community to talk about their priorities. Consultative meetings were held where plans were laid on the table and the costs and implications of different design aspects were discussed. The Beca engineers consult with the community in Mitiaro.

Richard Frankland, the lead engineer in the Beca team, stressed how important this was. “Hearing this local knowledge and having the time to observe the harbour is what makes coming here worthwhile. We’ve learned so much from being here; we couldn’t have designed this harbour just sitting in our office in Auckland.”

Safer, more efficient cargo transport will be a significant improvement for people in Mitiaro, but one of the other major problems the island faces is more complex. Decreasing population is a key issue of concern, compounding and compounded by the lack of employment opportunities. Most of the resident population is made up of school children and elderly people. The majority of adults on the island of working age are employed by the government, for example as teachers and infrastructure workers. Agriculture and fishing provide other informal occupations.

Unlike Rarotonga and Aitutaki, tourism in the conventional sense doesn't exist on Mitiaro, with only a handful of tourists visiting a year. However, the population more than doubles in the summer months as hundreds of relatives return to Mitiaro. Locals indicated that this is a time of economic opportunity for the island. Even though most of the visitors are family, there is still demand for food and accommodation while they are on the island, and for local crafts to take away as souvenirs.

But even within the resident population there are business opportunities, particularly for goods that are inconvenient to import from Rarotonga. In March 2009 Makara Murare opened a bakery with the support of an Outer Islands Development Grant, a Business Trade and Investment Board scheme that AusAID/NZAID has supported. In the scheme the business owner provides 70 percent of the funding and the grant provides 30 percent. In the nine months the bakery has been open Makara has gone from baking three days a week to baking six or seven days and trebled the amount of bread he bakes each day. His bakery is so popular that the store on Mitiaro no longer stocks bread, which was previously imported from Rarotonga and cost $7 loaf. There are possibilities that the business will be able to employ people - and this kind of venture is needed on the island, as so many people leave for employment.

At a Mitiaro Women's Council meeting I asked how many people present had lived on Mitiaro all their lives. Everyone in the room raised their hand. On further questioning, I found out that almost all of them had spent time away: living and working on Rarotonga and other islands, or in New Zealand or Australia. One woman explained that she had spent 14 years in Rarotonga working as a teacher, but saw no incompatibility with this fact and with expressing that she had lived in Mitiaro all her life. It may be semantics, but it does reinforce the deep-seated connectedness, pride, and loyalty that local residents obviously feel for their island.

This is in part because of how close-knit Mitiaro is. There is a tangible sense of community, centred around church activities and the island council. And, inevitably in such a small place, there are multiple connections between people. Even as visitors, after a couple of days most faces on the island were familiar, and we were drawing the links between families.
The senior class at Mitiaro School.
The connection Mitiaro residents have with their home is not limited to older generations. We visited Mitiaro School, which was refurbished last year by the Ministry of Education with the support of AusAID/NZAID. Speaking to a group of senior students at the high school, their love of Mitiaro was clear. Some had ambitions - to be an accountant, to be a pilot - that would unavoidably take them away from Mitiaro but most of the students wanted to remain on the island if employment allowed. Finding those opportunities will be an ongoing challenge.

Many of the things that I found so unusual about the lives of the residents of Mitiaro - its tiny land area and close-knit population - are, of course, entirely subjective. Julie asked the class of senior students what they liked most about returning to Mitiaro after being away, and one of the students seemed to speak for them all.

"Just coming back here," he said, and smiled and shrugged as if that answer were obvious. "Coming back to normal life."
Mitiaro residents prepare to go out fishing.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two serious storms hit the Philippines

Andrew Matheson, New Zealand ambassador to the Philippines, writes about the two serious storms that hit the Philippines recently.

Some of the massive destruction to infrastructure in Benguet province as a result of Typhoon PepengThe Philippines is no stranger to tropical storms and typhoons. The country sits in a ‘typhoon belt’ and is typically hit by around 20 annually in the typhoon season that occupies the latter half of each year. On average five of those cause fatalities and significant damage.

But what was unusual this year was the country being ravaged by two major storms only a fortnight apart, that caused different types of damage but together resulted in more than 1,000 fatalities.

The events started on Saturday 26 September with tropical storm Ketsana. This storm, known as Ondoy in the unique naming system used by the Philippine weather service, sat stationary over the nation’s capital and dumped a record 455 mm of rain in just 24 hours — more than a month’s average supply.

