Constant flooding and the real cost of developments

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Here is the thing. We’ve known for some time now that the rate of development going on up in the highlands of Samoa has something to do with the growing number of flooding, devastating people living in lowlands and flood-prone areas.

We were especially suspicious in the case of the Vaisigano River and the whole Vailima, Malololelei, Tiapapata and Tiavi area. 

Folks, you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that the water from up there will have to find somewhere to go. And that in the recent past it has ended up in some people’s homes in the low-lying areas of the Apia Township, with devastating and deadly consequences. 

What we did not have was data and the details (at least publically available anyway) that would prove these suspicions. But that is now about to change with the revelations on the front page of yesterday’s Samoa Observer with the story titled “Survey finds shocking discovery about flooding.”

The survey was conducted by SkyEye Samoa with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.) and United Nations Development Programme (U.N.D.P.).

SkyEye’s Chief Executive Officer, Fa’aso’otauloa Sam Saili, told the Samoa Observer that what they discovered in their survey compared to three years ago is “shocking”. 

“There has been a lot of change in terms of development such as human settlement, roads and infrastructure, especially in the upper catchment area,” he said. “Seeing and analyzing the data collected, SkyEye can now understand why there has been a flash flood just two weeks ago because the water catchment areas are not catching the water anymore. 

“This is because of the human and infrastructure development. Pretty much when it rains in the mountains, water just comes straight down. There’s no longer the healthy forest there that usually catches the water and keeps it, so that’s what we understand when that flash flooding happened.” 

Well that pretty much confirms our suspicions all along, doesn’t it?

But thanks to innovation and technology, we now know for sure what is responsible for these latest weather developments.

“After cyclone Gita, there was a lot of flooding and there was a concern for what it’s like in the water catchment areas, especially the upper catchment areas where the water source for Apia urban area is sourced from,” Fa’aso’otauloa said. 

“The issue is it is very difficult to actually access these areas because there are mostly no roads there and then there’s also difficulty to view it, to try and get an actual evidence of what the area looks like at the moment, especially after the cyclone. 

“So the M.N.R.E. and U.N.D.P. contacted us whether we can survey all these areas so that they can actually get detailed analysis of what’s going on.” 

M.N.R.E. carried out a similar survey three years ago, which was funded by Australian Aid.  

“They wanted to know what is there compared to three years ago, because three years ago, the M.N.R.E. got a grant from Australian Aid and the Australian Aid were able to survey the whole of Samoa using a technology called lidar, which is a very advanced technology for surveying areas,” he said. 

Fa’aso’otauloa said the areas they surveyed included Tiavi, Malololelei, Afulilo Vailima, Papauta all the way to Vaisigano and the area of the mountain included Malololelei, coming down to Moamoa all the way to the ocean. 

“The mapping took us more than a month because it is a very big area, very remote area. We surveyed all the area where catchment area of water starts from, so it starts from all the way up the mountain where the water source starts from. 

“We surveyed quite a huge area. It’s not just the urban area but it starts all the way from the top down to the coast, so that we have a holistic view of how the whole area is.” 

He explained their concern is that when it rains in the upper catchment, the low lying areas are going to flood. 

 “We believe that’s why the Vaisigano, the Vaimoso River that runs just behind our office gets flooded. The outside of our office got flooded, lucky the foundation was high enough, but everywhere else outside was flooded, so we do have a personal stake in it as well. 

So why does this discovery matter? According to Fa’aso’otauloa, M.N.R.E. has a lot of well-developed policies but the issue is getting the evidence to enforce those policies. 

“Some of the recommendations that we provided is looking at areas that have been devastated in the past three years to pinpoint those areas for forest rehabilitation, so encourage reforestation. 

“In Australia, they have this problem as well, but they have used other methods to try and address it. One of these methodologies is using weeds, planting weed close to the river to try and absorb water. There are specific kinds of weed that grow really fast because if you’re talking about trees, it’ll take years for them to mature, but for weed they can grow within a month. So that’s one of the things we are looking at. 

“Also we are looking at areas where it looks like a bottle neck because we were able to identify areas that were like a bottle neck where there are multiple river streams coming together and that area we need to focus on, either do a river flow adjustment or look at ways to try and make sure that when it rains, there’s not a bottle neck there that allows water to keep rising, especially if there are logs there, creating a dam and then it bursts, causing flash flooding.”

Needless to say, this study should form a critical part of Samoa’s response to the flooding of the recent past. Which reminds us, the last time we raised this issue, we pointed to a letter from a good friend of Samoa in Germany, Ulrike Hertel. We believe it is relevant to share it again today.

She wrote:  “Many Samoans are now calling for concrete walls to protect places near rivers from future flooding. However, the main reason why flooding in Samoa has become worse and worse is massive deforestation further up the hills.

 Natural rainforest used to protect Samoan soil from slipping and being washed away, its roots held back rain water so it would not rush down all at once, but fill the rivers with clear water all year round. 

Cattle farming and development of new settlement areas have destroyed most of these precious forests. It will not be possible to stop flooding if the forests are not back to where they belong, especially along and above the rivers.

No concrete wall will ever be strong enough, the water will just flow around it and destroy another area. The only working solution is to respect the beautiful nature God has blessed Samoa with, and to plant trees, plant trees, plant trees.”

Looking at the developments in Apia, both SkyEye’s survey and Ms. Ulrike’s letter must be taken very seriously.

Have a great Thursday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

Developed by Samoa Observer in Apia