Osnat Lubrani: Address at the Special Cabinet Meeting, Government of Tonga

21 Jan 2014

Honourable Acting Prime Minister,
Honourable Ministers,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this important extraordinary Cabinet meeting.

As UN Resident Coordinator for the Pacific and co-Chair of the Pacific Humanitarian Team, together with Sune Gudniz, Head of OCHA, the purpose of our visit the Kingdom of Tonga is firstly, to express the United Nations’ strong solidarity with the people of Tonga in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian striking the island group of Hapai.  Also, it was very important for us to convey that all the UN agencies and humanitarian partners that we represent under the PHT, stand ready and eager to help.

We are grateful that an official request for support from the government to the UN is forthcoming. I’d like to make clear that a request for UN support does not mean we come in based on our understanding of the needs. Not at all. We come in based on priorities of the government. What this formal request does, is open the door for us to tap into regional resources (experts, supplies, some funding) – based on the needs identified in different sectors, where agencies hold expertise in humanitarian response – some of these needs are immediate and already identified, but also other needs that might become apparent only in a week’s time or the even over the next few months.

I am pleased to share with you that the PHT has already taken a number of preparatory steps in anticipation of official government request: first: OCHA has been working closely with NEMO to support the important task of information gathering and management as well as ensure that the PHT is kept abreast of the situation and the needs as they emerge. Second: we have a detailed list of resources that UN agencies can deploy immediately, once the specific need is ascertained with the respective government counterpart, and my colleague Sune Gudnitz, is prepared to share a summary of what is available following my remarks.  

Honourable Ministers, having seen the level of destruction with my own eyes, there is no doubt in my mind that in the face of what was a deadly cyclone –Tonga’s diligent investment in preparedness for disaster has saved many lives.

Furthermore, having witnessed the operation on the ground under the leadership of the Acting PM, there is good reason for Tongans to be proud of the swift concerted actions taken by the government, the army, local authorities, but also the mobilization of Tonga’s close friends, NZ, AUS, FRANZ, the French Military, to generously help in immediate surveillance of the situation, restart of communications, transport of essential supplies to families.

At the same time, from our visit it is also evident that some immediate relief needs still need to be urgently met. As one concerning example, the news on 50 cases, 45 of them children, being hospitalized due to severe diarrhea underscores the importance of acting very fast to address some very immediate needs in order to avoid a health crisis. The PHT chaired by the UN is a unique regional resource at Tonga’s disposal that brings specialized expertise in diverse sectors (besides Water, Health and Sanitation, shelter, education, food security, early recovery) in such situations, with accumulated experience in helping governments in the Pacific dealing with similar disasters. On this point, allow me to also be honest in sharing with you that with Cyclone/Typhoon season is still upon us for the coming months, I worry that should another disaster strike, the focus on Ha’apai will inevitably shift elsewhere, and therefore now is the moment to seize on what’s on offer.

Again, I want to emphasize that request for our support does not mean a deluge. In fact, OCHA was created as a UN body precisely tasked with supporting governments to assert themselves in the driver’s seat during emergencies – to say yes on what they want, but also to say no to what’s not needed. Even if what’s on offer comes with all the good intentions, we favour tight coordination management, especially since Ha’apai islands are small and well-meaning support can too easily translate into a burden. We do need, however, clarity on the needs, broken down to ensure that those most vulnerable among the affected persons – children, pregnant and lactating women - get what they need to survive while the recovery response is being planned.

That said, we also trust and rely on different lead ministries to be forthcoming in taking responsibility for the coordination of the sectors they lead – to ensure that organizations operating in the various sectors have clarity on where their efforts are needed, to avoid duplication and best serve the communities in need.

Welcoming our support will help manage and coordinate the outside assistance and ensure an organized and systematized engagement from the UN and its partners, in support of the government leadership.

We expect our assistance can support your planning efforts to ensure an effective and coherent response by quickly developing a single concise plan of action involving government in the days to come. This will help bring clarity to the relief and recovery operation, by bringing all partners onto the same plan, whether for relief or recovery, and ensure coherence and continuity in the phases of response.  Honourable Ministers, there are two final points that I’d like to make before I conclude:

In all my discussions, I applaud the attention given already at this time to the medium-to-long term recovery. We all too often can be faulted for focusing on the urgent at the expense of the important. I am commend efforts ongoing at Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture & Food, Forests and Fisheries of Tonga, and I’m sure also the Ministry of Tourism, and others, to assess and plan response. UNDP, FAO and other PHT members are also ready to help with ensuring food security and restoration of livelihoods, including through ongoing programmes.

The crisis that has hit the Ha’apai islands is a time to consider – what is the vision for the future of the beautiful islands and the communities that reside on them? I was struck by the words of wisdom of Honourable Lord Vaea, Minister of Internal Affairs, who pointed in our meeting to the risk that communities suffering the trauma of the cyclone may opt to leave unless they are incentivized to stay. I share the Minister’s view that alongside attention to basic recovery needs, focus on the communities themselves and to draw them in as partners in shaping a vision for a future for Ha’apai is equally important. On our part, as the UN we advocate for an approach that focuses not just on reconstruction but on “building back better”. This goes not only for literal reconstruction (looking not just at repair, but at building codes, for example), but on building back better the future of Ha’apai. My point is that now is the time to ask – what kind of development investments can be leveraged at this time of crisis that stand to increase Ha’apai islands’ prospect of becoming even more vibrant economically than they were prior to the cyclone? We encourage such an approach and would welcome partnership with Tonga around such endeavours.

Lastly, Sune and I as co-chairs of the PHT are preoccupied with the regularity of disasters such as TC Ian, which sadly are becoming even more regular than before due to climate change. This is where, alongside the quick action which we’re eager to launch now, we also propose for consideration that it would be useful a bit later down the line, once the recovery efforts are fully underway, to use this experience as a platform for reflection and learning that can inform Tonga’s response to disasters in future, which we all pray won’t happen. We all have a lot to learn on how to better respond to such disasters.

Thank you again for the great privilege of addressing you. Sune and I stand ready to respond to any questions and hear your comments and advice.