Churches in Forefront of aid Effort for Battered Pacific Islands

Jan 17, 2003 12:15 PM EST

Church-run organizations are in the front line of providing aid to Solomon Islanders battered by a cyclone almost three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, critics have charged that the disaster response of the Solomon Islands government was impeded by police demands for special allowances.

The Church of Melanesia, a member of the global relief alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, plans to use its own vessel to deliver relief supplies to the remote islands of Tikopia and Anuta, which were hit by the cyclone.

The Australian arm of Caritas, a Catholic agency for overseas aid and development, has committed itself to helping rebuild communities on the islands.

Cyclone Zoe - one of the most intense tropical cyclones recorded in the Pacific - smashed into the islands at the end of December. Approximately 1500 islanders were cut off from the world for five days, and were first reached by a photographer who arrived at Tikopia in a helicopter chartered by The Australian, a national newspaper.

The photographer found that all the inhabitants had survived, despite winds gusting at more than 300 kilometres an hour. They had taken cover in mountain caves used by generations of islanders to shelter from cyclone weather.

However, homes, crops and water supplies were devastated by high winds and 10-metre waves. Five church buildings were destroyed in the three worst-affected villages on Tikopia, and it was a week before the first Solomon Islands' government aid arrived.

The government relief effort was hampered by police who demanded "allowances'' of $1250 each before they would crew an Australian-funded patrol boat carrying emergency supplies, aid workers and a medical team, said the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Allan Kemakeza, in an interview on 8 January published in The Australian. Other officials blamed weather conditions and the islands' financial problems for the delays, Reuters reported. But opposition politicians in the Solomon Islands have slammed the Kemakeza government's slow response, calling it "inhumane''. "What this government is good at is paying out compensation and extra allowances,'' senior Solomon Islands opposition member of parliament John Garo said, according to The Australian.

Meanwhile, the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has described the "awkwardness" of local rescue efforts as symptomatic of a general disarray in the Solomon Islands. He said the police force demands affected not just security, but the ability of the government to deliver services.

Downer resisted suggestions that Australia become more involved. "Australia is not about to re-colonise the South Pacific, nor should it," he said, in a reference to Australia's administration of a part of the former British protectorate after the Second World War. The country was granted independence in 1978.

The Church of Melanesia plans to deliver supplies such as food, clothing, bedding, local building materials and household items to the cyclone-affected islands when Anglican Bishop David Vunagi of the Diocese of Temotu visits the islands later this month. The church says that the three shiploads of relief supplies sent by the Solomon Islands' National Disaster Council had not met all the needs. The church would therefore focus on items such as building materials, including sago palm leaves, that were still in short supply.

Meanwhile, Caritas Australia, which already had a presence in the islands due to pre-existing aid projects, has committed itself to using its experience in rebuilding shelters quickly and cheaply to help the islanders.

By Margaret Simons