Pacific Island neighbours vulnerability showing

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?


How organized crime is exploiting South Pacific nations

New Zealanders think of the South Pacific as their backyard. In our thousands we go to Fiji, Rarotonga, Samoa and Tonga each year. Still more head for Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, whilst others head for Tahiti. The culture they say is easy going, the weather great (except in the cyclone season)and the beaches are magnificent.

But against this backdrop, there are some quite disturbing aspects to law and order in these nations – or rather a lack of law and order. Many might remember the Solomon Islands intervention last decade, where the archipelago southeast of Papua New Guinea was subject to lawlessness and roving gangs. New Zealand and Australia put together a task force of police units to tackle the core problems before the nation became a failed state.

The Solomon Islands case is just one example from a region where organized crime takes on many forms and is growing both in sophistication and scale. A toxic combination of money laundering, drugs, shell businesses among other crime types means that the south Pacific is not the paradise portrayed in the media.

The Governments of these nations are among the weakest in the world when it comes to dealing with organized crime. Part of the problem is that their population base is small, meaning the available tax paying base to fund law enforcement is tiny. Fiji has a population of 800,000 people, a bit more than half the size of Auckland. Samoa has a population of around 190,000 or about half the size of Christchurch, whilst Tonga’s population is about 105,000.

Another part of the problem is a distinct lack of transparency in the Governments and law enforcement agencies of these nations. New Zealand might be in the top five most transparent nations according to Transparency International, but Kiribati, Tonga and the Solomon Islands perform quite poorly. The latter is ruled by an absolute monarch, who also controls the treasury and the judiciary in what is the only remaining absolute monarchy on the planet. It was highlighted brutally in 2006 by violent riots with looting and arson burning down the central business district of Nukualofa in protest at the lack of democracy in the country.

Outside influences such as China do not help either. Whilst the Chinese offer to develop infrastructure and provide jobs, the companies that do the work are all based in China and nearly all of the profits made from the projects carried out go back there. The details of the deals done between politicians and company executives are rarely made public. Thus little is known about what international and local laws might have been breached in the deals.

So, what could New Zealand do to assist South Pacific Island nations in dealing with organized crime? Find out in the next article.


Power games in South Pacific concern New Zealand

Every year there is an annual forum in the South Pacific called the Pacific Islands Forum. It is an opportunity for the nations of the South Pacific to meet and discuss issues of the day – be it climate change, security, the economic performance of the region or disaster relief.

Like other regions of the planet, the South Pacific has its own power games going on. These games are played at three different tiers with an interchange between them. At the top there are the major nations of New Zealand, Australia and now France – whose colonial outposts of French Polynesia (Tahiti, etc) and New Caledonia – have now joined the P.I.F. The mid tier are the ones with regional power, such as Fiji and Samoa, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea.

With climate change, the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship, China trying to muscle its way into South Pacific affairs and ongoing issues with socio-economic development there is plenty happening at the P.I.F. each year. In 2016 it is the turn of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who is trying to suggest that Australia and New Zealand, the traditional power houses whose economic and political muscle could cripple his dictatorship effortlessly – or run the risk of turning ordinary Fiji’s ethnic divisions into something worse – should not have a place at the P.I.F.

To this end Commodore Bainimarama has been cultivating a group of smaller nations to form a sub forum as part of a power play against Australia and New Zealand. Commodore Bainimarama is playing on dangerous ground. His dictatorship is very sensitive to New Zealand and Australian media and would have known when it stripped the the Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs of his role  and arrested Opposition Members of Parliament that this would anger the trans-Tasman neighbours.

Surprisingly New Zealand has not reacted strongly. Contrary to the strong reactions of 2000 and 2006 when moves to stifle democracy and freedom of speech in Fiji were met with outrage, the New Zealand Government seems content with tip toeing around the fringe of the issue. Despite Chinese interest in the region, this delicate movement of toes rather than feet has not had anything to do with Beijing’s quests for more natural resources to feed its vast economy.

With climate change threatening numerous smaller island members of the Forum, some of whom may disappear completely in the coming decades, any opportunity for China to develop more “friendly” ties with vulnerable atoll states should be watched with caution. By stepping up to the plate with a more aggressive climate change policy, New Zealand would be saying that it is aware of and respects the concerns of these small states, something it has thus far been rather lacklustre in.


