Disaster on Pacific Islands: Contextualizing External Emergency Response and Technology – Parts 1,2 and 3

billsmithClimate, Disasters, Earth Observation, OpEd, Original

By Dr. William James Smith, Jr.
Assistant Professor
Department of Environmental Studies
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
bill.smith@unlv.edu & http://environment.unlv.edu/
Part One
Based on “Geographic Factors Complicating Hazard Responses on Small Islands,” by Dr. William James Smith, Jr., which appeared in Technology and Society, Journal of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology 27 (3): 39-47. ©2008 IEEE.

Figure 1 Breadfruit pit on the island of Fefan, FSM

Figure 1 Breadfruit pit on the island of Fefan, FSM

Universal and Cross-Culture Hazard Mitigation
The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) have as their objective to create a “system of systems” which can support policymakers, resource managers, science researchers and other decision-makers. This article will help such audiences understand the relatively unique condition of small islands as they struggle to cope with natural and anthropocentric-induced disasters. It is of especially great use to non-islanders charged with or planning interventions in such places.
Methodologies for the mitigation of hazards span cultures, time and physical geographies. There is not space enough here for an exhaustive list of examples, but one can easily find examples in the earthquake-oriented architecture of Japan, the children who dig caves to get water in drought stricken Ethiopia, the levees of the industrialized world, and in figure 1, from the island of Fefan in the Federated States of Micronesia, where a breadfruit pit has been created by layering rock and breadfruit for a ‘candying’ process that will preserve the breadfruit for times when conditions could cause starvation. The point is that there is nearly universal understanding of the need for civilizations to develop systems, some low-tech, and some high-tech, for mitigation of hazards. However, in an era of international cooperation, and if the word can be used appropriately, ‘aid,’ for mitigation of hazards in less-wealthy countries such as the small islands of the Pacific, the appropriateness of cross-cultural approaches shared is of vital importance. In this article I hope to prove that these factors underscore that there should be a role for integrating regional and cultural specialists in what are normally technical endeavors for scientists.
To judge appropriateness of methods and technologies one must understand the audiences engaged well. And, here I discuss special considerations when planning and responding to disasters in small island communities, many of which have little wealth to bolster resilience, and most of which either have, or recently have had a colonial presence which has impacted their traditional governance structures and physical environments. Those interested in hazard mitigation in the Pacific and similar locations will find these points salient. A more detailed discussion is available in Smith Jr. (2008a), or through emailing the author at bill.smith@unlv.edu (http://environment.unlv.edu/bios/smith.html).
Small Islands and Hazards
Traditional categories of natural hazards such as drought, fire, flood, and earthquakes, as well as what are arguably technological hazards in the form of sea level rise linked to climate change (human enhanced, if not induced), and infestation by invasive species, severely impact human and biophysical systems on small islands. Given recent turns in the climate change debate, the traditional lines separating ‘natural’ and ‘technological’ hazards have become increasingly blurred.
Figure 2 Location of the Federated States of Micronesia

Figure 2 Location of the Federated States of Micronesia

Quantifying the extent of individual nations’ anthropogenic influences on climate at multiple scales, as well as resulting uneven impacts on economies and landscapes, teleconnections, and impacts on ‘nature’s services’ across the globe, continues to be a fertile area of scientific inquiry and international debate. For example, less-wealthy countries such as India might be blamed for high emissions of greenhouse gases, and they might in return, point to the Northern countries’ high per capita emissions and the unjust nature of consuming such a large portion of the atmospheric commons per person. In addition, countries with large ‘sinks’ (i.e. forests or ocean) may also use their absorption capacity to justify relatively large emissions. Most small island nations have very small carbon footprints to match their small landmasses (and massive ocean sinks to off-set emissions), and so reduction of their emissions is arguably irrelevant, except for local air pollution.
Small island nations are, in a sense, at the mercy of bigger nations with large-scale emissions. This is not a new phenomenon; this is part of a pattern of violations of principles of environmental justice with other hazards such as nuclear testing and transnational shipments of hazardous waste through the Pacific Ocean. And it is easy to forget the massive impacts that invasive species such as rats, and diseases spread by Northerners, have also had. They came with the earliest waves of global influence from the North in the form of whalers and missionaries.
Figure 3 Landslide in Northern Weno

