Apr 13, 2021 Last Updated 11:41 PM, Apr 12, 2021

The European Union (EU) and the South Pacific Community (SPC) have launched three separate projects for the Pacific region focussed on cutting dependence on imported fuel and improving access to clean water and sanitation.

Approximately EUR 19 million (US$22.68 million) has been committed by the EU to help SPC facilitate projects ranging from enhancing food security, improving access to clean and safe drinking water, and improving access to the renewable and effective energy. 

Speaking at the signing ceremony in Suva recently, the Charge d’affaires of the FSM Embassy, Wilson Waquk welcomed the EU’s support of EUR 11.6 million ($13.85 million) towards the Sustainable Energy and Accompanying Measures (SEAM) initiative, underlining that this would help the territory cut spending on fossil fuel imports and create a more ‘viable investment environment’ for private sector companies. 

“In the FSM, its highly dependent on imported petroleum fuels,” Waquk explained. “It annually spends US$50 million on fuel imports, with most (fuel) used for electricity generation.”

Approximately 42% of the FSM’s emissions derive from the electricity generation sector.  Authorities are confident that the implementation of SEAM would not only improve access to renewable and effective energy but would reduce the country’s greenhouse emissions by 21,000 tonnes per annum. 

The High Commissioner of Kiribati, David Teaabo commended the EU and SPC’s continual efforts to improving access to clean water and sanitation on the Kirimati atoll under the Pacific Regional Integrated Food and Nutrition Security Initiative COVID-19 (PRISCO19) project.  Roughly EUR 6.2 million (US$7.4 million) has been allocated to the Kirimati atoll project. 

“While we are still COVID free, implementation of the PRISCO-19 now contributes to building our preparedness response to COVID, should it ever reach our shores,” said Teaabo.

“These projects will put food on people’s plates, it will turn on electricity and support aspirations around renewable energy, and of course enable access to clean drinking water to wider communities of Kirimati,” said Deputy-Director General of SPC, Audrey Aumua.

“Whatever we do in this region, we do in the spirit of partnership,” said the European Ambassador to Fiji, Sujiro Seam. “We are here today in these challenging circumstances and we’ll still be here in the years to come.

A prominent Australian economist says it is “scary” to see COVID-19 put at risk so many of the gains Pacific island countries have made over the last decade.

Dr Jenny Gordon, the Chief Economist at the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says the Asian financial crisis “taught us in South East Asia that setting up good social protection infrastructure” is important so resources can get to the most needy when there is an emergency.

Gordon anticipates Pacific nations’ economic recovery will rely on the regaining of export markets, local stability and access to finance, and that post COVID economies may have a much greater focus on local production, subsistence agriculture and movement back to rural areas, and a strong investment in human capacity.  She describes a “recovery sequence” that starts with resource prices recovering first, “although it might be some time before we see a considerable rise in energy prices”, potential in agriculture and export of high-value agricultural products, continued return of  the Pacific labour market (including labour schemes in Australia) and then, the return of tourism.

“I suspect the recovery of international tourism is going to be very slow,” Gordon says. “We’ve got to think about the next four years. So in terms of the financing gap there’s not much point in just financing this year’s deficit for governments, we’ve got to actually got to think about how they are going to finance those deficit in [following] years and what the size of those deficits will be.”

Gordon says Australia—the largest development partner for many Pacific island nations— is asking questions about governments’ fiscal situation, what is essential expenditure, borrowing capacity from multilateral banks, other donors and domestic sources, social protection and how to maintain basic services.

“A lot of governments as part of their COVID-19 packages are going to forgive power bills and other types of bills but unfortunately that doesn’t help SOEs [State Owned Enterprises]  or private sector providers who are already struggling to pay the return on the capital that they have invested. So that’s quite challenging, how those SOEs will come out of this.” Gordon says there may be an opportunity to improve infrastructure quality and “put into pace some more robust user-pays systems.”

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In a world devastated by COVID-19, enlightened leaders throughout the world have been thinking "out of adversity comes opportunity", a wise saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, among many others. Are Pacific Islands leaders doing so?

With tourism industries devastated globally but relatively contained in NZ and Australia, early plans for travel bubbles have been brutally burst  when COVID-19 resurged in Victoria these last few weeks.

