Opinion

PM Talks On Progress With Overseas Nations

The following is a statement delivered by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, to Parliament yesterday on his recent overseas visits to appeal to the international community for funds to strengthen Fiji’s
03 Jun 2016 09:27
PM Talks On Progress  With Overseas Nations

The following is a statement delivered by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, to Parliament yesterday on his recent overseas visits to appeal to the international community for funds to strengthen Fiji’s climate change resilience in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston.

Madam Speaker, I rise to make a Ministerial Statement about the overseas visits I have made in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston to put Fiji’s case for assistance in the great forums of the world.

As the House will know, I made it my primary duty after Winston struck to try to comfort the Fijian people by meeting as many of our people in the affected areas face to face. To make sure that we did everything possible to meet their needs, respond to their concerns and direct all of our available resources towards relieving their suffering.

 

Resilience of Fijians

As I’ve said before, I marvelled at the resilience of our people and especially those who had lost loved ones and had seen their homes and their dreams destroyed in a few terrifying hours. Where I had expected despair, I was greeted with smiles. Where I had expected an attitude of hopelessness and defeat, I found defiance and a determination to rebuild. A Fiji determined to be stronger than Winston. And better than ever.

Madam Speaker, I cannot tell you how impressed I was by the fortitude and character of our people. I went out there expecting to provide comfort and inspiration as well as the things they so desperately needed in the way of relief supplies. But I was amazed and very moved that in so many instances, it was our people who were giving me reassurance that eventually all would be well. And giving me the energy, the strength that I needed to return to Suva and make sure that their needs were met.

 

Government lived up to promises

I was inspired like never before to ensure that the FijiFirst Government continues to live up to our promise to deliver and to serve.  And I want to thank our people for giving me that strength, of reminding me once again of the quality of Fijian life. And of our potential to be a really great nation if we can work hard and stay positive, focused and united.

Madam Speaker, I am the first to concede that our response to Cyclone Winston hasn’t been perfect. We had prided ourselves in 2012 that our disaster preparedness teams had done such a good job that not a single Fijian life was lost to Cyclone Evan. But this time, it was the terrible force of Winston that overwhelmed us – the biggest cyclone in history ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere.

I want to say to the nation and especially the families who lost their loved ones or their homes that I understand your grief and sense of loss. I wish that we could have done more to prevent this tragedy. But I honestly believe we did the best job we could under the most trying of circumstances. And I am pleased that our development partners have been so complimentary about the relief effort. Without them, of course, we would have been in a far worse position.

 

Winston brought us together as a people

If Winston has had another silver lining apart from bringing us all together as a people, it has been that it has strengthened our friendships in the world. And I am looking forward next week to greeting the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, here in Suva to thank him personally for the assistance his government provided. Along with countries like Australia, China, France, India, Korea, Tonga, the UAE and many more.

Madam Speaker, aside from my visits to those who had suffered from Winston’s fury, I have concentrated much of my effort as Prime Minister to ensure the efficient delivery of our two principal cyclone recovery initiatives – the Adopt a School and Help for Homes programmes. It has been a massive task putting these two initiatives together. And I want to place on the parliamentary record today my warmest thanks to all those people who have been involved in getting them off the ground. Whether you are civil servants or members of the private sector, this has been a unique partnership between Government and the Fijian business community to benefit our people. And I’m sure that every Fijian joins me in saying “vinaka vakalevu”.

 

Purpose of intense overseas visits

Madam Speaker, this leads me to the main purpose of my statement today, which is to explain to the House the central purpose of the intense round of overseas visits that I have undertaken in the past couple of months. First to China, then to the United Nations in New York, to the ESCAP meeting in Bangkok, to the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey and then the summit meeting of the ACP in Port Moresby this week.

It has been a punishing schedule coming on top of the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Winston. But, Madam Speaker, these visits have been of the utmost importance for Fiji and I want to tell this House precisely why.

No Fijian needs to be told of the gravity of the situation we faced on February 20 because so many of us lived through it, and especially those in the immediate path of the over 300 kilometre an hour winds that devastated a large part of our nation on that day. But it is a matter of extreme urgency that the whole world realises not only what we suffered but the future that awaits us because of the extreme weather events and rising seas caused by climate change.