Figure 3 Landslide in Northern Weno

Making ethical arguments is certainly important, but such arguments can’t ease the concerns about sea level rise that worry those in small island communities such as those living in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Communities such as these, in this case based on small atolls with a maximum natural height of 2.3 m (7½ ft), and having experienced sea levels that have risen 20 cm (8 in) over the last century, must decide what actions to take in the short-term to keep life on the islands viable. (Tsunami impacts in 2004 pushed a train of columns of ocean water on top of many islands, physically remaking them.)
What potentially has great value ‘on the ground’ in such settings are contextualized policies for small island communities to address natural and technological hazards utilizing multi-scale and multidisciplinary knowledge of human and biophysical (marine and terrestrial) systems. To perform such analysis, it is helpful to consider some of the broad impacts of geography, especially scale, on mitigation and adaptation strategies. Here I select as my locus of analysis the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), with emphasis on Chuuk State (Smith Jr. 2008b; 2009), where I have worked since 2002 (Figure 2). Lessons from this case illustrate the sort of local policy and analysis opportunities most appropriate to similar islands throughout the world, and underscore some key barriers to hazard mitigation.
Community Perspectives and Communication
Many islanders do not have the opportunity to adopt, or even consider, alternative perceptions of the world, perceptions that vary both in scale and orientation (Cutter 2004). Therefore, one should assume that geography impacts perception and communication regarding hazards, as well as potential mitigation efforts in small islands in the FSM, in ways that a typical hazard relief worker, might not be likely to anticipate. Culture can create unexpected barriers. For example, after Typhoon Chataan struck the FSM 2002, some relief workers wanted to take sea creatures from the fringing reef and mix them into the soil to increase productivity, and, ‘logically,’ grow crops as fast as possible (Figs. 3, 4 & 5). These workers were unaware of a local taboo against doing so, one that was not normally shared with the outside world. The result was enhanced post-event nutrition problems.
Figure 4 Slumping in Southern Weno

Figure 4 Slumping in Southern Weno

In the industrialized world, a major concern is the translation of science to broad-reaching hazard policies that have positive trickle-down effects on local scales. In contrast, in the FSM and similar settings, the main concerns regarding hazards, besides sheer survival, are often whether there is any communication that a hazard may occur or is occurring. Given what is often a dearth of informed and coordinated communication, the nature of unscientific perceptions regarding a given hazard’s spatial and temporal scope of impact are important to consider as well. Persons may incorrectly assume a hazard to be localized, or wrongly attribute its cause.
Major post-event concerns include acquiring funding, which is often provided by foreign groups so far away that, even if funding is available, it may take too long to arrive to help the most vulnerable in a timely manner. If it is found, then it can be a challenge to translate funds into effective on the ground resources rapidly, and avoid delays and inappropriate purchases. The same is true for technology-intensive search and rescue options. Other barriers to effective action include knowing how to communicate effectively in multiple languages, how to mobilize nationally, when effective day-to-day governance occurs at the village scale, and where important contacts are to be found.
Undoubtedly, continental areas face some of the same barriers to hazard mitigation and adaptation, but these barriers are magnified in the small island world. In a fragmented island environment, people may work across many small islands spread out widely. There may be few appropriate boats and planes, and they may be at too great a distance for many communication tools to function. Persons are often without electricity or Internet, and can remain oblivious to a hazard’s existence, much less its potential impact. This has implications for emergency response, as well as setting up programs for adaptation. Small islands often simply do not have the resources to reach out to communities on a village scale in a geographically disconnected nation. The FSM for example, covers a distance east to west of approximately Chicago to San Diego in the U.S., but has less land than the state of Delaware! And, at a village scale, many communities have adapted to the infrequent but intense challenges normally posed by nature, through methods such as storing starvation food (i.e. breadfruit), though they are less organized at a regional scale for coping with potentially chronic and creeping hazards associated with climate change (see Smith Jr. 2008a for details on climate change, islands, and environmental justice).
Figure 5 Ship beached on the island of Weno