Victoria has now desperately pushed into "Stage 4 Lockdown", with travel to even other states totally banned, effectively and strangely, now "a nation within a nation", with totally different COVID-19 restrictions.

Nevertheless, for PICs, a little glimmer of hope has suddenly appeared, with the Australian Government about to approve a scheme to allow 200 Ni-Vanuatu laborers to come to Northern Territory for the mango harvest.

Pacific Governments and leaders should now be seriously thinking about how they themselves can facilitate more "WIN- WIN" opportunities with specific states in Australia, that can take advantage out of the COVID-19 adversity, instead of relying on yet more Australian and other hand-outs.

Pacific countries must themselves take the initiatives to build on the few opportunities that the Australian government does recognise and accept, such as the use of PIC labor for seasonal work in Australia, such as the mango harvesting in Northern Territory.

With "taking opportunity out of the COVID-19 adversity" as the uniting theme, I suggest the PICS consider two schemes:

The first is to create COVID-Free Transit Zones (CFTZs) in their own countries, at their own expense, to facilitate the two-way travel of persons (diplomatic and defense personnel,  seasonal labor, health nurses, and perhaps tourists) to and from Australia.

The second is to give aid to Australia in the form of emergency nurses to help with the COVID-19 crisis in Victoria, just as they did with fire fighters in the recent Australian bushfire crisis.

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Australia’s Assistant Treasurer says in the post-COVID environment Canberra is willing to re-examine its policies including loan concessionality, debt consolidation and aid allocations to Pacific Islands nations but is not giving any promises or firm commitments.

 

Michael Sukkar is attending the Forum Economic Minister Meeting which kicks off this morning. Australia has already reallocated well over A$100 million to assist Pacific Islands respond to the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. But those funds have been reallocated from the existing aid budget.

The next federal budget is due for delivery on October 6, and Sukkar says: “if we do seek to supplement aid or humanitarian assistance to our region, that will be done with the broad principles of the Pacific Step up and will be focussed primarily on our immediate Pacific region and neighbours.”

Sukkar expects discussion of the A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility at today’s meeting. He says eight projects have been approved, utilising a mix of grants and non-concessional loans, and has not ruled out revisiting the nature of those loans, as there is “great value to moving to concessional loans”.

“Whilst I don’t want to necessarily announce any change of policy, I think the broad view is that we have to be nimble as we possibly can and that means re-examining all pre-existing COVID programmes,” Sukkar told Pacific journalists yesterday.

“I think it’s safe to say that in a post-COVID environment the Australian government is willing to re-examine everything with fresh eyes… and the view is that with the infrastructure facility, more concessional loan rates or loan terms would be likely to unlock particular projects.”

The Minister said discussions about consolidating debt  in multilateral forums is “certainly gathering steam.” He also said the demand for Pacific island seasonal workers is likely to continue and the Australian government has done “some fairly important work in ensuring that appropriate quarantining arrangements  and protocols are established to ensure they can continue to come.”

“With the Pacific yet to experience COVID-19, we need to err on the side of caution to ensure that the COVID-19 doesn't get a foothold.

“I think it would be a disaster with fragile health systems and other infrastructure for Australia to effectively be sending COVID into the Pacific through the Pacific island workforce,” Sukkar says.

Preparations are currently underway to send 120 ni-Vanuatu workers to the Northern Territory to help with the mango harvest and there are hopes in other Pacific nations that they will also be able to supply workers for upcoming harvests.

On tourism, Sukkar believes in the longer-term, travel bubbles are “an absolutely worthy way to go” but there is still a lot of work to do on protocols, and that no country in the world could say they have yet “perfected the art of contact tracing and ring-fencing before COVID-19 has the opportunity to spread like wildfire.”

“Until you really have perfected that, I think it is very hard to put in place a 'bubble'. 

“But the concept of a bubble is really the only long-term solution and the only sense of certainty that we can all have in getting back to what is an economic engine room for the Pacific.”

In Japan, they’re called hibakusha – the survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later. Seventy-five years on, the survivors remember those days, and call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Yasujiro Tanaka was just 3.4 kilometres from the blast, as the United States dropped an atomic weapon on Nagasaki on 9 August.

“I was three years old at the time of the bombing,” he said. “I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once. Then, pitch darkness. I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told.”

