Helping Rebuild Ha’apai

On May 28, 2014 the World Bank’s Board approved US$12 million in funding for the ‘Tonga Cyclone Ian Reconstruction and Climate Resilience Project’—or TCIRCRP. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a transport specialist. So what is a transport specialist doing leading a project to rebuild a community of 5,500 devastated by a cyclone? Well, on one level it all started in October when I felt impressed to a course on disaster management and recovery. In the Pacific Islands we regularly have disasters and I wanted to expand my ippunderstanding. It was really interesting and I hoped that one day I would be able to learn more.

Who would have thought that less than three months later I’d find myself in a zodiac boat visiting outer islands in Ha’apai—and bailing like mad to make sure that the boat didn’t sink! That was the start to a journey which has tasked me professionally, physically and emotionally beyond any other in my career at the Bank. But one which will have the greatest on the ground impact for people—which is why God has brought me to the Bank in the first place.

Cyclone Ian was a Category 5 Cyclone—the strongest—and it flattened the Ha’apai group of islands in central Tonga. Some 95% of the housing stock was damaged or destroyed. These are the bland statistics that one can read anywhere. But was does it mean in real terms? It means loss, suffering and sadness. But I am getting ahead of myself …

The Government of Tonga mobilized its internal resources, and requested assistance from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), Australia, New Zealand, and other donors.

Our team was led by Denis Jordy P1000434who is a disaster specialist, with support from Michael Bonte (climate resilience), Tobias Haque (economist), and myself. This is a photo of the three of us in the field—poor Tobias as an economist was ensconced indoors looking at numbers. I was a total neophyte when it came to disasters and I learned a lot from Denis and Michael. However, since I had two ongoing projects in Tonga, and the ‘Project Management Unit’ (PMU) from one of them was going to support the Ministry of Infrastructure (MoI) with the reconstruction, I had been tasked by management for leading the ultimate project—with the support of Denis and Michael. Two months later they were off to the Solomon Islands to help with floods so it’s good they weren’t also having to worry about Tonga.

The Aftermath

After having meetings in the capital Nuku’alofa we headed over to Ha’apai. The photos below show what found.


This was a shop in Lifuka.


Many buildings lost their roofs—because they were not properly secured.



Typical house plots. Houses gone. All that is left is a concrete pad. It looks tidy because the rubble has been cleared.


A major resort in the north. Place looked like a bomb had hit it. After my return to NZ I was getting physiotherapy and my therapist had spent “the best holiday ever” here relaxing and watching whales. She cried when I showed her some photos.



More destruction in Lifuka.


The above is the Lifuka Court house. The tide came in, picked it up off it’s footings, and then washed it about 10 m towards the ocean. You can see the piles leaning over towards where it was washed.


This is where many people were now living.


The above photo shows an anomaly: a house that is not damaged. We regularly found these and it transpired that they were constructed in 1983 after an earlier cyclone. These ‘Cyclone’ houses were designed to withstand winds, had features such as the roofs tied down, cross bracing, connected to the piles, etc. In fact we saw a number of instances where the owners had added ‘extensions’ to the cyclone house. These were piles of rubble while the house was standing.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is never to be afraid to ask a dumb question. I was standing by the hospital looking at damage and I didn’t recognize the P1000212roofing material. I asked Lawrie Carlson, my PMU Manager, what it was. After uttering an expletive he said “asbestos”. As we delved into things further we realized that we had a major issue: many of the damaged buildings—and the debris piles—had asbestos in them. This is problematic because you need to dispose of it very carefully. We subsequently mobilized an asbestos specialist company from New Zealand to help ensure proper handling and disposal of asbestos.

I think that as part of a pre-disaster exercise we need to look at ‘sterilizing’ countries of asbestos. Given the high rate of disasters in the Pacific it is not only prudent, but also probably cost effective. If you remove an undamaged asbestos roof it is small and containable. If the roof is part of a collapsed house the entire debris pile is now contaminated and needs to be treated as such.

A second issue that emerged was the lack of a proper waste disposal facility. There was no properly managed disposal site. Already we could see that debris had not been disposed of in a long-term sustainable manner. Fortunately, Tonga has an excellent land fill site in Nuku’alofa so we will be able to safety dispose of the asbestos and other debris, just with large transport costs.

The Project

We approached the project in two phases. First, we had to secure the funding, then design the actual project activities.