Figure 5 Ship beached on the island of Weno

In addition, governance in such settings as the FSM is often only effective if driven at the village scale by traditional leaders. Working with so many leaders at that scale is difficult, especially under time constraints, and particularly for outside hazards experts who are trained over many years to work in a centralized mode for ‘efficiency,’ and to expect the same of their partners. Unlike places such as the U.S., in island nations, collaboration must take the place of, or at least augment federal level authority, and, it takes significant time to nurture collaboration. My observations while visiting Chuuk, FSM is that national scale laws are not respected in many settings, and there may very well be an inner-logic to this, given that most important resources and influential individuals on a daily basis are local.
Given these considerations, a monolithic perspective of diverse island cultures based on a unified national identity which may be portrayed by national representatives can be misdirecting. Islands are known world-wide as being biodiversity ‘hotspots,’ and island culture can be surprisingly diverse as well-language, ethnicity, gender, location of island and village within that island all impact perspective. The conceptualization and visualization of time, history (oral in the FSM and traditionally in many other islands such as present day Hawaii), allegiances, nature and the built environment occur at temporal and spatial scales not understood by those from other cultures renowned for translating science to efficient mitigation.
Part Two
Collaboration and Network Building in the Federated States of Micronesia
A picture of a Manta Ray taken at “Manta Road” in Pohnpei, FSM, an example of the remarkable biodiversity in the Federated States of Micronesia.

A picture of a Manta Ray taken at “Manta Road” in Pohnpei, FSM, an example of the remarkable biodiversity in the Federated States of Micronesia.

When focusing on collaboration in hazards work, one problem might very well be that grant funding comes with the stipulation of ‘outputs’ from early stages, when relationships and understanding should be the key focus. Another problem for those in academia is that grants big enough to support work in far-flung island communities often place ‘big science’ the heart of projects. However, the agenda of big science is often not a good match for grassroots agendas. In addition, real progress, the kind that sustains after outsiders leave, is only possible once real relationships and trust have been built, and outsiders learn about both diverse island culture, and what technologies are appropriate in a physically harsh, and fragmented physical, economic and political environment.
One ‘solution’ to this conundrum is to support a small, but permanent and consistent staff in the islands so that they can develop the networks to properly vet proposed projects, and to insist on local participation in any science work going on in a region. Put outside staff physically next to the local partner’s offices if possible to enhance ‘face-time.’ This also helps prevent all the data from going away with the researcher. Underscoring my point, I personally visited the Chuuk State Environmental Protection Agency with a CD of aerial photos of the state taken by a coral reef research group, only to find that we both got the data at the same time, several years after the group had left the island.
Advantages of even a small permanent staff on island and / or insisting on local partnership, even on projects clearly technically beyond the local partner has several potential advantages including: 1) Empowerment of local partners in a process of ‘training the trainers;’ 2) Blending of local knowledge not stored formally with outside knowledge; 3) Building of deeper and more reliable relationships and networks that can be activated during disasters; 4) Avoiding replication of work; 5) Building cultural knowledge that will result in more efficient spending due to a more informed perspective on what makes technologies appropriate and ways that political corruption may be occurring; and 6) One can foster a local (NGO) group that can be the scientific umbrella for other less developed groups. If you believe that science has the potential for great good in the world, then this is a great way to nurture its spread around locally defined issues. And, in this way the political scene will be better understood, so that groundwork can be done to make the science, infrastructure placement, etc., successful (the U.S.-funded Compact Road in Palau has been framed by some as taking this in reverse order). And, intellectually speaking, you simply can’t get this kind of knowledge by surfing Google Earth! These are face-to-face societies.
Rock Islands of Palau

