Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
Article from: The Australian
THE military-led Fiji Government is struggling to respond to the nation’s worst floods in 50 years, without the logistics support that Australia and New Zealand usually provide to their island neighbours.
Most business and road travel have virtually ground to a halt in the tourist-focused west of the main island, Viti Levu, and in the sugar-industry areas in the north, where only the tops of the parking meters can be seen of the main street in Ba.
Metereologists are forecasting that a further heavy storm will sweep through today, after five days of torrential rain and floods that have left at least 11 people dead.
The floods are compounding the country’s political and economic disasters. Relations between Suva, Canberra and Wellington have all but collapsed, with Australia and New Zealand blaming Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama for reneging on a promise to hold elections, while he has accused them of working to restore the government he led a coup to remove.
Three weeks ago, Suva expelled New Zealand’s acting high commissioner, Caroline McDonald. Fiji’s Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said New Zealand diplomats were “actively engaging with those who are opposed to the Government” and “creating disquiet within the population”.
The bitter stand-off between the governments is set to take centre-stage at the annual summit of leaders, including Kevin Rudd, of the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on January 27.
Unless Commodore Bainimarama reverts to his former pledge to hold elections, Fiji may become the first country to be ejected from the forum that it helped to found.
The executive director of the Australia Fiji Business Council, Frank Yourn, said that in the past an especially valuable form of assistance from Australia during natural disasters had been through deploying military helicopters to deliver aid to cut-off communities.
Today, this was all but impossible, Mr Yourn said, since Commodore Bainimarama would be concerned that such troops might target him.
Fiji’s ruling army has not so far been very visible in relief efforts, perhaps because of a lack of suitable transport, positioning it, in terms of military responses to recent regional disasters, between the ubiquity of China’s People’s Liberation Army after the Sichuan earthquake and the neglect of Burma’s military after Cyclone Nargis.
In Fiji, thousands of refugees, abandoning their homes, have struggled through the floods to reach church halls and schools, but little aid has reached them.
Bob Lyon, the best-known Australian businessman in Fiji, where he moved after a dozen years heading ANZ Bank’s Pacific operations, said the Denarau area south of Nadi, where he lives, is effectively cut off. As well as days of downpour, the area has been hit by three super-king tides in a row.
“I’ve been through cyclones and floods around the region, but never seen anything like this,” Mr Lyon said yesterday.
Fiji’s infrastructure was already shaky when the floods hit, having received little maintenance since the coup in December 2006 that installed Commodore Bainimarama.
The bridge at Sigatoka on the south of Viti Levu, which carried services including sewers and water across a major river, has been swept away. The bridge carrying traffic into Nadi town, hub of the tourism industry in the west, has been badly weakened.
The police have imposed a 6pm-to-6am curfew in the west. But looters are breaking into stores as soon as the police cease patrolling at 6am.
Air Pacific chief executive John Campbell said that, despite roads being cut, airport operations had not been affected in Nadi as the tarmac and runways were not flood-prone and were well-drained.
Qantas flew an extra flight to and from Nadi yesterday, bringing back most of the Australians who wished to cut their holidays short but who had been unable to find places on fully booked flights. Mr Campbell said: “We are not aware of any tourists stranded in resorts around Fiji.”
Suva’s initial estimate of the damage was $20 million. But this was “way underestimated”, said Mr Lyon, who was recently appointed chairman of Fintel, the country’s major provider of telecommunications logistics.
The Australian Government has so far pledged $150,000 in aid via the Red Cross – which has little visibility in the worst-hit west and north – and the disaster management office. New Zealand is giving $NZ100,000 ($81,900), all to the Red Cross, and China $US50,000 ($74,000) direct to the Fiji Government.
Mr Lyon said residents of the Denarau development had donated $NZ50,000 to the relief effort. But one store-owner in Nadi has written off $250,000 worth of goods, indicating the extent of the damage.
Mr Yourn said he expected the Australian donation to be just a starting point as the damage was assessed. “I’d be astonished if it stopped at that.”
Satish Chand, a leading Pacific expert at the Australian National University, said yesterday: “Fiji is stepping into a nightmare – a natural disaster alongside a political disaster.” The result would be economic meltdown, he said, with the poorest worst-hit.
……….VINAKA VAKALEVU ROWAN CALLICK ……….
The interim regime have access to SUVs and could’ve commandeered the ailing Presidents and other available Hummers, they’re very adept at commandeering anything that’s not tied down so there was no excuse, except complete ignorance and incompetence once again.
A scenario that repeats itself over and over again, without anything being resolved.