• Written by Nikki Sloan
    29 February 2016

During my recent visit to Fiji, while driving along the main road of the largest island, Viti Levu, between the towns of Nadi and Suva, I was struck by the dramatic landscape and turbulent weather. To our left, jagged mountains were covered in thick tropical rainforest and pummelled with dense rain. To our right, flat plains stretched to the coast, drenched in sunshine.

If you google ‘Fiji’ or ‘Pacific Islands’, you will come across a long list of pictures depicting calm, tropical resorts and clear water. While there are many places and times where this is an accurate representation, these images do not show the complexities and extremes that are often associated with this beautiful landscape.  

Fiji, like many other Oceanic nations, such as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, is situated at the intersection of the ‘Ring of Fire’ and the ‘Cyclone Belt’ in the Pacific Ocean. This geographic position, combined with the effects of El Nino and La Nina weather patterns create a range of extreme weather events and can cause landslides, floods, earthquakes, the occasional tsunami and, as we have seen this past weekend, cyclones. With the continuing effects of climate change, these disasters are predicted to increase in intensity and potentially in frequency.  As a result, developing effective preparation and response processes to deal with natural disasters is critical in this part of the world.  

Above: Participants organising teams to conduct initial rapid damage assessments on local schools. Photo: Aulia Rahman, Suva, Fiji, 11 February 2016. 

Preparation: Supporting Fiji Government’s disaster planning and response system

During the first two weeks of February, my colleague Aulia and I visited Viti Levu in order to deliver two separate training workshops with different sectors of the Fijian government. The first of these was with the Department of Water and Sewage (DWS), the second with the Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts (MoE). While the focuses of the two sessions differed somewhat, in both cases we set up platforms for real-time, mobile-based data collection.

The DWS is focusing upon bringing its paper-based data collection and verification systems online, to assist with ease of reporting and mapping of Fiji’s water and treatment infrastructure.

Our second week of training with the MoE focused on the creation and implementation of an initial rapid assessment of school-related damages in a post-disaster context. The MoE also intends to later develop these surveys to examine and monitor other aspects of education. These initial training sessions were to develop skills in the system and begin the process of transitioning away from paper.

During the MoE workshop, presenters and organisers from Save the Children, UNICEF Pacific, MoE and the Disaster Risk Management Office facilitated discussion around the disaster response structure within Fiji for the Education Cluster. Participants reflected upon the lessons learnt from previous disasters, drawing upon expert knowledge and workshopping ideas and potential disaster response approaches for Fiji.

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Above: Participants discussing lessons learnt from previous disasters and the tabletop simulation. What worked? What didn’t? How could it be done better this time? Photo: Aulia Rahman, Suva Fiji, 12 February 2016.

The significance of schools after a disaster

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the first 72 hours are crucial for assessing the damage done and accurately distributing resources. This is particularly important for schools, as they serve as evacuation centres and shelters for those affected. They are also education centres for students and children, who are often among the most vulnerable populations during and after disasters. The number one priority in these contexts is to ensure formal schooling can resume as soon as appropriate and that there are satisfactory facilities to support this process.

Fast and accurate data is essential in assessing the extent of damages and the resources needed to respond. The use of Akvo FLOW in this process was seen as important and stimulated discussion of what data needed to be collected, what information was necessary for decision-making and, ultimately, how FLOW might be able to assist with this.

Tabletop disaster response simulation

Now it’s usual for our initial training sessions to include a field trip, where participants are able to practice using FLOW outside of the classroom, but for this training session it was a little different. With the assistance of UNICEF Pacific, a tabletop simulation of an initial disaster response process was run. This involved sending groups of enumerators (people who complete surveys using FLOW on their smartphones) out to local schools to conduct initial rapid assessments and transmitting these back to HQ, where another group would process, clean and map the data as it came in. It was, in essence, a test run for a disaster event. So, while Aulia stayed to man the incoming data, I piled into a mini bus with the enumerators, ready to collect data from the schools and transmit back to HQ.

Nikki Training

Above: Enumerators in the field practising collecting data with AkvoFLOW Photo: Nikki Sloan, Suva, Fiji, 11 February 2016.

And just as there are often planning and organisational challenges in a post-disaster context, so there were as we bumped along the roads towards the schools. We stopped at one school to realise another group of enumerators had already arrived in another vehicle and we needed to decide who from the bus would stop at each location. Naturally, this was part of the process and a good learning experience, which we later reflected upon and discussed.

Complementary roles

As we bumped through Suva, picking up teams from each of the schools, it struck me just how unique my role is. At Akvo, we provide tools, teach people how to use them and then support them to develop their processes further. However, the process and ownership of the results is firmly in the hands of our partners, such as the MoE.

I believe this is a strength of Akvo’s approach to development. We cannot be on the ground with our partners, so our role is and must be one of support as requested and directed by our partners. This doesn’t mean that our relationships are unequal. It simply means that each member of the partnership focuses on their strengths, while complementing those of the other partner. In the case of the MoE, we at Akvo have little direct knowledge of the education cluster in disaster response nor of the education system more generally in Fij. The MoE however know these systems intimately. However we do know about data collection, analysis and visualisation and we excel at assisting partners to find ways to use these systems effectively. Each side will occasionally make mistakes and we learn from these, progressing the skills and knowledge and strengthening over time.


Above: Satellite imagery of Cyclone Winston just prior to making landfall on Saturday 20 February. The grey outlines just visible to the to the North and West of the eye of the storm are the two largest islands of Fiji. Photo: Nino Marakot, 21 February 2016.

Cyclone Winston

As I was part way through writing this blog, the largest cyclone in the recorded history of the southern hemisphere made landfall in Fiji. Tropical Cyclone Winston was a category 5, with recorded wind speeds averaging 200km/h and with highs of 325km/h, when it hit Viti Levu and many smaller islands in its path. Since making landfall on Saturday 20 February, a very different set of images have subsequently appeared online. Images of devastated islands and homes are pouring in from Fiji, and the impact on its people is enormous.

After the curfew was lifted on the Monday morning after the cyclone, our partners at the MoE, with the support of UNICEF Pacific, began the critical task of collecting data on the extent of the damage. As I sit at my desk in Canberra, thousands of kilometres away, I watch the data being uploaded to the FLOW dashboard and am in awe of the great work being done by the response teams. While it is only the beginning of the recovery process, it is amazing to see the speed and accuracy with which the data is coming in. It is great to see the way in which MoE has rapidly transitioned to smartphone-based data collection and has implemented new processes to take advantage of these new tools.

Below: Enumerators at the end of their Akvo FLOW training. These same individuals are now travelling around Fiji collecting initial damage assessments in the wake of Cyclone Winston. Photo: Aulia Rahman, Suva, Fiji, 12 February 2016.

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Nikki Sloan is a project officer, based in Canberra, Australia. You can follow her on twitter at @nikjsloan