With the announcement that another Tropical Cyclone has formed in the South Pacific, I have been wondering about the vulnerability of our Pacific Island neighbours to storms. Since the start of March four Tropical Cyclones have formed in the South Pacific, in the warm tropical waters around the Coral Sea and east towards Fiji.
Tropical Cyclone Debbie went south towards Australia, caused massive flooding and wind damage before veering southeast towards New Zealand. It caused further damage and made the Rangitaiki River break its banks at Edgecumbe. Barely had it gone when Tropical Cyclone Cook formed. Cook took a path straight towards New Zealand, striking the North Island on Good Friday and going out to sea past Banks Peninsula.
At that point one might have thought in mid-April that the cyclone season would have finished and that the seas would be too cold to host the formation of any more. Apparently not. Tropical Cyclone Donna, which formed last week reached Category 5 on Monday, with wind gusts near its centre topping 300km/h. And just as I was going to type this article, it has come to my attention that Tropical Cyclone Ella has formed and is tracking westwards towards Fiji.
This is unprecedented. There has never been a Category 5 Tropical Cyclone in May in the South Pacific. And coming so soon after a flurry of other storms at the tail end of what had been a quite average season until the start of March.
Before Donna took aim at Vanuatu it was struck by another powerful cyclone a few years ago, causing widespread damage and numerous deaths. The repairing and rebuilding of basic infrastructure, such as bridges, power, water and the reconstruction of homes and businesses takes time in a modern, nation. It is slowed down even further in a small island nation where many basics are imported from New Zealand or Australia.
As one of the wealthier nations in the South Pacific, New Zealand has a responsibility to assist with disaster relief. Its foreign aid needs to be more distributed in the South Pacific than in other emergencies around the world where it cannot have such a big impact. The actual portion of our G.D.P. that we dish out as foreign aid is also comparatively low compared to countries in Europe, some of which hand out over 0.5% of their G.D.P. in aid (ours is about 0.27%).
Does a continually evolving climate mean that in the future we might have more big cyclonic storms forming later in the known period of cyclone activity? The climate has been continually evolving since it formed around 2.2 billion years ago. It has undergone warming and cooling phases where ocean levels and temperatures have risen with the warming phase and receded with the cooling phase.
The very sustainability of small atoll nations such as Kiribati is in question. These are island atoll nations where the highest points above sea level in many cases are not much higher than a house roof, where even a king tide can cause substantial damage. This means the day that one of them is struck full on by a large cyclonic storm could be the one that finishes them off.
Is New Zealand prepared to help them on this count? Or are we not the big friendly regional power they think we are?