The Bank has something called the ‘Crisis Response Window’ (CRW). This is a special fund which provides resources when a country is in crisis, from natural or man-made disasters. Our colleagues Juan Carlos Mendoza in Sydney and Jane Sanesbury in D.C. led the effort to develop a case and get support from our Board for an allocation of $10 million from the CRW. The Board was fully supportive of the project and so we got the go ahead to prepare the project. As we finalized the needs our Country Director Franz Drees-Gross secured a further $2 million to assist with water and sanitation which had emerged as a major issue.

To the Government—and my team—the overarching concern was how could we get people out of tents as soon as possible, ideally before the start of the next cyclone season in October. On one level it could be argued just build them all new houses, but this creates a real moral hazard as there are people in other parts of Tonga, some of whom could actually be worse off than those in Ha’apai (excluding the trauma from the cyclone!), who arguably could be more ‘worthy’ of a house than someone with access to capital or remittances from overseas.

Even though Tonga regularly has natural disasters—it apparently is the third most likely country to be affected in the world—the Government did not have a formal policy which would identify who would be eligible for benefits in event of a disaster, and what these would be. They hired an excellent consultant Priscilla Phelps who has experience from wide range of countries. In fact she co-authored the World Bank’s book on reconstruction after a disaster with my boss Abhas. She came in and helped prepare a policy for the Government to refine and then adopt so that these issues would be less problematic to decide how to address in the future.

The Bank has a goal of focusing on the bottom 40% of the population and so we used this as a starting point. We worked out that given the available funding, we would be able to fund 35 sq. m, two room cyclone houses for 200 of the most vulnerable families in Ha’apai. Vulnerability was to be defined in a flexible manner, but basically these were people who would be unable to help themselves to recover.  The plan is to hire contractors who will come in and build the houses.

This left an estimated 350 further families who had lost their homes. For these we were able to fund either a one-room house, or they could take the funds and use them for contractors and building materials so that they would undertake ‘supported self-recovery’. The Bank has learned from experience elsewhere that when those who have been affected by a natural disaster are closely involved in the recovery that there is a higher likelihood of success. Tonga also has the advantage of a large diaspora in the USA, NZ and Australia and many people will benefit from remittances and support from overseas, and within Tonga.

After provide housing for 550 families, we will fund a further some 400 families to repair their houses, again through building materials. Finally, for the very small number of people who came through relatively, or completely, unscathed, we will provide them with funds to make their homes climate resilient against future disasters. After 30 years we don’t think that the old cyclone houses will take another major storm. Besides, this will also eliminate the potential for envy with everyone else on the island receiving something.

Since the economy has been so heavily hit, we are proposing a small cash payment to each household for clearing the debris and sorting it for recycling, reuse or disposal.

Beyond the housing we are also doing repairs to village community facilities. The main market in Lifuka had its roof destroyed (see below) so that is a priority. Unfortunately there was asbestos but our asbestos team is on to that! There will also be major investments into water (e.g. tanks) and sanitation (e.g. composting toilets).


There was other infrastructure damage beyond the housing. We have some major coastal works to do. These will be funded by my ongoing transport project.


We are very fortunate to have Lawrie and his colleague from Tuvalu Uatea to help the project. Uatea has been appointed project manager and will relocate to Ha’apai to manage the project. It will be quite a challenge, but he and the team are up to it.

Getting the Project to the Bank’s Board

Normally the Bank takes 12-18 months to prepare a project. We did our post-disaster mission the first week of February. We had the CRW funds approved by early March, and the preparation was effectively completed by mid-April. I had been asked to give a presentation to junior staff on ‘How to Prepare a Project in Six Months and Live to Tell About It’. I think I will give it a sub-title ‘Rather than Six Weeks Which Will Kill You’. It was seriously tough. Give me the 4,418 km Tour Divide mountain bike race any time. A lot easier ….

The only way that such a project can be done is by having the right team and everyone pulling together. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a team of the consummate professionals who really know their business.

The biggest threats to meeting our very short time frame related to what we call ‘Safeguards’ at the Bank: ensuring the negative environmental and social impacts of the project are minimized. Fortunately, the Bank has recently adopted the policy that in countries such as Tonga the Bank can help the client prepare the necessary safeguard documents, rather than just review and comment on documents prepared by the country. While we had the option of deferring the key safeguard documents to the implementation stage of the project, my experience has been that it is always best to have these done during preparation as what you learn during the process of preparing the safeguard documents helps to shape and inform the project design.

