By Tim Walsh, Caritas Oceania
A workshop organized by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) was held during the first week of June in Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands. The aim was to improve the coordination of both the emergency and the gradual response to weather events as part of an ongoing effort to manage the effects of climate change.
The majority of workshop participants were islanders from Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro, and included representatives from Caritas Oceania, New Zealand Aid, Red Cross Fiji, the Commission for Justice, Peace and Development, and government officials. There was also a presence from UN agencies and the national office for disaster management (Emergency Management Cook Islands).
Participants from the Cook Islands agreed from the onset that, while it is important to present their evolving predicament to the wider international community, the process needs to be implemented and managed by the local island people. By combining the intellectual, social and spiritual resources of the region, they need to develop solutions that embrace the traditions and uniqueness of Oceania.
The group reviewed the initial response and the early recovery phase of Tropical Cyclone “Pat”, which struck Aitutaki Island a short time ago. The first step was to recognise their shortcomings: the gaps in planning, the poor communication, the overlap in activities, the vagueness of their assessments and the delays in response to requests for assistance. Participants also acknowledged the strengths of being a small community.
Being few, they have a good sense of each other’s potential, the existing wealth in the region and the available natural resources. Moreover, they recognize the power of national prayer for peace and courage, which is sacred to the community and was the first national communication response after the cyclone.
The workshop has helped the participants identify what they did right, the missteps in response planning and actions, as well as lessons to be applied if it happens again. They realize that their greatest asset is “tatou”, which means “us”, and that working together with mutual trust and a love will help them to avoid organisational separateness. Their planning systems and structures do not need re-inventing, they just need to be implemented with greater coordination.
Recognizing that they live in a Pacific ‘Garden of Eden’, participants acknowledge that there are those who are far more vulnerable and ravaged by disasters. They feel positive that, although they appreciate the offers of help from international donors and partners, they have the strength and resources here to do the foundation work themselves. This realization has contributed to the empowerment of the people in the Pacific and has helped them to welcome any potential ‘top-up’ assistance.
Tim Walsh is Regional Coordinator of Caritas Oceania