Rock Islands of Palau

Considering an NGO for such partnerships, rather than, or at least in addition to, federal or state government, and providing a public access site such as a library with all the data and findings for public consumption, might democratize data, reduce turf battles and hoarding data for power, and free-up more creative minds to make use of multipurpose data such as GIS spatial data. Another excellent idea is to, whenever possible, support work the community has already shown support for, rather than trying to create one’s ‘own’ project from scratch. This reduces risk since certain landmines for activities have already been cleared, and builds good will across sectors. Picking less controversial topics to partner on at the start is another good idea, as is identifying positive rationales for public consumption, rather than an over-abundance of negative ones. Outside managers need to swallow their ego at times and frame themselves as ‘being there to support the community.’ If all these factors are considered, then project sustainability will be greatly enhanced. If they are not, poor, well-intentioned choices can be made, such as the implementation of large community water tanks in Chuuk which have not been maintained, and now are just rusting hulks in a place with already highly limited space.
Communication may not always be what it seems. A practical example is a Westerner misreading signals in the Philippines, where a ‘yes’ is not always a ‘yes,’ as it can merely be a way to avoid rudely say ‘no.’ One may walk away feeling that the mission of a given project was accomplished due to an affirmative response from locals. However, that person may well be shocked on returning to find that commitments have not been fulfilled. It might be difficult, however, to differentiate between whether individuals did not understand the commitment, did not agree with you but did not want to be rude, worried about losing the resources you might bring by refusing to collaborate, or simply had different priorities. (McGill University’s Project Seahorse went through this frustration, as this program for seahorse conservation initially went unfulfilled between visits from the Canadian scholars) Understanding local politics and communication norms, not just technology, is essential for avoiding unexpected barriers to effective hazard and vulnerability interventions. For example, Winter and Stephenson (1981) note how dating habits and jealousy ruined water improvement projects in the Western Pacific more than once. In one instance Winter thought, ‘logically,’ that building a simple system to bring water to a village would be widely appreciated. What he did not realize was that the need to go into the high island’s upper-watershed for water had traditionally provided an opportunity for young women and men to get together with each other without family being present. The young men reacted to this intrusion on their sexual culture by hacking up the pipes with machetes. In another case, PVC pipes ran across a small section of a villager’s land, but did not provide the owner a connection. The neglected stakeholder took dried coconut shells and tried to burn the pipes.
These aforementioned scenarios underscore that communication is different in character and the scale at which it will be effective in many settings. This may be seen as supporting a role for regional and cultural specialists in what are normally technical endeavors for scientists. Again, at a minimum, arranging a form of contract, or at least extended face-to-face time, not just email contact, with communities at a grassroots level well ahead of time for a given project would facilitate better communication. However, determining, for example, who to go to and how many signatures would constitute ‘consensus,’ would be a challenge, and many island cultures are not democratic at their core, so whether to seek consensus or not is something that must be taken seriously. Of course, outsiders come to the islands with their own values and assumptions.
Part Three
Escape from small Pacific islands – Federated States of Micronesia
On the road to the airport in Pohnpei, FSM (author)

On the road to the airport in Pohnpei, FSM (author)