For the environment there was only one person I know who could do the job and that was my retired colleague Anil Somani. He is able to address everything from asbestos to hazardous waste to issues around land fills. He kindly agreed to come down from Toronto. I paired him with one of my junior engineers Megan Schlotjes to prepare the Environmental Management Plan and they did a sterling job.

The second document we needed was what we call a ‘Resettlement Policy Framework’ (RPF). Land issues are a challenge in Tonga and the RPF would guide the project through how to address these issues. Ann McLean led the initial effort, supported by another of my junior engineers Renee Walmsley. They were overseen by Ross Butler from the Sydney office who finished the RPF work for us.

The technical review of the housing was led by Monica Moldovan, another ‘junior’ engineer, but from D.C. She was out helping me with issues surrounding some large steel frame buildings on my transport project and kindly agreed to look at something far less complex like a small house. It was her first mission for the Bank and she fit in really well with my team—and I’m pleased she will continue helping through implementation.

For the implementation arrangements and helping with key aspects of how the project will ‘work’, I relied on my stalwart omni-versatile consultant Colleen Butcher-Gollach. With help from Nora Weisskopf in D.C. they drafted the project operations manual as well as the supported self-recovery guide. Colleen has a long history in Tonga and an amazing understanding of how to make things work.

Michael Bonte stepped in and worked on the ‘Technical Assistance’ aspects of the project. These are ‘soft’ activities, such as coastal hazard mapping, which are essential to the long-term effective management of disasters. He even managed to get $2m of funding for them. What a star!

We have this abstract term ‘Administrative and Client Support’ (ACS) which really means this is the person who does all the heavy lifting in the background to make things happen. That fell upon Shruti Pandya who did an incredible job as always from Sydney and really pulled things through.

Then there was the rest … Denis provided technical advice, our Tongan World Bank representative Saia Faletau gave us his usual excellent advice and guidance, Cris Nunes helped guide the procurement with his usual sage advice and innovative solutions, Stephen Hartung the Financial Management—he  was overjoyed with our using vouchers, our brilliant legal team of Marjorie Mpundu and Mackenzie Fillow, and of course Ian Greenwood gave us lots of comments, and bad jokes during the mission. Our colleagues in D.C. like Vilija Kostelnickiene and Peter Brandriss helped us with key aspects of project design, and the views of people removed from the project. It was a real team effort—hope I haven’t missed anyone!

Yes, it may seem like a cast of thousands and it was a large team, but with everyone doing their bit we pulled the project together in six weeks. I had to be the ‘conductor’, and it also involved heavy lifting at times, but that’s part of the job of Task Team Leader. Suffice to say that when the press release below went out we were all very pleased.

Thursday, May 29, 2014 – 22:17

Washington DC, USA

The World Bank on 29 May approved a US$12 million in grants and low-interest credits for the reconstruction and repair of hundreds of homesin Ha’apai, and to restore critical community facilities like markets, health centers and schools.

The northern islands of the Ha’apai group of islands were devastated by Cyclone Ian on 11 January.


The Category 5 Cyclone with wind speeds of over 200km per hour caused significance damage to people’s homes and agriculture valued at US$50 million or 11% of Tonga’s Gross Domestic Product GDP.


The World Bank fund of US$12 million comprises of $6 million as grants and $6 million as low-interest credits.


The reconstruction project to be implemented by the Ministry of Infrastructure in partnership with NGOs working in Ha’apai, will help rebuild ‘essential housing’ for 200 of the poorest and most vulnerable families whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged by Cyclone Ian.


It will also provide training and advice to an estimated additional 900 affected households who need to undertake repairs or reconstruction, or to retrofit their homes to bring them up to climate-resilient standards. There will also be grants to households that need to improve their water and sanitation facilities.


The project will also include the reconstruction of climate-proof community infrastructure such as the Lifuka Market in Pangai. The mapping of coastal hazards and risks and provide training for tradespeople, local contractors, community leaders and others to help them plan and build infrastructure that is more resilient to extreme weather events, such as earthquakes and cyclones.


According to World Bank models, Tonga incurs on average US$15.5 million in losses each year due to earthquakes and tropical cyclones.

Now comes the hard part—implementation. Michael will handle the Technical Assistance while I worry about building things. Full speed ahead!



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