Resilience two metres above sea-level

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Asia and Pacific
A strong tradition of self-help underpins disaster risk management in Tokelau. (Photo: Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)
A strong tradition of self-help underpins disaster risk management in Tokelau. (Photo: Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

SUVA, 30 October 2015 – Building local disaster resilience is a matter of survival for the people of Tokelau, whose sole link to the rest of the world is a fortnightly boat service that takes 24 hours to their nearest neighbor, Samoa.

The Pacific Territory faces a combined challenge of two extremes: isolation as well as high exposure to disaster and climate risk. Yet, the population of 1,500 people, which lives on three coral atolls, has developed a strong tradition of self-help that underpins an impressive approach to risk management in such trying circumstances.

Ms Jewel Tuitama, a Project Officer of the Department of Economic Development, Natural Resources and Environment who is also responsible for coordinating the Community Disaster Climate Reduction Management initiative, said that traditional knowledge is a cornerstone of the Territory’s resilience.

“Tokelau's national system and governance very much relies on the Councils of Elders (Taupulega) at the village level who are also represented in the General Fono which is the governing body for the nation,” Ms Tuitama said.

“They make sure that traditional knowledge and the current community managed structures are well incorporated into the concept of disaster risk reduction. Because of Tokelau's limited resources and isolation, the emergency management committees and procedures are only activated during times of disaster.”

Ms Tuitama recounted several previous cyclones that had had major impacts on the Territory, including Cyclone Ofa (1990), Percy (2005), Evan (2012), and Pam (2015): “Tokelau remains exposed to strong winds and heavy rainfall. Additionally, strong storm surges sometimes make their way from the ocean side into the lagoons destroying various infrastructure and households.

“Cyclones really have an impact and we continually have to learn how to cope. For a Territory of our size, just one death represents a major disaster.”

Ms Tuitama who was attending this week’s Pacific Disaster Resilience Meeting, said the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year global blueprint to substantially reduce disaster losses and risk adopted earlier this year, should be adapted to the regional context in order to be successful.

“All countries and territories in the Pacific are unique in population size, economic situations, geographic locations, structures and such like. The region should address disaster risk reduction from a more country and territory specific approach to enable each to contribute effectively to the Sendai Framework,” she said.

Tokelau's three atolls of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo sit a maximum of two meters above the high water level of ordinary tides making them very exposed to a rise in sea level. Lying north of Samoa, Tokelau has a combined land area of just 12 square kilometers.

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