There are perhaps fewer nuances to the next point, but it is also essential to understand in relation to seeking mitigation and adaptation. Simply put, there is physically less room for mistakes on small islands. There is less diversity of topography, climate, and biogeographic realms to provide a place to retreat to during a crisis. And, in many locations it is far more expensive to leave to seek assistance, due to the great expanse of the ocean (http://www.sidsnet.org/).
Remoteness often also results in a lack of essential baseline hazard data. For example, I donated my GIS files for Chuuk State, FSM to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to help in their post-event efforts after Typhoon Chataan, having by very good fortune just completed creating them. I did this because they had no quality GIS data to locate their heavy equipment on the various small islands in Chuuk Lagoon.
In small islands of less than, say, a square mile, there is literally nowhere to relocate to if a place becomes uninhabitable. Relocation might be possible if a high island is near, but even getting to a high island that might be near could be treacherous with tempestuous seas all around. Islanders often have no choice but to continue to live in a hazardous zone; they cannot retreat to let the experts come in and the cleanup crews begin their work.
Figures 6 and 7 below underscore the issues above by illustrating just how vulnerable routes for escape from islands can be. The dotted line on the first figure outlines the debris washed on top of the only road to the airport in Pohnpei. The debris is nearly at the level of the pavement in the foreground, so the water was at this level as well. Several residents mentioned to me that they are not accustomed to seeing the water at nearly road level at high tide (the picture was at low tide), noting that they believe it is due to climate change. And their fear is understandable when one sees that this debris was washed up by the lapping waves. Others on outer islands were in the process of getting emergency food and water by ship at the time of this writing due to inundation of their islands and taro crops planted on them. Many feel the clock on their island’s viability is ticking down, but access to the latest climate change science is next to zero.
The most people in small islands can often do is to seek higher ground or back away from the coast, and this is not much of an option if all the islands are of the low variety – some tiny enough to drive a golf ball over. When designing interventions during and immediately after a hazard, it is difficult to provide aid across long distances by boat, or even by plane, to areas that face even more extreme isolation. Boats and their handlers may have to negotiate powerful waves and identify and avoid treacherous reefs while landing, and have no place to refuel after leaving the main island(s). Planes may only be an option if there is a functioning landing strip on a tiny island, or if a seaplane can land given sea surface conditions. These issues, in combination with the fact that the population is often unable to escape from the place of impact during mitigation or search and rescue efforts, create barriers in forms not normally faced in continental settings.
Capital and Technology
Long-term technologies are those which must sustain (and often self-sustain) in the physical, economic, and political climate of a given region for significant time. An example from my own research is the effort to mitigate waterborne disease (Smith Jr. 2008b; 2009) (http://www.cdc.gov/safewater and http://www.unesco.org/water/wwap/partners/index.shtml# who and http://www.who.int/entity/water_sanitation_health/decade200 5_2015/en/index.html and http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/hygiene/envsan/phastep/en/index.html). In small island environments, the fragmented geographic setting precludes centralized technologies. In addition, while the islands may be small, population density may be high. In fact, population may be deceptively high due to geography. For example, population per square mile measurements do not mean much when inhabitants squeeze along the coast against declivitous interior slopes to take advantage of the marine ecosystem’s bounty, or because slopes are simply too steep to settle safely. And, in terms of centralized technology, how does one stretch distribution pipes from a centralized water system across such unique water and landscapes? The question is practically rhetorical. However, some attempts have been tried, and failed, such as in the Philippines (Fisher and Urich 1999). Further, if only some islands can get the expensive centralized system, then which one(s) should get it? This is a fundamental question of justice in relation to environmental health technologies. Experience suggests that the places where government officials and/or tourists stay are most likely to receive the potential benefit. This is the case on the island of Weno, in Chuuk, FSM, where there is sewage collection (no treatment) and water delivery (needing re-treatment) on a section of that one island where officials and tourists stay.
Another common problem in technology transfer is ‘parachuting’ of high technology into countries, and only working with upper government officials to transfer it in a ‘turn-key’ scenario. Turn-key refers to dropping a technology in place and having the user only need knowledge to turn the key, and this can lead to problems with misusing technology and not being able to afford to maintain it. Technology is rarely truly turn-key, especially beyond the short-term.
Uneven technology applications can create jealousy (Winter 2000). Of course, when aid is provided, the donor must also bear part of the responsibility of the outcomes of providing that aid. This is a matter of responsible oversight, efficient use of funds, and ethics. Nevertheless, oversight is difficult. In Chuuk, landslide victims, some of which have had their homes slide off the land and into the reefs at night while occupied, opted to buy rice with their reconstruction money. Accountability for all parties should matter, but it is a challenge to predict behavior across cultures.
On the road to the airport in Pohnpei, FSM (author)

On the road to the airport in Pohnpei, FSM (author)

