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Urban flooding, a new threat to the capital of Solomon Islands

Burn Creek School soccer field filled with water

LEADERS of Solomon Islands, a tiny country in the pacific are now realizing the importance of preparedness as pivotal to counter the impact of climate change and changing weather patterns.

Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands has experienced severe disasters in recent years due to high precipitation leading to relentless drenching rains, floods and storms which could lead to extreme monsoons and changing weather patterns caused by climate change.

Preparedness was weak and slow, though local and international organisations warned the incoming threats of climate change that might put lives, properties and also services at stake.

Urban Flash Flooding is a new disaster not known since the birth of Honiara.

Floods that ripped through the city’s main road has become an all too frequent encounter, causing major blow to education, health services as well as business activities.

The worst flooding ever experienced in the history of Honiara was in early April 2014 when heavy rain brought about by Tropical Cyclone Ita triggered deadly flash floods.

The rains triggered river systems to overflow, sending torrents of brown water through the capital Honiara and villages across Guadalcanal Province.

Homes and infrastructure were washed away, including one of the only two bridges linking east and west of Honiara.

People most of whom are women and children were carried out to sea with at least 22 people killed and over 50,000 affected – an estimate of almost 10 per cent of the country’s total population.

Honiara and the rest of Guadalcanal were declared disaster zone on 4 April 2014 after the devastating flood.

Now the trend of heavy rain together with flash flooding has frequently threatened the tiny city.

Early this year the Burns Creek, Koa hill and White River Communities sunk underwater as the country entered the wet season which normally falls from November to April.

Flooding causes traffic congestion on the main road of Honiara early this year.

Hundreds of people were displaced with food gardens destroyed. Traffic was also disabled, schools closed down and the only Referral Hospital was also filled with water.

“Floods in recent years were not just the worst I have seen in my 14 years with the National Disaster Management Office, but in my whole life,” said Loti Yates, director of the NDMO.

Fifty years old, Robertson Galokale who lives at Burns Creek – a community situated on the outskirt of Honiara said 15 homes have been destroyed as a result of the flooding at Burns Creek Community.

“This is new, I never experienced such damage cause by flooding since I settled here twenty years ago.

“I’m investigating this new threat and I came across two contributing factors; one is the changing weather pattern and the other issue is activities caused by humans in the name of development.

“Developments downstream have blocked Burns Creek stream outlet and when it rains, pools of water filled the area,” Mr Galokale said.

He blamed unplanned developments surrounding Burns Creek downstream for causing the issue that put people’s lives at risk.

Mr Galokale said the Burns Creek community is now facing new challenges, more especially urban flooding as the result of extreme rainfall caused by climate change.

Former Councillor of Honiara City, Charles Lesimaoma who lives at White River Community at the Western end of Honiara City for over 59 years also shared similar sentiments.

He said urban flooding has been a frequent threat to his community.

“I remember well when I first settled here at White River that the River was clean and beautiful. Now the environment is 100% different as development creeped in.

Honiara main road sink underwater as a result of flooding

“Lots of permanent houses were erected along the river and this development blocked the river that when flooding occurs, the river runs through my community,” Mr Lesimaoma said.

He adds that in the late 1990s flooding was not a threat to his community, but now people normally evacuate when small drop of rain falls in fear of flash flooding.

“Our schools, clinic and even Police station are normally sinking under water when there is torrential rain and flooding,” Mr Lesimaoma said.

He blamed unplanned development and poor drainage system as the major factors that attribute to the increasing threat of urban flooding in his community.

Minister of Environment, climate change, disaster management and Meteorology of Solomon Islands, Honourable Samuel Manetoali said the error of unplanned city, with weak building codes and diverse illegal settlements has placed Honiara in a vulnerable position to urban flooding.

He said poor drainage system as well as unplanned urban developments are also other risk factors contributing to these brutal changes.

Minister Manetoali adds that another great concern is the increase of illegal settlement on flood prone areas though the government through responsible authorities are issuing warning notices.

“After the April 2014 flooding, the Honiara City Council endorsed a bylaw discouraging illegal settlers to occupy flood prone areas, however enforcement of the bylaw was not effective and now settlers have returned and reoccupied the areas that were badly damaged by the 2014 flash flooding, this is pure neglect of the law,” he said.

Minister Manetoali said attitude problem is one among other factors that contributes to high death rate during disasters in the Solomon Islands.

“This is one of our problems, illegal settlers willingly ignore advises we gave out and when disaster strikes they are the ones badly affected and who would then seek the government for assistance,” he said.

Minister Manetoali said flooding has been the most economic, social and humanitarian damage than any other natural disasters that has affected thousands of people over the past 10 years in Solomon Islands.

He said existing legislations and ordinance in Solomon Islands are weak and that there are limited action the government can do to address the incoming threats.

“There are lots of issues remain unsolved, but the biggest issue at the moment is that the government is incapable of providing funds and programmes to contain the increasing threat of flooding cause by the changing weather pattern in Solomon Islands.

New Bridge construction badly affected by flood

“We continue to spend huge money to disaster relief programmes every year and this indicates that we must do something in preparation for the worst in the future,” Minister Manetoali said.

He stressed that the government places great emphasis on the impact of climate change but has insufficient funds to carry out mitigation and adaptation programmes.

“We are looking for funding from our donor partners to help us address this issue because we do not have sufficient fund.

“Over the past century, Solomon Islands has become an increasingly urban society and changes in land use associated with urban development affect flooding in many ways,” Minister Manetoali said.

He said roads and buildings constructed in flood-prone areas are exposed to increased flood hazards, including inundation and erosion as new development continues.

Minister Manetoali adds that land use and other human activities also influence the peak discharge of floods by modifying how rainfall are stored on and run off the land surface into streams.

He said removing soil, grading the land surface, and constructing drainage networks increase runoff to streams from rainfall as a result peak discharge volume and frequency of floods increase in nearby streams changes to stream channels which limits their capacity to convey floodwaters.

According to the Ministry of Environment, climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology Services, rain tables have been changed dramatically.

Solomon Islands Meteorology Department reports that year-to-year rainfall variability over the Solomon Islands is generally larger than the projected change with the largest projected change in rainfall later in the century.

Former Director of Solomon Islands Metrological Mr David Hiriasia said Solomon Islands history of extreme rainfall and flooding has a brutal effect to lives and properties.

People stranded to acces transport to reach Honiara main city

He said flooding caused by extreme rainfall which normally occur between November to April every year have claimed lives and has also raised physical, social, economic and political implications.

“Honiara’s vulnerability to urban flooding is 90 percent and this is due to the changing rainfall table.

“Our record shows that the current rainfall table has changed very much compared to the past years.

“We show the trend of frequent rainfall is hanging over Solomon Islands,” Mr Hiriasia said.

“It is clear that the impact of urban flooding has caused loss of lives and property, loss of livelihoods, decreased purchasing and production power, psychosocial effects, hindering economic growth and development as well as Political implications.

The government along with other stakeholders have come together with plans in efforts to address the issue.

This article is fully funded by Earth Journalism Network.