12 February 2012

This cyclone season, Tonga may be the new Venice

Kids faka'uha, or take rain baths
While kids in some parts of the world get snow days, kids in Tonga get cyclone days. And while no one wishes for a full, damaging gale-force-winds catastrophe, there is a certain excitement in the air, as workers get half-days, kids stay home from school, and people nail strips of tin roof sheeting over windows to protect the fragile louvers.

We've had two almost-cyclones even this early in the season, and may be due for our third tomorrow. There's something ominous and half exciting about seeing "A TROPICAL CYCLONE WARNING IS NOW INFORCE FOR TONGATAPU GROUP, EUA AND SOUTHERN TONGA WATERS." on the government of Tonga's meteorological site. We're on the Tongatapu group.

The last cyclone barely brushed Tongatapu with the frilly outskirts of its weather whirlpool, and we got heavy driving rain for about twelve hours. While this wouldn't be a problem in a place with hills and drainage, it's a huge issue when the majority of the island is barely above sea level, a fact that is getting less true every year as we watch sea levels rise. Swampy parts of the island that used to be simply damp are now regularly flooded into lakes. It's not uncommon after a small bout of rain to walk down certain streets and see houses rising out of lakes, their owners having placed stones or old tyres leading to the door in a futile attempt to reach the house without getting wet. And this all happens in the dry season.

Rain hits hard on tin roofs, but most houses are pretty well equipped to handle heavy rain

Flooding was actually a subject of discussion in Parliament one day last week, after residents of even the dry areas woke up to find themselves in the centre of a lake- ourselves included. One of my co-workers' house flooded to her surprise, and she and her family had to spend their day off cleaning mud and water from their floors. With largely no city planning and a recent road project that did not account for drainage, water now has no place to go but down off the roads and into peoples' houses. Another coworker jokingly suggested the government build fishponds in every yard so the water would have somewhere to go. I agreed.
Filling up a bottle from a gutter waterfall

The road project is controversial; it's a TOP$40 million (roughly $20 mil USD) part of a TOP$118 million loan from the Chinese government for reconstruction of the country's capital which included a provision that the roadwork had to be done by Chinese contractors. The money is now mostly used up and the work is not close to being finished. The roads that were built under the loan have little or poor drainage. Some have drainage grilles, but they're like back pocket buttons on pants with no pockets- their decorative holes don't go anywhere. Some of the roads in the centre of the city drain into a paved "park." This is a subject that has regularly come up in government discussions, but everyone sees that it's too little too late. The money is spent, the fake drains already built, and houses are already flooded. Before long, everyone will have to travel between their houses in canoes!

But the wet season does bring life. Despite gale-force winds, flooding, and high seas, the abundance of water is soaked up by greedy plants, unfurling their varied, huge tropical leaves and producing a huge cornucopia of fruits and vegetables at the market. That is, until our next cyclone knocks the rest of the fruit off the trees!

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