Need more than lip-service from Pacific Partnership

I am a U.S. citizen, a surgeon, and public health doctor. I am writing this while working with the World Health Organization on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. My work is on the health impacts of climate mediated extreme weather events in urban Pacific Island environments.

Extreme weather events are a regular occurrence here in the Pacific Region and of late have received a great deal of attention due to Cyclone Pam. Over the past 5 years the southwestern Pacific Region has seen over 24 cyclones and 30 tropical depressions. One third of these storms have resulted in moderate to severe damage to the islands they affect, killing hundreds. The direct as well as indirect economic costs of these storms have exceeded $3 billion U.S.

Last year Cyclone Ian, a category 5 storm slammed Ha’apai Tonga destroying homes and taking down vital communications. One year ago tropical storm Ita caused deadly flooding here in Solomon Islands capital city, Honiara, crippling the economy, and straining the health system of the Solomon Islands. Most recently Cyclone Pam tore through the eastern Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and then Vanuatu.

These storms disrupt infrastructure, foul water supplies and destroy food gardens relied upon by a largely subsistence population.  Storms also negatively impact the fragile developing economies of these largely aid dependent island nations not only by infrastructure damage but also through disruption of tourism and natural resource trade. The health impacts these storms have upon the nearly 2 million people living here in the southwestern Pacific Region include acute injuries from debris and floodwaters, as well as exacerbations of endemic infectious diseases. Shortages of food along with post disaster unsanitary conditions add to the regions post disaster health vulnerabilities. Providing supplies to small Pacific Island nations made up of hundreds of islands has and will continue to be a universal obstacle to delivering timely post-disaster aid. In addition to the well-publicized sea-level rise threatening Pacific Island Nations, they are also faced with the prospect of stronger, more devastating storms and cyclones. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR5 2014 report predicts with moderate certainty there will be an increase in the intensity of extreme weather events in the Pacific Region over the next 20 years. This highlights the need for regional disaster management that includes nimble international assistance.

Since 2006 the United States Navy has conducted Pacific Partnership, a Department of Defense forward readiness program in the Asia Pacific Region. Pacific Partnership came about in response to logistics problems identified during the Indonesian tsunami response in 2004. The Navy, rightfully so, recognized the need for multinational, coordinated, and timely disaster relief in order to minimize human suffering, diminish economic consequences, and mitigate security and instability issues in the effected regions. Over the past 8 years Pacific Partnership has been conducted planned visits to countries throughout Indonesia and the Pacific region at a US tax payer cost of over $20 million US per mission.  The program provides medical and dental missions along with preselected engineering projects to the ports visited while Navy personnel learn to deploy landing crafts, helicopters and other defense equipment along challenging shorelines.  Support in Washington for this program is big.  Elected officials, State Department representatives and military brass see Pacific Partnership as a big contribution to the health and wellbeing of the people of the Pacific Region. But since its inception Pacific Partnership has never deployed to assist with a real Pacific Island disaster situation despite the goals of the mission: to train for disaster response and regional readiness. Despite the numerous disasters the region has recently had this potentially invaluable program has failed to deliver. This lack of the Navy’s Pacific Partnership Program to engage during a true time of disaster raises a number of questions:  What is the real goal of Pacific Partnership? What exactly is the Obama administration, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy’s commitment of to the Pacific Island region? Is it possible to get more from this program for the taxpayer’s dollars spent?

The failure of Pacific Partnership, one of the United State’s only “humanitarian aid programs” in the Pacific Region, to deploy during the time of crisis must be addressed. As “America’s first Pacific President” Obama has done more than any recent president to draw attention to the Pacific Region, but it has not been nearly enough. He needs to be a “Pacific President” who recognizes our Pacific neighbors climate mediated health and well being vulnerability and responds with emergency support and adaptation programs that are proportional to the risks Pacific Island nations face today. One easy way to start is to make Pacific Partnership more responsive to the disaster needs in the Pacific region.

Natuzzi is medical education coordinator for the Solomon Island Living Memorial Project for the San Diego State University, School of Public Health.


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