No one truly knows how many people died in these nuclear attacks. Estimates range from 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, in the initial attack and subsequent weeks. Other hibakusha lived on for decades, stricken by cancer, leukemia and other diseases caused by exposure to ionising radiation.

Across the Pacific, there are also nuclear survivors, who witnessed more than 310 nuclear tests in Australia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia. On the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their story too is part of nuclear history.

From the very beginning, the Pacific islands were central to the nuclear era. Two US aircraft carried the bombs to Japan from Tinian Island in the Marianas Islands: Enola Gay (which transported the atomic weapon codenamed ‘Little Boy’ to Hiroshima) and Bockscar (which dropped ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki).

After the attack on Japan and the death of tens of thousands of civilians, the United States, Britain and France developed their Cold War nuclear arsenals by testing nuclear weapons in Oceania. Nuclear survivors can roll off a long list of Pacific test sites: Bikini, Enewetak, Monte Bello, Emu Field, Maralinga, Malden Island, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Johnston (Kalama) Atoll, Moruroa Atoll, Fangataufa atoll.

From 1946 until 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. There were another 24 tests in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1962 (today, part of Kiribati), as well as nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere on rockets launched from Johnston Atoll. The largest US atmospheric nuclear test was conducted on Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954. Codenamed “Bravo”, the test had an explosive yield of 15 megatons, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT explosive.

After the Bravo test, Lemeyo Abon was one of the children relocated from Rongelap, one of the northern RMI atolls contaminated by fallout from the Bravo test. This evacuation began a decades-long odyssey that has left many people still living in exile. After returning to live on the contaminated atoll for 30 years, she was again evacuated to Mejatto Island in 1985 aboard the Rainbow Warrior, just before it was attacked and sunk in Auckland Harbour by French intelligence agents (this year is the 35th anniversary of the French terrorist attack on the Greenpeace vessel, which killed photographer Fernando Pereira).

Abon later moved to the Marshall Islands capital Majuro, still far away from her home island, where she told me: “We are still living in this place in exile from our homeland, like a coconut floating in the sea. The United States has to live up to their responsibility and make sure our children and grandchildren will be cared for.”

Sadly, Lemeyo Abon died in exile in 2018, without returning to her home island.

For the Marshallese, the aftermath of the 1954 Bravo test led to tragic consequences. The US military and medical staff from Brookhaven National Laboratory, led by Dr. Robert Conard, saw an opportunity to research the effects of radiation on people living on contaminated land. Under Project 4.1, medical studies were undertaken on at least 539 men, women, and children – often without informed consent – including experimental surgery and injections of chromium-51, radioactive iodine, iron, zinc, and carbon-14.

Over time, Marshall Islanders began to question the way that the medical studies were being conducted. In 1975, Rongelap islander Nelson Anjain wrote a moving letter to Dr. Robert Conard: “I realise now that your entire career is based on our illness. We are far more valuable to you, than you are to us. You have never really cared about us as people – only as a group of guinea  pigs for your government’s bomb research effort. For me and the people of Rongelap, it is life which matters most. For you, it is facts and figures. There is no question about your technical competence, but we often wonder about your humanity. We don’t need you and your technical machinery. We want our life and our health. We want to be free.”

People working or living at the nuclear test sites faced the hazard that radioactive isotopes might be inhaled or ingested, potentially causing cancers and other illnesses. But islanders were rarely informed of the hazards of accumulated nuclear particles in the food chain, increasing the danger for those reluctant to give up their traditional diet of fish, coconut and breadfruit.

One example comes from the British hydrogen bomb testing program on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island. During Operation Grapple, the United Kingdom conducted nine atmospheric nuclear tests on Kiritimati and Malden Island in 1957-58.

Tekoti Rotan was one of more than 270 Fijians who witnessed these tests. Rotan was born in Banaba, the location of a major mining operation that eventually consumed two thirds of the island’s land. During the Second World War, the Banabans were removed to Kosrae by the Japanese military. After the war, Britain refused to send the Banabans back to their phosphate-rich home, and many were sent to Rabi in Fiji.

