In an era of smartphones and social networks, connecting with family and friends has become an integral part of everyday life for many people. Here in Bangkok, I know when my old classmates have had a reunion on a Friday night in Washington, D.C. — or more importantly, when my friends report themselves as safe on Facebook after an earthquake in Nepal or a typhoon in the Philippines.
However, in many other places such as Tuvalu, a remote Pacific island country, distance remains an unyieldingly defining element of life.
Seven years in the making
In June 2010, I made my first trip to Tuvalu, which has a landmass of 2.6 square kilometres and maximum elevations of a few metres. Anticipating intensifying tropical cyclones as a result of climate change, the government had asked UNDP to help improve communication between the country’s nine islands.
At the time of our team’s visit, the communication facilities that connected the islands were extremely weak. For example, only two vessels traveled from the main island to the other eight — hundreds of kilometres apart — every two to five weeks. Imagine the related challenges in a country where sea travel is the only way to move people and goods.
Three independent communication lines existed: an AM radio system established by Japanese aid agency JICA (which the majority of Tuvaluans considered as the primary source of public information, including for cyclone warnings); satellite phones; and landlines/the Internet. We knew that all of these lines were particularly vulnerable when cyclones hit.
The AM radio was insufficient as an emergency channel, as it was fully dependent on a single source of power without a back-up option. This meant that if either the principal radio system on the main island of Funafuti or the recipient island lost power (which happened frequently due to localized flooding), the radio was out. Both landlines and satellite phones were also very unreliable, especially during bad weather. One would also have to go outdoors to use a satellite phone, a very risky situation in a Category 5 cyclone.
Tuvalu had long struggled with the reliability of communication channels before, during and after a disaster, more than anybody else. In 1997, when Cyclone Keli made a landfall on the southern-most island of Niulakita, all communication channels were completely disconnected for five days. During this time, the fate of all the residents remained unknown. After what must have felt like an eternity for those affected, the New Zealand Air Force plane flew over and saw that all buildings, except a church, were flattened.
Miraculously, everybody was safe inside the church. But the absence of a fully functioning communication system magnified the physical and figurative distances between the islands. To bridge these became the objective of the project that UNDP was tasked to design.
Leaving no one behind
Much has changed since my first visit to Tuvalu back in 2010. Now we are nearing the conclusion of the project, and a lot has been achieved.
Tuvalu has enhanced its communication channels, so that even during the severest of cyclones, at least one line will remain functional.
The AM radio system is equipped with a back-up battery, so that even when the primary source of power is out on the main island of Funafuti, emergency radio transmission is still possible.
The emergency operation centre, which is set up inside the Government building at the time of disaster, now has a mobile radio console so that radio transmissions can be made from the same location where disaster response decisions are made.
Through the project, every single household outside of the main island now has a solar-powered radio (with a crank that also allows manual power generation during rainy days), so that they do not need to rely on the main island to access information.
Furthermore, every island is now equipped with a text message-based communication device that operates at a fraction of the cost required for satellite phone communications. This device also permits someone in Funafuti to set off an alarm in all the islands during an emergency.
Lastly, the evacuation centre on each island is equipped with an external antenna for satellite phones so that important calls can be made while staying indoors.
The dividends from the project have been enormous. With multiple, independent communication lines, it is highly likely that Tuvalu’s outer islands will maintain connectivity with the main island even during the strongest of cyclones. Equally importantly, virtually every household in the country can access public information on a 24/7 basis thanks to solar-powered radios and strengthened radio operations.
As long as Tuvaluans continue to live in the scattered islands in this vast Pacific Ocean, distance will certainly continue to dictate the pattern of life here. But our work, I hope, has contributed to strengthening their preparedness for weathering the storms ahead. At the same time, however, improving island communications is only one of many measures needed to build the climate resilience of this small island nation. The Government of Tuvalu and UNDP will continue their partnership in this area to gradually transform Tuvalu into a more resilient country.
This assistance in improving communication connectivity has been provided as part of a broader climate resilience building effort — “Securing Marine-based Coastal Livelihoods from Climate-Induced Disasters in Tuvalu” — financed by the Least Developed Countries Fund.
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