 

Fiji’s Winston experience a lesson for global community

As I keep saying wherever in the world I speak, Fiji’s experience with Winston is a lesson for the global community of the terrifying new era that is dawning on small and vulnerable nations because of global warming – more frequent and more extreme events such as Winston and perhaps even worse.

Madam Speaker, I am genuinely apprehensive about the future of our nation because of this threat. Why? Because these cyclones are something over which we have no control. They are coming out of nowhere with the barest of warnings and as every Fijian knows, we only have enough time to put up the shutters, get some supplies in, find a relief shelter if our own homes aren’t strong enough and hunker down.

Then it comes. And as anyone in Koro, Vanuabalavu or Ra will tell you, it hits with such unimaginable force that you will never forget it for as long as you live.

With 44 of our loved ones dead, over 30,000 of our homes damaged or destroyed and over 200 schools and medical facilities that need to be rebuilt or repaired, I don’t want to say we were lucky but for lack of a better word, we were.

 

Winston spared our principal pillars: Tourism

Because as I also keep saying, Winston spared the principal pillar of our economy – our tourism industry – and we are bouncing back from this disaster reasonably well.

The Reserve Bank estimates our economic growth this year will now be 2.4 per cent; The IMF predicts it to be 2.5 per cent and the ADB predicts it to be 2.7 per cent.  But my Finance Minister and I believe it will be closer to three per cent economic growth. Yet imagine what would have happened if Winston had scored a direct hit on the whole of Fiji. Imagine if it had cut a path right through Vanua Levu and Viti Levu, as well as their surrounding islands. Imagine if it had scored a direct hit on Suva and the Nasinu corridor. Or wiped out the West altogether – our principal tourism areas and our sugar cane industry, the two things on which our prosperity as a nation depends.

Madam Speaker, we’d rather not think about it but we must. We must think about a worst case scenario, of a direct hit on Fiji of a cyclone even stronger than Winston and work as hard as we possibly can as a nation to prepare for it.

We must not yield to fear or despair because of these events beyond our control. We must stick together to build or rebuild better and stronger. To adapt to this new era that climate change presents with urgency and absolute resolve. To make it our number one national priority to build our resilience to similar events. And for that, we need to partner with the international community.

 

We need to tell Fiji’s story

Madam Speaker, the Attorney-General and Minister for Finance and I agreed that as soon as we had coped with the immediate needs of our people, we needed to fan out across the world and tell Fiji’s story. To gain access as a matter of urgency to the funds we need – in the form of grants or loans – to build our resilience to climate change. The money we need to strengthen our homes, our schools, our hospitals and health centres – all manner of infrastructure. And do everything possible to ensure that our essential services like electricity and water aren’t interrupted in the same way that they were with Winston and previous events.

We realise that as a Government, we need to work in partnership with the private sector, our development partners, multinational agencies and every Fijian to future proof our nation and our economy. But above all, we need the financial resources to do so.

So the AG and I have travelled to every possible forum where the nations of the world gather in the past couple of months – and especially the industrialised nations – to preach a simple message. And stripped to the bare essentials, it goes something like this:

Give us the financial tools we need to do the job. We didn’t cause this crisis, you did – the industrialised nations whose carbon emitting industries have made them rich but at the expense of the health of our planet. Because the global warming those carbon emissions have caused has provided small nations like Fiji with the biggest threat to our survival that we have ever faced in the entire sweep of human history.

We are saying you owe it to us to help us confront the problem you have created. To strengthen our homes, our infrastructure and our economies. While at the same time cutting those emissions to give small and vulnerable nations a fighting chance.

We are saying it is an obligation you must meet. Because it is a moral obligation as much as anything else. And history will judge you very harshly if you don’t.

Why should nations like Fiji live in constant fear of cyclones and the loss of vast areas of coastal land because of the activities of others? Why should sovereign nations – members of the United Nations – disappear beneath the waves altogether to protect the lifestyles of those in the developed world?

 

Stark reality for Fijians; one cyclone destroying all

Madam Speaker, of course we put this in much more diplomatic terms when we appear on the world stage. But I feel that I owe it to ordinary Fijians to put the challenge we face in the starkest possible terms so that everyone understands what is at stake. The possibility of a single cyclone wiping out all the progress we have made as a nation. Destroying people’s homes and their jobs. That is what is at stake and why we are taking every opportunity to spread this message in the great forums of the world.