One of the thousands of landslides in the mountainous Cordillera region, northern Luzon, that destroyed homes, infrastructure and agricultural livelihoods.Though quite a lot of the country was affected, the damage was most serious in and around Manila. And it was a tale of two cities. Much of the city, especially the housing of the middle and upper income portions of society, wasn’t badly affected — just water damage to housing and personal effects. But other areas were devastated — houses washed away, and others filled with stinking, contaminated water and mud. Eight weeks after Ondoy, significant areas of Manila are still flooded and inhabitants are still living in emergency shelters.

Just two weeks after tropical storm Ondoy the country was hit again. Typhoon Parma (known locally as Pepeng) crossed the northern island of Luzon, doubled back, then sat over the central mountain area of the Cordilleras and dropped record amounts of rain. Unlike with Ondoy where most of the fatalities were caused by drowning, with Pepeng the killer was landslides. The affected area is very mountainous with little remaining forest cover. Villages and farm houses cling to the hillsides, and many were simply swept away. In the nearby flat rice growing areas of Pangasinan province vast areas of crops were inundated, with many people’s homes washed away.

I had the opportunity to inspect flood ravaged areas on 10 November, by hitching a ride on a UN World Food Programme helicopter that delivered relief supplies to the remote village of Kibungan in Benguet Province, still cut off from the outside world a month after the typhoon. New Zealand Ambassador to the Philippines Andrew Matheson unloading UNICEF health kits in the remote mountain village of Kibungan.

The hillsides in the Cordillera region are scarred with fresh landslides, many taking away the terraced vegetable gardens that provide a livelihood for so many of the area’s people, and obliterating houses, roads and bridges. Repairing the infrastructure will be a long and expensive job.

En route to the mountains north of Manila it was easy to see how much rice-growing land had been ruined by being inundated first by Ondoy and then by Pepeng. Perhaps most surprising of all was flying over the shores of the large lake called Laguna de Bay on the eastern edge of Manila. All along the lakeshore houses, schools, shops and factories remain under water. It’s expected that it will take months for the level of the lake to drop sufficiently for these buildings to be able to dry out.Urban areas in Laguna province, near Manila, still flooded more than six weeks after Tropical Storm Ondoy inundated the area.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Red R ‘Essentials of Humanitarian Practice’

Aaron Davy is part of NZAID’s Humanitarian & Peace-Building Team. To help mark World Humanitarian Day (19 August) he has written about his recent experience on the Red R ‘Essentials of Humanitarian Practice’ course at Burnham Army Camp.

Red R Training in the ‘Essentials of Humanitarian Practice’

It all started rather inhumanely for two other NZAID staff and myself; with an extremely early morning flight to Burnham army camp in Christchurch. The objective of our ‘mission’: to take part in the five day training facilitated by Red R (Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief).

NZAID is the main supporter of Red R and provides $50,000 a year towards funding of its two core training courses. The aim of this particular course, ‘Essentials of Humanitarian Practice’, was to impart upon us an understanding of the international humanitarian system, and the requirements to consider when undertaking a humanitarian deployment.

Red R’s intensive training started by covering relevant international legal frameworks, such as Humanitarian Law, Refugee Law, and Human Rights Law. We then examined the many contemporary issues that compromise the implementation of these laws, including domestic priorities, responses to the threat of terrorism, and issues of food security.

As the days progressed, we also examined the mandates and inter-agency relationship between the main humanitarian responders; OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), United Nations Military Peacekeepers, and ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), etc. Ongoing debate ranged from the legal obligations of national governments towards refugees within their sovereign borders, to the relationship between civilian and military players within a ‘humanitarian space’. The NZAID participants also did a presentation on their agency’s involvement in humanitarian action, linking into many of these themes.

The course also incorporated many practical lessons on needs assessments, dealing with stress in the field, and radio communications, and culminated in a (rather taxing and intensive) all day exercise. This assignment drew together all we had learned to manage a ‘real life’ humanitarian crisis (involving local school children dressed as refugees, and Red R staff role-playing as obstinate journalists and manipulative government officials!).

The real-life ambience of the military base provided further interest to our tasks but by the end of the five days we were all ready for a good night’s sleep, and a life free of 7:00 am radio calls requiring us to utilise the phonetic alphabet (pre-morning coffee!). However, we all left considerably energised by the experience and with plans to complete additional Red R training; in preparation for potential deployment to a real relief assignment sometime in the future.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Supporting new opportunities in Afghanistan

Suzanne Loughlin is an NZAID Multilateral Development Programme Manager. She is currently in Afghanistan, and writes about the development challenges and achievements there.

On Monday I attended openings for two training courses. The first is provided by the NZAID-funded Programme for Professional Development under leadership of Director, Marissa Espinneli. It is an eight-month course for graduates to help them enter the job market. Limited employment openings mean there are few opportunities to develop and so the course aims to fill this gap. It provides for basic skills in drafting reports, developing and managing budgets, communications training and so on. It also offers short-term placements to build practical experience. Marissa provided an overview of the programme and then invited the Provincial Governor, Dr Habibe Sarabi, to say a few words of inspiration. The NZ PRT Commander, Greg Elliott, and I also wished the students well not only for the course but for where it might take them.

