Friday, June 19, 2015

Return to Tuvalu

We have been gone for almost three months and I’m surprised at how excited I am to be back in Tuvalu. It means that we are starting again, that Cyclone Pam hasn’t defeated us.

In early March 2015 the largest tropical cyclone that this region has experienced in 30 years began building in the warm seas north of Vanuatu and north-west of Tuvalu. At the same time our small team camped on the outer Tuvaluan island of Vaitupu were testing the solar system we’d just finished installing, packing our tools and saying our farewells.

Our passage forward to the island of Nanumaga aboard the shipping vessel Komaiwai II was scheduled for 10 March but she found herself wallowing in Funafuti lagoon, dragging anchor and trying to weather the storm. On Vaitupu, we hunkered down, helplessly watching the storm surge wash almost completely across the island and then spending the following days trying to help with clean-up efforts, waiting for news of how the other islands had fared and whether we would still be moving on.

Debris washed up on the soccer pitch at Vaitupu

Almost two weeks later, the Komaiwai II was safely out of harbour on an aid mission loaded with medical and food supplies and what project cargo she had been able to load. No decision had yet been made to suspend works. There was reportedly some damage to the reef passage but we were pushing on to Nanumaga as civil works were complete and all that remained was delivery of the last 100T of solar equipment.

Getting off Vaitupu wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped. After an aborted attempt to load on the lee side of the island we managed to load the lighter direct from the reef with the excavator and then have the lighter towed to the lee side for loading to the ship. The team, our tools, hammocks and spare food were on the move again.

Our course plotted from Vaitupu to Nanumaga

How to survive the Komaiwai: dose on sealegs and sleep for 30 hours

Unfortunately when we arrived in Nanumaga, it was quickly apparent that the damage to the reef passage was extensive and would halt all unloading operations. The concrete ramp used to transport cargo onto the island had been completely broken up and large chunks were now blocking the reef channel. Without being able to unload the remainder of the solar gear on Nanumaga, we would not be able to go ahead with the install. There was nothing we could do.

A section of the ramp in Nanumaga passage

The Komaiwai II continued on her mission to deliver aid supplies to Niutao and Nanumea, confirming similar levels of damage to the reef passage and ramp on Niutao. With two islands now suspended and no certainty around timing of cargo re-delivery, the hard decision was made for us to return to New Zealand.

And so for the past 3 months, we have been working toward program restart, and making the most of the chance to eat avocadoes and blue cheese and drink as much barista coffee as our nervous systems can handle.

But Nanumea is now ready for solar installation and there is an agreed solution for the array location at Vaitupu. We are also working with NZ MFAT on solutions to deliver solar cargo to Nanumaga and civil and solar cargo to Niutao. Our plan is to install the system at Nanumea and Nanumaga while a civil team works on Vaitupu and another prepares to head in to Niutao. It’s like lining up dominoes and holding your breath.

And so we flew in to Funafuti Tuesday morning and it feels different being back – even just arriving at the airport and seeing familiar faces, having people to say hi to, to catch up with – coming back is very different to just coming. And it feels busier than it did in January – with the slightly cooler and calmer weather, the harbour is filled with fishing boats and the hotel with Taiwanese, Korean and New Zealand workers. We are staying this time at a guesthouse halfway to the port. It’s nice to have our own space.

Congestion in Funafuti harbour

We spent the first day breaking into our container stored at Funafuti wharf, rebuilding bikes and cleaning mould and rust from all our work clothes, tools and equipment. Ours are the first fat-bikes in Tuvalu and we’ve already had 4 offers to buy them when we leave. There is a business opportunity here.

Our next job was to survey the condition of all our gear stored at the port. A further 3 months sitting exposed to the elements has not been kind. Weatherproof coverings on cargo stored on upper level flat racks in particular has almost completely disintegrated. The gear itself is OK but structural cardboard is now soggy mush and we are trying to think through the practicalities of handling these pallets up to 7 times going forward – onto a vessel, on and off forklifts in the hold of a ship, out of the hold, onto a lighter, off the lighter suspended from an excavator, onto tractor forks and finally to site. We are just going to have to take extra care at every step and work closely with those handling it so they understand how fragile it is. Lots of ratchet straps and ply?

Funafuti port - the uncovered racks are ours

We spent the following day sourcing plastic covering materials, labelling cargo and trying to get assistance from the port authority to move gear into lots destined for loading to various islands in sequence. With the Komaiwai II still in Fiji, we are working with the only sizeable local charter which can move us and our gear – the Mackenzie. They will load us, our tools and some spares pilfered from the Niutao cargo for transport to Nanumea. There they will collect the McConnell Dowell tools destined to go to Vaitupu, return to Funafuti to collect a McConnell Dowell team and deliver all to Vaitupu. It’s still a work in progress from that point forward. Logistics remains our biggest challenge out here.

Meanwhile back at the port, our next mission was to open our Nanumaga food crate which was discovered out in the open, uncovered and looking very soggy. No-one was keen to tackle this one and for good reason – the smell of rotting cardboard was horrendous.
We cracked the lid and jumped in (literally). Wads of cardboard started flying over the edge of the box, then rusted tins and bulging bags which had proven inadequately sealed. Of course all the foods which you can readily buy out here – like rice and corned beef – were absolutely fine. And so is the Spam – thank goodness!

Salvaging the least suspicious of our food supplies
Our Nori sheets? Still good.

Our plan is to take it all with us and start moving forward with the best of what we have. The food has now been out here for 6 months and some of it is starting to tick past its use by date. There is little point saving it for later. We need to start eating from the supplies we have and worry about resupply when we run out. Tomorrow is another day and we are on Tuvaluan time now. But it feels as though we are adapting better this time around. We are more familiar with how things get done and more determined than ever to see this project through.