Making headlines but missing the point.
The battle on its main island changed the course of World War II in the Pacific, as thousands of Americans lost their lives there to combat and disease. Today, the nation is at the center of the consequences of climate change, leading to food insecurity and population relocation. It recently experienced widespread devastation. But did we notice?
Solomon Islands is a nation of 11,000 square miles – slightly smaller than Maryland – and approximately 550,000 people – less than the population of Washington DC. It is located just east of Papua New Guinea, approximately 1,000 miles off the northeast coast of Australia and about 7,400 miles from the western coast of the United States. CNN briefly reported on the 7.6 earthquake that struck Sunday, April 13, 2014, about 200 miles southeast of the capital city of Honiara, and the resulting tsunami warning that was issued for the region, extending to Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. Several other news sources noted that a previous earthquake had registered just a day earlier at 6.9. Neither event resulted in major damage or casualties.
Ten days earlier, however, on April 3, the country experienced one of the worst storms in its history – in a country already prone to fierce tropical storms – that wiped out much of the country’s infrastructure and left up to 23 dead, several missing, and an estimated 50,000 homeless and dislocated throughout the country. The event went largely unreported in the US.
Tsunamis and strong earthquakes make headlines. They have been responsible for massive destruction in recent years, and tend to impact multiple regions simultaneously. They are also tracked by international bodies – the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is located in Hawaii, and the U.S. Geological Survey continuously monitors earthquakes in the region for natural hazards that may impact the US. Nonetheless, the resulting coverage on Solomon Islands was brief and factual, outlining the time and strength of the quakes and updating the tsunami warning as it was canceled. It rarely mentioned the devastation that the country had experienced in the week prior to the earthquakes. The New York Times was the only US source I found that made reference to the flooding, concluding with a sole sentence: “Earlier this month the country suffered devastating flash floods, causing widespread damage.”
I learned of the situation primarily through local contacts and social media. Having lived in Honiara for two and a half years, we still have friends and colleagues there and some were lucky to maintain internet and electricity during the storms. Online searches for news on what I was hearing initially produced headlines only from national and regional sources; UK coverage appeared a few days later. US coverage has been notably poor, and what little coverage emerged took several more days. Two earthquakes and tsunami warnings still failed to draw attention to the true tragedy.
At its peak, up to 10,000 people took up residence in poorly equipped shelters – 4,500 remain over six weeks later – and there are concerns that half of the 50,000 people affected by the floods still don’t have adequate access to clean drinking water. The aftermath of disease and poor sanitation have set in and are presenting new challenges for a country already lacking in public infrastructure and health services. Last week, riots and looting resurfaced with frustration that flood relief has been inadequate and mismanaged. Regional governments have been responsive and the country has received aid from Australia and New Zealand; several UN agencies are collaborating to provide assistance. Local NGOs such as World Vision, Save the Children and Oxfam International are scrambling to address the needs of the population, further complicated by the remote location of populations throughout the country’s 922-island archipelago.
Americans, on average, may not know much about Solomon Islands today, although the mention of its largest island of Guadalcanal is quickly remembered by older generations as the site of a pivotal battle in World War II in which approximately 44,000 Americans served and thousands lost their lives. More recently, however, the country has also emerged alongside other Pacific island nations on the frontline of global climate change debate and has been the focus of regional discussions to mitigate risks. Residents of its lower lying islands have already experienced displacement due to rising sea levels and severe storms. The country as a whole is at risk as a small island nation, many of whom are being watched as canaries in the mine for food security and population displacement as climate change occurs. Thus, climate change, too, has garnered the attention of US and international media. Within the region, there is an active discourse about its consequences, yet at least in this most recent example, the US did not participate. In doing so, it overlooked both a shared and bloody recent history, as well as an opportunity to recognize events of consequence in a global discourse in which it should be present. This time, we needed to look beyond the earthquakes.