The second event opened a training course for tourist guides and is part of the eco-tourism programme again funded by NZAID and implemented by Aga Khan Foundation. Baba Mouseni, head of the Provincial Council, spoke as did Governor Sarabi and others. The three-month training programme aims to ensure that guides are informed of the World Heritage Status of the Bamyan Valley, have an understanding of the history and archaeology of the region, and a more detailed understanding of nine sites for which brochures have been prepared and signboards under construction. Most of the course is being provided by Afghans.

I went back Tuesday to meet with the eco-tourism programme director, Amir Foladi, to catch up on what else the office had been doing. We looked at photos and he told me about a major event held back in March to celebrate Nowruz (New Year) – it’s the first time this festival has been held for some 30 years. Several thousand people attended the festival, which has both religious and secular components. There were skits that were not only fun but aimed to communicate messages about tourism and the need to care for the environment, musicians played traditional instruments and – another first – two young women sang accompanied by musicians on traditional instruments. I asked if this had caused any waves and if he had had any trouble arranging the programme. His answer provided a good example of what is commonly referred to as ‘ownership’. He involved as many community members and groups in the festival planning on the basis that if everyone is involved then all would ‘own’ the festival – both the accolades and the problems. He would not be left alone to deal with any friction should it arise. And it didn’t.

Another summer festival is currently being planned which will be held at the newly established national park at Bandi-Amir in July. I wish I could be there!

For more information on tourism opportunities in Bamyan - click here to read more.

Note: the photos have been taken from the Nowruz Festival in Bamyan.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

On the ground in Afghanistan

Suzanne Loughlin is an NZAID Multilateral Development Programme Manager. She is currently in Afghanistan, and writes about the development challenges and achievements there.

The first days of this visit were spent getting into Kabul and meeting with partners in their Kabul headquarters. Some discussions focused on progress with implementing projects such as the UNIFEM work on establishing a Women’s Referral Centre in Bamyan, in collaboration with the Government of Afghanistan, to improve protection for women wanting to press charges or who have been accused of crimes and are in need of support. National partner Shuhada Organisation gave a presentation on outcomes of the Winter Teacher Training programme. Support to Shuhada is as much about providing opportunities for organisational development as it is for actual service delivery and the presentation showed significant progress.

One day only was scheduled for me in Kabul as the focus of NZAID’s work is in Bamyan and security is less of an issue there than it is in Kabul. I got to Bamyan mid-afternoon and went to the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to meet with NZ Defence Force personnel and catch up on plans for New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s visit and the dawn ANZAC day ceremony.

After a chilly but beautiful dawn ceremony and breakfast, the party set off to Shahr-e Golgola, or City of Screams, and climbed to the top. The views are fantastic with snow-capped mountains in the distance and women, men and children going about early morning tasks in the villages below. The city gets its name from the time when Genghis Khan came through to avenge the death of his son. A young woman within the city betrayed the local Hazara people by giving away the source of water to the citadel and the siege was soon broken. However, instead of being rewarded by Genghis Khan for her troubles she was killed along with everyone else in the citadel – she was no longer seen as being trustworthy.

We then proceeded to the Bamyan Hospital where NZAID and the NZ PRT have been working in support of the Aga Khan Health Services who manage the hospital. New Zealand funding has been used to build a maternity ward, laundry and a new kitchen, which the Minister opened. A new out-patients building is also under construction and should be finished by the end of the summer. Minister McCully commented on the fact the substantial amount of concrete in the building had all been done by a very small mixer and poured wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow.

The group also visited the children’s ward, where staff were dealing with an outbreak of pneumonia. Despite major progress with facilities the hospital still cannot cater to the needs of those who do manage to access health services and currently there are four to a bed – two mothers and two children – in the children’s ward. Staff also noted that they would not be able to cope without the mothers as they are the ones who do most of the care-giving.

After tea and cake we proceeded to Bamyan University. The most significant change here this year is that 118 young women are enrolled in their first year of tertiary study. This is a significant increase on the two that were here in 2006!

Suzanne Loughlin

25 April 2009

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

First, build your desk – Skills training in PNG

Adham Crichton, an NZAID communications advisor, describes a skills-training centre he visited earlier this year in Papua New Guinea.

In January I was part of the delegation that travelled to PNG for the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting and then onto the Solomon Islands.

