By Ernest Ta’asi
Communications Officer, Oxfam in Solomon Islands
Our team arrived at the riverbank just below Katehana village. It took us about half an hour bumpy drive through a red muddy terrain.
The clear afternoon had quickly turned dull. The sky was already grey and droplets of rain beckoned us to turn around. Darker clouds loomed further up in the mountains.
This was the end of the road. We were 18 kilometres into Central Guadalcanal from Honiara. Our destination towered over us by the edge of a steep cliff just across the Tina River.
We got out of the vehicle and unloaded boxes from the trailer. We gathered 40 collapsible water containers and 40 packs of soap.
These items were to be distributed to every household of the Katehana community. Earlier in the day, the community had undergone a hygiene awareness with other members of our team.
We were one of three teams conducting the COVID 19 awareness missions, specifically on hygiene awareness.
The soaps and tapped water containers are vital to the handwashing steps encouraged for COVID-19 prevention; use of running water instead of the commonly used water bowl.
The Katehana Community Chairlady, Unity Kuba, had agreed to meet us on the riverbank to collect their items and fortunately she did not keep us waiting long.Unity saw us coming a mile away from their elevated view. Upon reaching us, she and her team immediately loaded their containers and soap for the walk back.
As they were about to leave, I approached Unity and asked for a quick interview.
I felt some hesitation, but she agreed.
I proceeded to walk her by the river as she was interviewed. As we talked, the Chairlady appeared uneasy and constantly distracted from the conversation. She repeatedly kept looking upstream.
Sensing the discomfort, I tried to steer our interview to a wrap.
She cut me off before I could end it. “I’m sorry but I have to leave now.” Jumped into the river and hurriedly wadded across.
It was only then that I heard children and women shouting and pointing up the river. “It’s coming! Hurry up! It’s coming!”
Not far up from where we stood was the intersection of two rivers; Tina and Tony. The children were running along the other side and pointing up the Tony River.
More villagers from our side of the river joined Unity in the river to quickly get across. We edged closer to see what was happening but were baffled on the reason for the commotion. But just then we saw it, hurling down the river almost like a blanket of brown creamy water, sweeping everything downstream with it.
It was a flash flood.
We watched the villagers move hastily to safety before doing the same. The flood waters had washed clean the banks of the river and as I stood watching the metaphor was undeniable, just like the Corona Virus, the flood waters was determined to drag anything in its way downstream.
Just like the virus, it sees no boundaries; no nation, no community nor person is safe from the impacts of the virus.
Solomon Islanders, like the rest of the world, are facing tough countermeasures by its Government; unemployment, reduced hours or pay-cuts as the country braces for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vulnerable communities such as Katehana however, are forced to double their efforts. Already having to deal with daily hazardous conditions and major cyclones at least once a year.
Katehana is among nine communities in Guadalcanal currently engaged in the Pacific – Learning, Innovation and Transformation (AP-LIFT) Project, carried out by Oxfam and the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT).
These communities have undergone a series of disaster preparedness trainings over the past three years and have built responsive systems in place for disasters.
“Oxfam and SIDT have been working very closely with Katehana village for the past few years now,” says SIDT’s APLIFT Project Coordinator Naghelyn Sogote’e.
She says the hygiene awareness the team is carrying out is an ongoing activity of the project, tailored to suit the COVID-19 prevention campaign.
“I encourage communities to stay alert and listen to SIBC for updates about COVID 19 and to continue to take the sanitation messages very seriously at this time. We believed that this hygiene awareness program is helpful for each individual in the communities.”
The AP-LIFT Project with the support of the Guadalcanal Provincial Health Department, the Development Services Exchange and People with Disability Solomon Islands, deployed a team of COVID-19 trained workers to do hygiene talks to the project’s partner communities.
The AP-LIFT Project works with nine Guadalcanal communities from the eastern region, central and west of the province.
The Project has so far reached five communities in east and central Guadalcanal distributing COVID-19 awareness materials, hygiene talks and house to house distribution of collapsible tapped containers and packs of soap.
The Katehana Chairlady says having to deal with this “scary and foreign sickness” will not hamper their resilience effort, rather they are looking at how they can use their existing structure to stay prepared.
My interview with Unity would continue two days after our riverside encounter.
“Lucky we all made it across the river in time,” she laughed but says the river had worsened later that afternoon and the following day.
“This is the way things are at our place. We know when the water will come when it is raining up in the bush.”
With the COVID-19 at large, Unity says her community does not take this lightly.
“We see this importantly as a disaster,” she says.
“On the good side of this COVID-19 preparation is the health side of things. We are encouraged to look after ourselves properly and keep ourselves clean.”
But Unity admits that should a disaster situation occur at this time, it will be difficult to maintain hygiene or social distancing.
Oxfam is working closely working with the Health Promotion Department from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services and is actively involved in cluster groups to mobilise the support of the NGO sector.
Solomon Islands as of 23 April, is among only a few countries that are yet to record any positive COVID-19 case.
By Ernest Ta’asi