The very presence of aid and emergency workers is an agent of change on small islands. In my experience agents have had some positive effects through their spending in the local economy (i.e. goods and fishing trips). At the same time, though, their practices led to an expectation among island residents that I must be with them and would disperse funds.
The scale and character of small island economies also play a role in determining what is feasible in terms of hazard and vulnerability mitigation. For instance, in the FSM unemployment rates vary significantly. Unemployment rates range from 4.1 percent in Yap, to 12.3 in Pohnpei and 16.5 in Kosrae, to 34.2 percent for Chuuk. Of nearly 29,000 employed persons in 2000, 52 percent were engaged in agricultural, fishery, or “related activities.” Some 30 percent were engaged in market-oriented agricultural, fishing, or related activities. Capitalization for high technology is a challenge, and economies of scale are lacking.
These factors, in combination with the aforementioned dominance of village and family-scale governance on an island-by-island basis, form a gestalt, so that centralized technologies, capacity building, and mandates assumed to trickle-down from the federal scale are ineffective. Again, I argue that what is called for is the building of long-term relationships between multiple scales of governance, integrating physical and cultural hazards specialists – not ad hoc relationships formed only at the national scales at the moment a crisis occurs. Additionally, small, decentralized technologies, especially those utilizing native products such as local sand, may be best suited in collaborating with locals to find physically, economically and politically sustainable technologies. Small, as Schumacher (1999) pointed out, may not only be “beautiful,” but may also be more affordable, easier to run and fix, and distributed in a more geographically equitable fashion.
Networks such as the Hawai’i-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (and its partners) have great scientific value, and provide important warnings to countries all around the Pacific, but do the warnings make it effectively to the grassroots on distant shores? Just a couple years ago the Solomon Islands lost many lives due to a tsunami. The scientific data may have been collected, and important warning information might have been mapped on the Internet, but many people lost their lives just the same. This is in part because the message did not arrive where it was needed most; and in part because immediate response and recovery efforts are difficult in a far-flung group of islands such as the Solomons.
If there is a ‘take-home point’ to this article, it is that it is vital in hazard mitigation to build long-term relationships between multiple scales of governance and outside hazards specialists, not ad hoc relationships at a national scale at the moment a crisis occurs. I make the assumption that countries such as my own (the U.S.) want to be efficient, and do feel a moral imperative, be it due to climate change, or for other reasons, to aid the most vulnerable in dealing with hazards. And, so I point out that to work well with small island communities as hazards continue to take their toll, we must have human beings on the ground in small island communities living at the village scale and building relationships – not simply technical personnel such as GIS experts analyzing at a distance. A multidisciplinary, not purely technological, or geophysical, approach is necessary in order to provide an understanding of local knowledge and human systems that exist…even if they are difficult for most outsiders to detect (i.e. the aforementioned breadfruit pit). To reduce vulnerability it is necessary to not simply to deliver, but to collaborate and build local capacity as detailed above – and if government and other budgets would reflect this need it would be possible to save more lives, conserve more environments, and be more efficient.
For Thomas Edwards, for his enduring friendship, kindness, steadfastness, and compassion.
Cutter, S., 2004. The Vulnerability of Science and the Science of Vulnerability. Presidential Address as reprinted in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93 (1): 1-12.
Fisher, Karen T. and Peter B. Urich. 1999. Information dissemination and communication in stakeholder participation: the Bohol-Cebu water supply project. Asian Pacific Viewpoint 40 (3): 251-269.
FSM Division of Statistics, Department of Economic Affairs, Federated States of Micronesia National Government. 2002. Federated States of Micronesia 2000 Population and Housing Census Report. Palikir, Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia.
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Homepage. http://www.prh.noaa.gov/ptwc/
Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered : 25 Years Later…With Commentaries. 1999. Hartley & Marks Publishers.
Smith Jr., William James. 2008a. Geographic Factors Complicating Hazard Responses on Small Islands, Technology and Society, Journal of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology 27 (3): 39-47.
Smith Jr. 2008b. “The place of rural, remote and least wealthy small islands in international water development: The nexus of geography-technology-sustainability in Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia.” The Geographical Journal 174 (3): 251-268.
Smith Jr. Forthcoming 2009. “Improving access to safe drinking water in rural, remote, and least-wealthy small islands: Non-traditional methods in Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia.” International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management (special volume on small island developing states). Accepted for publication in volume 10.
Winter, S and R A Stephenson 1981 The development of a village water supply system in Truk University of Guam Water & Energy Research Institute of the Western Pacific, Technical Report 28, Guam
Winter, S 2000 Solar-powered Pumping in the Federated States of Micronesia Newsletter and Technical Publications: Sourcebook of Alternative Technologies for Freshwater Augmentation in Small Island Developing States, PART C – CASE STUDIES. United Nations Environment Programme, Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics, International Environmental Technology Centre (http://www.unep.or.jp/ietc/ Publications/TechPublications/TechPub-8d/micronesia.asp).