Disaster response and climate change in the Pacific

Disasters, and therefore disaster response, in the Pacific are expected to be affected
by climate change. This research addressed this issue, and focused on the immediate
humanitarian needs following a disaster, drawing upon adaptive capacity as a concept
to assess the resilience of individual organisations and the robustness of the broader
system of disaster response. Four case study countries (Fiji, Cook Islands, Vanuatu
and Samoa) were chosen for deeper investigation of the range of issues present in the
Pacific. The research process was guided by a Project Reference Group, which
included key stakeholders from relevant organisations involved in Pacific disaster
response to guide major decisions of the research process and to influence its

Given the complexity of issues involved, including the contested definitions of adaptive
capacity, the research team developed a conceptual framework to underpin the
research. This framework drew upon concepts from a range of relevant disciplines
including Earth System Governance, climate change adaptation, health resources,
resilience in institutions and practice theory. Objective and subjective determinants of
adaptive capacity were used to assess the ‘disaster response system’, comprised of
actors and agents from government and non-government sectors, and the governance
structures, policies, plans and formal and informal networks that support them.

Results revealed the most important determinant of adaptive capacity in the Pacific to
be communications and relationships, with both informal and formal mechanisms found
to be essential. Capacity (including human, financial and technical); leadership,
management and governance structures; and risk perceptions were also highly
important determinants of adaptive capacity. The research also found that in small
Pacific island bureaucracies, responsibility and capacity often rests with individuals
rather than organisations. Leadership, trust, informal networks and relationships were
found to have a strong influence on the adaptive capacity of organisations and the
broader disaster response system.

A common finding across all four case study countries affecting adaptive capacity was
the limited human resources for health and disaster response more generally, both in
times of disaster response and in day-to-day operations. Another common finding was
the gap in psychosocial support after a disaster. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)
as an immediate post-disaster humanitarian need was relatively well established
amongst responding organisations (although long term WASH issues were not
resolved), while other humanitarian needs (health care, and food and nutrition) had
varying stages of capacity – often limited by human, financial and technical resources.
Adaptive capacity was therefore constrained by current gaps which need addressing
alongside a future focus where risk is changing.


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