The A-G has travelled to the United States to lobby the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He has travelled to Germany to lobby the member countries of the Asian Development Bank. And I have gone to Beijing, to New York, to Bangkok, to Istanbul and to Port Moresby carrying the same message. Give us the facilities we need to build our resilience and maximise our adaptation before it’s too late.

 

Clearing impediments to accessing financing

Madam Speaker, those who have followed these visits will be aware that we are trying to clear some of the impediments that currently stand in the way of Fiji accessing these facilities. Everyone knows that we are a developing country with a government that is working as hard as it can to improve the lives of every Fijian wherever they live. But few people realise that we are officially designated as a middle income nation, and certainly it will be news to those Fijians who are struggling financially.

Madam Speaker, what this means is that we are prevented from accessing certain financial facilities that would otherwise be available to us if we were designated a low income nation. And we argue that this is unfair. We are essentially being punished for our success in lifting the standards of our people at the very time that we need this finance the most. And it is critical that these impediments be lifted.

Madam Speaker, we have succeeded in putting our case to the entire international community by attending these gatherings. What the eventual response will be, we can’t yet say. The international wheels of diplomacy and finance usually move a lot more slowly than the three months that have passed since Winston. But we have at least taken advantage of the opportunity to make Fiji’s voice heard and the world has been forced to listen.

 

Encouraging responses

We’re already encouraged by the response we are getting. The World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank have indicated that they will look on Fiji favourably. And we are already receiving extra funding from our development partners, such as the 23.4 million dollars I was given by the European Union in Port Moresby on Tuesday. This allocation was on top of the 65.5 million dollars already pledged by the EU to Fiji under the National Indicative Program of assistance for sugar and agriculture and improving access to justice. And also on top of the 2.3 million dollars donated in the immediate aftermath of Winston.

I again want to warmly thank the EU for this assistance. But I have to say it is only a fraction of what we will eventually need to future proof Fiji and our economy beyond our immediate needs after Winston.

Madam Speaker, the other major thrust of our international campaign has been to redouble our efforts to put the need for even further cuts in carbon emissions on the global agenda. You will all know that the nations of the world decided in Paris last November to cap the rate of global warming at 2 degrees Celsius above the level that existed before the industrial age. A wave of euphoria swept the world because the global community had at least agreed on something. However, we went with the other Pacific nations to Paris with the Suva Declaration calling for a much deeper cut in carbon emissions to cap global temperatures at one-point five degrees Celsius, not two degrees.  And while we were rejected, we are not going to give up. Our position is that while Paris was an important first step, we need to go much further. Because the scientists are telling us that a two degree cap is not enough to save us. Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall islands will still go under, and a number of areas of coastal land in places like Fiji will be lost.

At the World Humanitarian Summit, I also pressed Fiji’s case for international assistance to help us give a permanent home in a worst case scenario to the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu – our nearest neighbours. We have made this offer because we are not prepared to see our Pacific brothers and sisters even worry about what might happen to them, let alone roam the world looking for homes.

We are prepared to open our hearts and our islands to them in a gesture of Pacific solidarity. But we will need the help of the global community. Madam Speaker, Fiji has also offered to host a centre for small and vulnerable States to upskill their officials to help them navigate through the Climate finance bureaucracy.

Legal implications of climate change looked at

We have also set up a unit in the Attorney- General’s Office to begin examining the various legal implications emanating from climate change and its effects. Madam Speaker, there is a tendency to think that all this lies some time down the track and that we have decades to prepare for these challenges. But there are some alarming predictions that the rate of global warming may be a lot faster than most people think. We cannot afford to be complacent in an era in which some scientists say the rate of change is accelerating and the current projections of sea level rises are too conservative.

Madam Speaker, the FijiFirst Government is determined that our nation is as well prepared as can be for whatever fate awaits us. We will continue to put our case as strongly as possible, wherever possible, to keep the attention of the world focused on the issue of climate change adaptation. And of securing the funds we need to place ourselves in the best possible position to weather this crisis.

 

We owe it to the Winston 

Madam Speaker, it is going to involve taking every opportunity to make Fiji’s voice heard. And I for one am prepared to go as far as it takes and do whatever it takes to get the global community to sit up, take notice and act.

I owe it as Prime Minister to the 44 victims of Winston and their families. We all owe it to the 44 victims of Winston and their families. And we owe it not only to our own generation to be as well prepared as possible but to the generations of Fijians to come.

Thank you Madam Speaker.

 

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