The Pacific is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world. Most of these disasters result from hydro-meteorological events, which are predicted to become more frequent and more intense under future climate change scenarios. The effect of these disasters upon coastal communities in the Pacific is relatively widely known, with images of wind and waves battering beaches during tropical cyclones beamed around the world. The impacts from riverine flooding are perhaps less well known, however every year flooding in the Pacific is responsible for millions of dollars of damage, disruption to business and communities, and too often loss of life. The impacts are often felt disproportionally, with women, children and people with a disability being among the most vulnerable to natural disasters.
Aftermath of flash floods in 2014 in the Mataniko River, Solomon Islands (photo source: Reuters)
The landscapes of the volcanic Pacific Islands such as Fiji and Vanuatu, are characterised by short, steep catchments, resulting in ‘flashy’ floods with short travel times (Figure 1). This makes flood early warnings challenging, resulting in communities being caught by surprise. Early Warning Systems (EWSs) are designed to reduce the impact of natural hazards upon communities and organisations by giving them more time to prepare for flooding. A well-functioning EWS can increase the resilience of developing countries to natural disasters and climate related risks. Provision of early warnings have been identified as priority actions in both the:
- Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific 2017 – 2030 (Pacific Island Forum Leaders), and
- The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015 – 2030)
Rakiraki catchment in Fiji
The timeliness, accuracy and confidence of flood early warnings are underpinned by hydrological services. Including access to real time hydrometric data and staff trained in hydrological forecasting. However, hydrology is poorly supported across the region at a national and regional level. This has resulted in poor coverage of hydrometric stations, poor quality hydrometric data sets and a lack of technical capacity in hydrological interpretation. This not only impacts upon flood early warnings, but also planning for a resilient future as hydrology plays a pivotal role in effective land use planning, the design of resilient infrastructure, water security and energy security.
Alluvium is supporting improvement of Pacific’s hydrological services including Flood Early Warning Systems.
To help address this gap, the Australian Water Partnership (an Australian international cooperation program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) has engaged Australian expertise to undertake a project to provide technical support in hydrology to enhance flood early warning systems in Pacific Island Countries. The project is executed under a partnership arrangement, led by Alluvium, with a full-time hydrologist seconded to The Pacific Community (SPC) based in Fiji for two years, drawing on technical expertise from Australia. ‘The Pacific Community (SPC) is the principal scientific and technical organisation in the Pacific region. (They) are an international development organisation owned and governed by (their) 26 country and territory members’ (Pacific Community, 2021). The project has also supported SPC to directly employ a locally based hydrologist and technicians to support the project.
The purpose of the project is to increase climate resilience and strengthen DRR systems in Pacific Island Countries through increased hydrological capacity and enhanced performance of flood early warning systems, and support the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific, and the Sendai framework for DRR. The project focuses on Samoa, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – i.e., volcanic islands, with extensive river systems and communities often impacted by flooding.
The objectives of the project include:
- Improving understanding and knowledge of flood risk to major catchments.
- Strengthening flood preparedness and response by extending technical support to improve the application of existing flood Early Warning Systems that are in place across the Pacific region.
- Supporting the long-term sustainability and potential for upscaling hydrological services that strengthen flood EWS within the Pacific Region
Taking a three-pronged approach to project delivery
The project is taking a three-pronged approach to project delivery, which involves stakeholder engagement, technical assistance, and the development of a regional strategy for hydrology.
Extensive stakeholder engagement has been undertaken at multiple scales throughout the project, from community workshops to technical workshops with government agencies, to meetings with high-level decision makers. Consultation has been guided by a flood early warning framework developed as part of the project (Figure 1). The framework, based on the UNDP multi-hazard early warning framework, has been tailored to be relevant to flood early warning in the Pacific setting, with the development informed by consultation with regional stakeholders. The framework, which has also been converted to an analytical tool, covers the end-to-end early warning process from risk knowledge to data collection to notification of the affected community and response capability.
Flood early warning framework
The community workshops were held to improve our understanding of traditional and local knowledge of flooding and to identify ways in which this can be incorporated into official flood warnings (TA local female led Civil Society Organisation (CSO) was engaged to organise and facilitate the workshops to ensure that a diverse cross-section of the community was included in the workshop and that local customs were adhered to.
Community flood early warning workshop in Fiji
Technical capacity building within hydrology services is the main focus of the project. As such, extensive consultation with technical staff in National Hydrology Services agencies has been a priority. The secondment arrangement has allowed for the time to build relationships and trust to get a deeper understanding of capacity challenges facing effective hydrological services in each focal country but also to observe the strengths of the staff and systems that are in place. This has allowed for targeted technical assistance that responds to country priorities in hydrology.
Technical assistance has been focussed on two pilot catchments located in Fiji and Vanuatu (Figure 3). The technical assistance has included flood modelling and improving flood intelligence, supporting the installation and ongoing management of hydrometric monitoring equipment and networks and capacity development in hydrological and GIS analysis.
Field assessment in Vanuatu
Drawing on the outcomes of the stakeholder engagement and technical assistance a strategy for a programme of upscaling and enhancing regional support for both national and regional hydrological services and flash flood EWS. A major aim of the strategy will be to demonstrate the need for and efficacy of investing in hydrology to support effective flood early warning and disaster risk reduction.
Partnering for a lasting impact
The partnership approach through a long-term secondment has led to successful outcomes for the project. It has enabled relationship building with key stakeholders and subsequently an in-depth understanding of the challenges facing hydrological services in the region. This understanding has informed the focus of the technical assistance to ensure it is meeting key regional needs to ultimately increase climate resilience in Pacific Island Countries.