During my time in Port Moresby, NZAID Programme Administrator John Koi took me out to visit the Morata Vocational Centre. The centre runs short term-training programmes on behalf of the Ginigioada Foundation, a not-for-profit community development organisation based in Port Moresby.

Skills training is important Pacific-wide but it has special significance in Port Moresby, where 80 percent of the population is unemployed or underemployed. The training targets unemployed young people and covers welding, plumbing, carpentry, small motor repair and electrical maintenance.

Mr Gabriel Iso from the Ginigioada Foundation and the centre’s manager Mr Hillary Damke took the time to show me around, and it was amazing what they were able to achieve given the basic nature of the facility.
The carpentry students at Morata helped build the electrical workshop at the Centre and also helped build desks for a local school, which highlights just how limited training facilities are in PNG, and also the very practical nature of the centre’s training.

The success of the Morata Vocational Centre and the Ginigioada Foundation is that the training they offer is aligned with identified skill shortages and participants must show they are committed and have the support of their local community.

NZAID provided PGK$77,000 in the 2007/08 financial year to support the Ginigoada Foundation’s Skills Development Training Programme. This funding covered the hire of venues and tools, and allowances for trainers who run the vocational courses.

The accompanying photo show Mr Gabriel Iso and Mr Hillary Damke in the facilities that the centre’s students helped to create.
You can read more about skills training in the Pacific and the Morata Vocational Centre in the latest edition of NZAID's magazine Currents.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tidal floods in Papua New Guinea

Pati Gagau, NZAID’s manager in Port Moresby, gives a local perspective to the recent king tides and flooding in Papua New Guinea.

What has been the focus of your work since the tides and flooding?

Pati: Since the tides and flooding, we have been working very closely with the National Disaster Centre (NDC), which is the PNG Government entity responsible for coordinating the relief response. NDC has taken a proactive leadership role in working with donor partners, local and international NGOs, and provincial disaster coordination centres in the affected areas to provide much needed supplies such as water, food, and building materials. The New Zealand Government has contributed NZ$300,000 to help with relief efforts, and we are working with local NGOs to utilise this funding to meet some of the needs identified.

How are people in the flooded areas lives being affected now that the water has subsided?

Pati: Many people have been displaced with the loss of their homes, personal belongings, food gardens, livestock, and water sources because of the floods. The transformation from changes to their normal pattern of lifestyle, as well as having traditional/sacred places destroyed will have a long-lasting effect on people, particularly the older generation. People's diet and way of life will change dramatically, especially when coastal people who have lived most of their lives close to the water are relocated inland.

What is the attitude of people in PNG to the situation?

Pati: NDC have confirmed that almost 60,000 people have been affected by the disaster across six provinces and outer islands in the northern region of PNG. The print media has been running reports every day since the events started a week ago, and there has been a lot of sympathy and support expressed by the general public. GoPNG has been commended by many for the quick response in funding the disaster-stricken areas. The loss of personal effects such as tools for gardening/trades, cooking utensils, clothes, beddings, etc will have an impact on rural people affected, as these are things they will struggle to replace. Bush materials for building houses are not so much of a problem but to purchase nails and other building materials are often difficult. As a result people tend to rely on outside assistance in the first instance.

How often do king tides like this occur?

Pati: Sea surges of this nature do not occur often as far as we know. But PNG has seen its fair share of sea and flooding disasters over time, including tsunamis as well as flooding as the result of heavy storms (Oro Province was heavily affected by floods in 2007, for example). Rising sea levels resulting from climate change are also having an ongoing impact on PNG's low-lying coastal areas, including small offshore islands and atolls that are home to isolated communities, and could expose coastal areas to further risk in future.

Is there anything that could be done differently in the future to minimise the effect of king tides?

Pati: Not really, in our opinion. It is tempting to suggest that coastal communities relocate to higher ground to guard against future sea surges. But many areas lack higher ground nearby, and many communities are likely to strongly resist attempts to change their lives as the result of extraordinary sea conditions. But as sea levels in some areas continue to rise, inevitably some communities will be forced to start reconsidering their options.

Papua New Guinea – quick facts
  • Papua New Guinea is the largest Pacific Island country but has the lowest living standards
  • The population of 6.1 million is set to double in 25 years
  • 40 percent of the population live in poverty
  • 85 percent of the population live in rural areas
  • There are over 800 language and ethnic groups
  • Most of the population are subsistence farmers
  • NZAID's total bilateral assistance to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2007/08 was NZ$21.5 million.

    For more information about NZAID's programme in Papua New Guinea, see the Papua New Guinea page on the NZAID website,

    Read the Minister of Foreign Affair’s media release on New Zealand's contribution to the flood relief efforts in Papua New Guinea.

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