Back in 2004, I got trapped on the island of Ambae by cyclone Ivy. Over the course of about 48 hours, the storm managed to pinball its way down nearly the entire Vanuatu island chain. I spent a very long day and night in a rather aged—and wet, by the end of it—cabin with three good friends. In spite of losing the door at a critical juncture, we managed to get through it intact.
The provincial headquarters wasn’t so lucky. The office responsible for coordinating emergency response was knocked offline by the storm when its HF radio antenna was blown down.
Happily, it was easy to fix. High Frequency—or HF—radio uses a setup similar to a massively oversized clothesline to transmit at the appropriate frequency.
It’s a great setup, actually, because it’s a breeze (sorry) to maintain. I actually spent more time reassuring local officials that I knew what I was doing than I spent actually re-stringing the antenna. Once I was finished, I wandered down to the radio room. Staff were happily chatting to colleagues on the next island, and reported to me that reception was better than it had been before.
This was kind of important news. Saratamata, where the transmitter was located, was the designated provincial response centre. For as long as it remained offline, disaster response coordination was frozen. So it was good news indeed that some well-intentioned geek with a modicum of know-how was able to fix it in a morning.
Communications are the first thing to suffer in a disaster. One of the most under-reported dramas in Post-Katrina New Orleans was a single systems administrator’s lonely struggle to keep mobile phone services working in his corner of the city. He’d laid in extra fuel in the final hours before the storm, but as the days went by and rescue efforts lagged, he ended up forming a one-man bucket brigade, hauling diesel fuel one pail at a time up to his rooftop generators.
That man was saving lives.
Because communications save lives.
In the immediate aftermath of cyclone Pam, which ravaged half of Vanuatu, I was one of a vanishingly small number who managed to keep communications lines open. Over the course of those first few crucial days, my colleagues and I worked round the clock to convey the scope of the damage to the outside world.
It was an impossible task. In all, 10 critically important communications towers were damaged or destroyed. Among them were key parts of the inter-island network that runs like a string of pearls down the length of the archipelago. For the first couple of days, we had exactly zero communications with any other islands.
The only news the majority of the country could get in those critical few days immediately after the calamity was via HF and shortwave radio.
This is the radio service that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s board claims can be replaced by internet. The same internet that all but a few dozen people lost access to in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
There is no nice way to say this: Cutting off access to shortwave radio news is reckless endangerment. In the immediate aftermath of cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes—to which, the World Bank says, we are more susceptible than anywhere else on the planet—shortwave and HF radio services save lives. They can help to coordinate relief. They can tell people when and where to find food and water.
Even as I write this, I can hear a middle manager tendentiously scolding me that ABC doesn’t provide a disaster response service to Vanuatu, so having a shortwave service is moot. To that, I can only say: Shame on you twice, then.
It’s this kind of arrant disregard for its neighbours, this hopelessly myopic view of the world, that makes islanders laugh up their sleeves at Australia, whose foreign policy seems to consist of stumbling about the region, blind as Mr Magoo, treading on toes and apologising to lamp posts.
… No wait, that was unfair. Australia doesn’t apologise, and we don’t have lamp posts.
It’s not clear what it’s going to take, not just to get this decision reversed, but for the ABC to realise its role in the region. Some argue that the entire nation needs to don corrective lenses and take note of its own neighbourhood. I would argue that the ABC is the lens.
Until people see the Pacific islands on the evening news every day, until they realise that we exist too, that we’re human, that we count for something… well, until that time, murderously stupid, short-sighted decisions such as this will continue to blight Australia’s already sullied reputation as a thoughtless neighbour.
Sounds harsh, you say? You weren’t up the pole repairing the radio.