Food Security must be top priority after disasters

By Dev Nadkarni

Advances in weather prediction technologies, the ubiquity of telecommunications networks, proliferation of mobile devices and a better prepared administration all played important roles in greatly minimising the risk to human life and limb during last month’s Cyclone Evan in Samoa and Fiji. The trail of destruction the cyclone left in its path, as it turned out, was the closest the islands came to the mother of all apocalypses penciled in the ancient Mayan calendar for December 21, 2012.

The human toll in cyclones of similar intensity in past years was far higher as was the number of people injured. The time taken to bring back normalcy after the disaster was also far longer than it would be this time around, thanks to Governments of the affected islands as well as richer nations in the region being in a greater state of readiness in their efforts to restore normality than they used to be in decades past.

This is primarily because natural disaster prediction technologies, warning systems, preparedness regimes and mitigation initiatives have undergone great progress in the past decade or so, particularly after the Asian tsunami that cut a transcontinental swathe of destruction killing some 200,000 people from Southeast Asia to the coasts of the Horn of Africa.

Also, the effects of climate change, which are widely believed to progressively intensify the wrath of natural forces with greater frequency over the coming years, has galvanised Governments to be better prepared for disaster management. All indications are that with changes in climate patterns, cyclones will get fiercer and stay longer while tectonic shifts in the earth’s geological plates will always hang the Sword of Damocles over Pacific islanders’ lives with the threat of deadly tsunamis.

These fears are especially relevant to the people of low lying island and atoll nations dotting the tropical Pacific Ocean, who have few to no options of sheltering against the fury of extreme weather. King tides are increasing in frequency, devastating local agriculture in atoll nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. Hundreds of acres of coconut and other plantations in Kiribati have been rendered fallow because of saline waterlogging. At the same time, high tides have infiltrated the meagre groundwater reserves of the atoll, rendering most of it unfit for human consumption.

The point here is whatever the cause – random wild weather, climate change or tectonic shifts – natural disasters will continue to wreak havoc and each of those episodes are only likely to get stronger and potentially cause greater damage to life and property in coming years. In light of this reality, which is making itself increasingly evident, Governments need to take a more holistic view of dealing with the after effects of disasters, rather than doing so on a piecemeal basis whenever disaster strikes.

While there have been attempts to put such strategies in place, little has been achieved. A succession of climate change jamborees from Rio to Bali to Copenhagen and back to Rio have seen promises and assurances made for programmes and processes to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. At best, these attempts seem half hearted and far from concerted.

For instance, funds have been made available rather sporadically to low lying atolls to construct seawalls in order to physically prevent saline waters from entering farms as well as for preventing erosion. A few adaptation programmes, which hope to help people and future generations to adapt to the realities of the changes wrought by climate change, are also being rolled out in some of the threatened atolls. None of these, however, address some of the fundamental problems that extreme weather – whether randomly or as a result of climate change – brings with increasing frequency around the world.

One of these most fundamental problems, even in islands not as severely threatened by sea level rise as the low lying atolls is one of food security. Cyclone Evan last month caused the destruction of hundreds of acres of farmland and crops in Samoa and Fiji. This will affect both subsistence and market economies of the countries – to say nothing of the downturn in exports for months together. Cyclone Evan’s devastation of farmlands and standing harvestable crops has been considerable, necessitating the import of emergency food supplies to tide over the crisis.

Fiji was only slowly beginning to recover agriculturally from the effects of the cyclone earlier this year, which devastated the country’s pawpaw crop almost completely with exports plummeting to negligible levels. A considerable quantum of Fiji’s produce comes from its Western Province, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Evan just as it had suffered the previous one. It will be months again before these waterlogged farmlands become productive again. And then again, they will be only good enough until the next cyclone hits.

Food security and ensuring the continued access to cheap, safe and nutritious food especially during and after a natural disaster should be a top item on Governments’ disaster prevention and rehabilitation agendas. Fortunately, there are ways out of the uncertainty. It is possible to put in place small farming projects that can survive cyclones for the most part and continue to supply crops uninterrupted by the vagaries of severe weather like cyclones, though at this stage it certainly cannot replace large scale commercial farming.

This year, a successful aquaponics project was commissioned in the Cook Islands. The technique of growing vegetable and fruit involves using fish metabolism as nutrient, without the use of fertilsers and sprays. It needs minimal water replacement, has a small footprint and can be designed to be easily transportable. All these characteristics make aquaponics a viable technique for food growing not only in water deficient areas but also to counter the adverse effects of natural disasters on food security – and that too without the use of sprays.

Five months after it began growing some 23 different kinds of vegetables and herbs, the Cook Islands continues to flourish and thrive, demonstrating the ability of the system to reliably supply nutritious produce continually, with minimal maintenance routines. As well as addressing issues of food security, projects like these can also serve to add to the local economy by creating self employment and a market for a range of vegetables and fruit, many of which would otherwise be imported.

The Cook Islands pilot project that was completed in August last year ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ annual meeting has galvanised several island governments as well as private sector entrepreneurs in several island countries to look at the technique seriously as a viable alternative to growing food especially in fallow and water deficient areas threatened by climate change and wild weather, where the answer to problems of food security is often imported, canned and processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat, which while not providing adequate wholesome nutrition, also promote a range of lifestyle diseases.

This year will likely see a few more aquaponics projects around the region.