New Zealand refuses Nauru refugees after Australia wimps out

So, Australia has wimped out on a deal with New Zealand for the latter to take refugees from the Nauru Detention Centre.

Typical. Australia, overtaken by a primordial fear of foreigners seeking refuge from their turbulent pasts, has abjectly failed in its humanitarian responsibilities once again. And New Zealand, governed as it is by a Government terrified of standing up for international and national human rights because it might upset some of the interest groups aligned with it, appears reluctant to call Australia to account.

How embarrassing must it be as an Australian citizen to know your taxpayer dollars are funding a detention centre that is about as well run as inept prison. The buildings are a disgrace. The water often does not run. Jungle law rules the facility when conditions get really bad at a place that has already had one major riot. The private security company responsible for maintaining order ran away and left their charges to riot.

Do I condone the violence, especially the thuggery and the vandalism? Of course not, but when you have men and women who have only known violence all their lives, living in abject squalor and the only way to get the attention is to commit acts of violence despite knowing that the response will be harsh, it is inevitable. Especially on an equatorial island where the day time temperature is typically around 30°C through out the year with obvious dry and wet seasons.

As for New Zealand and its refusal? How embarrassing. New Zealand has failed to carry out the international responsibilities that it once used to take great pride in doing.

But at the same time, should I be surprised? No. This is after all an Australian Government that has done more in three years of being in power to usurp Australia’s reputation as one of the leading lights of the western world than perhaps any Australian Government in the three generations since World War 2. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has shown nothing but callous indifference to the well being of refugees and asylum seekers, preferring to view them as a national security threat rather than the humans in dire need of help they are since he took over from Scott Morrison.

As a New Zealander who would have happily have his country take these people who have fled hell in the simple pursuit of a deservingly better life, I can only say:

“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry for letting you down when you have come all this way at great risk to yourselves and your family. Sorry that in an hour when refugees need our help more than ever, we are wimping out. And particularly sorry for the fact that this might put your well being, especially if you need medical treatment or other assistance, at greater risk than it already is.”

I hope New Zealand and Australia learn from this ongoing debacle. It is not a terribly bright spot in the history of either country and not what I would want my country to be remembered for.

Climate change all too real for Pacific Islands

Whilst the world’s attention is focused on the refugee crisis, another crisis, decades in the making is unfolding. The climate change crisis facing Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati, Niue, and other atoll islands is slow in motion by human standards, but unrelenting in its literal erosion of these nations into the sea. Perhaps a debate more literally about death or survival than most currently happening, the Pacific Island nations know they face a grim future, but getting larger nations to acknowledge it is another thing altogether.

Every year it grows more urgent. Every year, the little atoll nations of the central Indian and Pacific Oceans are a few millimetres closer to being permanently flooded by sea water. Every year there is the risk that a typhoon or tropical cyclone will do so much damage that there is no point in trying to recover because the total cost of repairs outweighs their economic worth.

Recently the President of the United States visited Alaska. Whilst on that tour he spoke about the effects of climate change on Alaska and why and how the United States needs to act. Imagine for a moment if the President of the United States swapped places with his Kiribati counterpart. What a lift for these nations it would be if someone in a real position of power were to visit these nations. Whilst President Barak Obama has to be applauded for his efforts on climate change, it would bring them into perspective in a way that few can understand from afar if he were to visit some of these little island nations for whom the tide – something that rises every twelve hours – is literally eroding their future, bit by bit.

Right now the Pacific Island Forum is on in Papua New Guinea. These little island nations whose future is in question are threatening to walk from the conference or ask Australia to leave if they are made to compromise on the reduction goals for climate emissions. As much as I encourage them to make a stand, walking from the conference will probably not help much since it just frees up the attention of larger nations such as Australia and New Zealand to focus on things that they consider more important than a bunch of sand piles surrounded by beautiful coral in the middle of the Pacific. It is a harsh assessment to make, but I think that this is probably the view of the New Zealand and Australian Governments.

I hope it is not in my time that a visibly upset Pacific island leader has to front at the United Nations and tell them that ____________ (name a Pacific atoll nation), no longer exists because erosion has caught up with it. But I fear it will be.