Koro Island Villages Show Resolve to Clean Up After Cyclone Winston

May 22, 2016

The village youth volunteers of Nakodu village in Koro Island at debris clearance work. (Photo: UNDP)

It is pouring sheets of rain in Nakodu village on Koro Island but the village primary school classroom is packed to the gills with youth volunteers who have come to attend a session on debris clearance and waste management. The session is organized by experts from the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency commissioned by UNDP, who have worked in emergencies caused by extreme weather events around the world. The villagers want to deal with the waste and get their lives up and running again. 

Dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston is a situation weather-made for the UNDP debris clearance experts who have been busy working with the villagers in two of the most severely affected provinces of Fiji. Under the UNDP and Ministry of Youth and Sports-supported Cash-for-Work programme, young women and men have been targeted for training in village-level debris clearance in Koro Island. 

Nakodu is among the eight of the worst affected villages on Koro Island where the initiative has helped advance the understanding among the youth about the dangers that different kinds of debris and waste pose to human health and the environment if not treated in the right way. 

“The main idea of the training is to equip the youth volunteers with the knowledge to deal with the debris and the toxic waste better and with maximum regard to their health and the health of the environment”, says Faisal Ridwan, one of the debris clearance experts deployed by UNDP to help the villagers deal with mountains of waste around them accumulated as a result of Tropical Cyclone Winston that hit the Pacific island state of Fiji on 20 and 21 February this year. 

The UNDP experts talk through a roomful of volunteers on issues such as knowing to differentiate re-usable debris from within the heap and to tell material that is potentially dangerous. The villagers listen in rapt attention and some throw instant questions: “How do we store the debris safely to avoid having it fly away during storms?”, asks Josvini, 27, who is attending the Nakodu village meeting. The experts make sure that before they conclude the training, they have left the training materials – laminated sheets of pictographs – with the village headman who serves as the village catalyst to mobilize the youth for debris clearance and waste management. 

By the end of April this year, some 130 youths had already completed the training on debris clearance and waste management, something that is vital and necessary before early recovery initiatives can be initiated in the affected villages. Another batch of 140 youths was mobilized in four additional villages on the island where training started in early May. At the end of each training session, the trainers leave behind in each village a training manual the training manuals – produced in Fijian language – as a tool that the local youth could use and refresh their awareness about debris clearance and waste management approaches. 

“My daughter has had a rheumatic fever for some time that the cyclone only aggravated. The wind terrifies her even now. She needs the warmth of her parents constantly”, Baaiseva Ligatbua, 37, from Mudu village on Koro Island and a participant at the village-level training, tells me. Still, I want to be fully involved in helping the village clean up after this monster storm”.

Koro Island lies 75 nautical miles north of Suva in the South Pacific Ocean within the Fijian waters. Even in the best of times, the estimated 3,700 Koro islanders remained relatively cut off from the mainland, or at best, just sparsely connected. “Make no mistake, when the cyclone came, the villagers all rallied together, without waiting for outside help to pour in. Even partially paralyzed village folk in Mudu and our neighbouring Nakodu villages were helped to reach one of the safe places for evacuation where we were sheltering”, Baaiseva says. 

With help arriving from UNDP in the form of an awareness raising training, as well as debris clearance tools such as wheelbarrows, shovels, bolt cutters, hammers, rakes and wrecking bars, and personal protective equipment – the gloves, the gumboots and the hats – the village youth are all keyed up do a better job of completing the job of managing the waste in a much more efficient way. “Look how we have worked to clear the village of the large amounts of debris from our homes and farms that was flying around and settling everywhere. It has taken some effort but we have gotten started and we are headed in the right direction,” Baaiseva notes.

There is a mountain of waste in Koro still to deal with. Nearly three months after Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji on 20 and 21 February this year, for as far as the eye can see the landscape is dotted with crumpled corrugated iron roofing sheets, metal scrap, broken concrete and furniture and an inexhaustible quantity of green waste. Long stemmed coconut trees have all been either uprooted and toppled over or have their tops shaved off the copra fruit. 

On top of the immediate emergency assistance, UNDP is geared to help Fijians find the way to early recovery in areas worst hit by Cyclone Winston. Several existing projects have been mobilised to assist in recovery activities. These include the Pacific Risk Resilience Programme (PRRP), Rights Empowerment and Cohesion (REACH) for Rural and Urban Fijians Project, the joint project with UN Women on Market for Change Project and the Disaster Resilience for Pacific project. Each of these projects have strong partnerships with line ministries, and have helped facilitate a way towards slow return of recovery and livelihoods restoration for the most vulnerable population.

When work is completed over 2000 people will benefit from the UNDP-supported debris clearance and waste management activities in eight villages of Koro Island and 12 villages in the Ra province that saw extensive damage to houses and farm lands as a result of the Cyclone. It is a drop in the ocean, but one that has set the pace for broader partnerships in support of disaster risk reduction at the village, provincial and national levels. These partnerships and help from the international community will be critical in finding durable solutions to dealing with extreme natural events in the future and to address the gargantuan challenge of clearing villages, farms and roads of a mountain of debris, farm waste and fallen trees.

The work has just begun.

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