In 1957, as a member of the Fiji Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, Tekoti Rotan was deployed to Kiritimati Island, as part of the UK naval task force for Operation Grapple. In an interview, he said that safety regulations limiting consumption of fish had little meaning for Fijians and Gilbertese living on Kiritimati during the nuclear testing program: “The only warning we had before the test, was they warned the people: ‘After the test, don’t eat any fish!’ But you know, I’m from Kiribati. I love raw fish and this is the only dangerous thing after the test. They said: ‘Don’t!’ but I ignored them. I went to the Kiribati people and said: ‘Hey, raw fish, we’re not supposed to eat the raw fish!’ But they said ‘Oh, we’ve been eating it and nothing’s happened.’ That was the biggest mistake for them.”

As France conducted 193 nuclear tests in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, Maohi workers were often given the difficult, dirty and dangerous tasks.

Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll, site of 178 French nuclear tests (a further 15 nuclear tests were held at nearby Fangataufa Atoll). For 17 years, Arakino worked with the French military research unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the nuclear test sites, to determine the amount and spread of radioactive particles.

Working as a scuba diver, he also dove into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed, and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been conducted in shafts drilled deep into the atoll.

Years later, Arakino told of the ways he may have been exposed to hazardous levels of ionising radiation: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ together samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls and across all of Polynesia, as well as for the testing of foods coming from outside the country. I was in charge of a garden with contaminated earth that we brought in from Fangataufa itself. The Biological Testing Service wanted to know what happens to vegetables grown in contaminated soil. It is likely that while working in this garden and while diving to gather plankton above ground zero, I swallowed or breathed in radioactive particles. In no case did my senior officers inform me of the risks I might incur.”

In French Polynesia today, the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll remains contaminated by plutonium and other long-lasting radioactive isotopes. As they dismantled the CEP nuclear test site after the end of testing in 1996, the French military dumped more than 2600 tonnes of nuclear-contaminated material into the waters off Moruroa (2580 tonnes at a site codenamed “Oscar” and a further 76 tonnes at site “Novembre”). The basalt base of the atoll is fractured by dozens of underground nuclear tests, creating fissures that may allow the leaching of radioactivity into the marine environment.

In the Marshall Islands, Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll hosts a massive concrete dome which covers tons and tons of nuclear-contaminated waste. The radioactive legacy of US nuclear tests on Enewetak was buried under concrete in the mid-1970s, in a giant crater created by a nuclear blast. Today, however, the dome is cracking, leaching contaminants into the ocean environment.

In her 2018 poem ‘Anointed’, Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner mourns the damage to Runit: “You were a whole island once. Who remembers you beyond your death? Who would have us forget that you were once green globes of fruit, pandanus roots and whispers of canoes? Who knows the stories of the life you led before?”

In recent years, Pacific island citizens have played a crucial role in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty was adopted in 2017 at the United Nations over the objections of nuclear-armed and allied states. It proposes a global ban on nuclear weapons, framed in terms of humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism. The TPNW also placed obligations on states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments.

Japanese hibakusha Setsuko Thurlow gave the Nobel lecture in 2017, as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to create the TPNW.

"We were not content to be victims”, Setsuko said. “We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist."

On 7 July this year, the third anniversary of the treaty adoption, Fiji became the 39th country to formally lodge its ratification documents with the United Nations. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said: “We hope today we are giving further momentum to efforts to get the necessary 50 member states that are needed for the TPNW to come into force…The human suffering across the Pacific from decades of exposure to nuclear weapons testing remains one of the most painful legacies of our colonial past. Pacific Islanders have for generations suffered from health consequences that arise from the destruction and contamination of their ecosystems; and from the forced relocation from their ancestral lands to make way for nuclear testing”.

Fiji joins other Pacific states that have already signed and ratified the TPNW, including New Zealand, Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau, Kiribati, and Cook Islands. In contrast, the Morrison government in Australia is opposed to the TPNW, maintaining its support for the US alliance and extended nuclear deterrence.

75 years on from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific Conference of Churches has joined religious leaders from across Australia, writing to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call on the Australian government to act.

“Nuclear arms control agreements are expiring, languishing or collapsing”, they write. “We are heartened by the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Negotiated by a majority of nations, the new treaty champions collective security beyond nuclear weapons…Australia claims to support nuclear disarmament yet, to our deep disappointment, our nation remains outside the TPNW. As people of faith across Australia, we join together in one voice to urge the Australian Government to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

This article draws on “Grappling with the Bomb”, a history of nuclear testing and Pacific nuclear survivors by Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan.

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