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Twenty-two people lost their lives and more than 50,000 people - 10 percent of the country’s population - in the capital Honiara and surrounding plains in Guadalcanal Province were directly affected. Thousands of families face months ahead trying to rebuild their lives.
I watched the international coverage from New Zealand; images splashed across the television and internet of the raging flood waters washing away homes in Honiara, but nothing prepares you for the scale of the destruction. The first day I arrived to join the Solomon Islands Red Cross team, my colleague Jerry drove me straight to the Mataniko River’s edge. The view of the devastation stunned me into silence. My first thought was how were not more people killed – Jerry said if the floods had hit at night instead of early afternoon, the death toll would undoubtedly have been much higher.
For the people who did escape, many of them remain in basic evacuation centres in Honiara. More than 10,000 people fled to the centres, which were mainly schools, including the university campus, but more than half have now returned home to try to start rebuilding their homes and lives.
For the estimated 4,000 that remain in the centres, the future is very shaky. There is no insurance company to call here. They don’t have money in the bank to help them pay for materials to rebuild their homes.
I joined the Red Cross water delivery teams when they visited the evacuation centres to refill the tanks with purified, safe drinking water. I spoke with families who had now been living in the cramped quarters for weeks. For many families there, especially from the isolated rural communities in the rural Guadalcanal plains, their daily food needs are usually met from what they can grow, but their food gardens were ruined by the floodwaters and they will have to wait at least two more months before they are able to replant.
Furthermore, access to basic services such as healthcare and adequate water and sanitation was limited even before the floods, but now with infrastructure and roads severely damaged they are forced to remain in the evacuation centre. But despite the discomfort of life in a temporary shelter, it means their basic needs of food and water are being met – for many there is simply nothing to go back home to.
Following any disaster, it is essential that the aid money and international support that begins to flow into the country is directed not only to the initial emergency assistance, but also to rebuild an affected community better than it was before. Red Cross has appealed for a further CHF 1.3million (NZD 1.68million), to help more than 20,000 people rebuild their homes and provide clean water and sanitation and rehabilitate water infrastructure over the next nine months, but the response has been worryingly slow. Even though the international news crews have packed up and moved on, it is essential for those families affected to know they are not forgotten.