Dubai sends power to the people on the remote Pacific island of Fenualoa

DUBAI: The Tuwo village on the remote Pacific island of Fenualoa is so quiet and poor it didn’t have its own source of electricity – until a grant from Dubai Expo 2020 helped solve the problem. The villagers now have a reliable source of solar-generated power which has helped change their lives for the better, as reported by the Abu Dhabi daily, The National.

At first sight, Fenualoa is the epitome of a tropical island paradise. The second largest of the Reef Islands, a remote chain more than 1,700 kilometres north-east of Australia between the Coral Sea and the South Pacific, it is a palm-clad atoll that sits on the edge of an enormous lagoon.

Unfortunately, the things that make pictures of Fenualoa so beguiling are precisely the same factors that make life for the island’s inhabitants so hard.

Like many islands in the South Pacific, Fenualoa is beset by problems associated with climate change – extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

“These people are the canary in the mine,” says Dr. Peter Vine, the man responsible for making the unlikely connection between Expo 2020 Dubai and a community as far from the U.A.E. as Antarctica.

“They are at the leading edge of what is happening with climate change, extreme weather events and rising sea levels globally.

“It was great that Dubai, one of the most modern cities in the world, would support such an isolated and comparatively primitive community so far away.” Dr. Vine works for the National Media Council as project director for the U.A.E. pavilion at Expo Milan 2015. He is also a marine biologist and a trustee of OceansWatch, a maritime charity that has worked with communities in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands since 2008.

It was Dr. Vine and OceansWatch’s chief executive, the yachtsman and eco-entrepreneur Chris Bone, who secured the funding from Expo 2020 Dubai.

That US$50,000 (AED183,000) grant enabled OceansWatch to install a 500-watt solar-power system in Tuwo with panels, batteries and inverters that convert 24 volts to 240 volts. The effects have been profound.

As Mr. Bone explains, the most immediate impact was that light now allows the villagers to continue with important tasks after sunset.

“The local people needed and wanted electricity,” he says. “Nobody could study, nobody could work after dark. Basically, life stopped. They were using coconut oil lamps.” The introduction of power has also allowed Tuwo to make vital connections with the outside world.

“Now the community has started to be able to communicate with mobile phones. This provides them with access to markets, it empowers them by giving them access to information about local politics, it allows them to communicate with the eldest sons who have gone elsewhere for work or to be educated.” But none of these connections has been more important than the VHF base stations with directional antennae that have been established in Tuwo and on Nendo, the nearest other island with power, 70km away.

“That is a seven-hour boat ride and, if it is rough, you can’t do it,” Bone explains. “When we arrived there were lots of people with mobile phones but most of the batteries were flat. They had no way of charging them and they had to sail to Nendo to do it.” Even in favourable conditions, the journeys to Nendo often proved fatal.

“Once a boat had set out from Tuwo for Nendo, they had no way of knowing whether it got there,” says Bone.

“The people at the other end had no idea that a boat was coming. They had to just set out and hope for the best. Over the past 30 years, 28 people have died on that trip.

“Now Tuwo and Nendo can talk to each other and know that a boat is coming and whether it has arrived. Within two weeks of setting that up, a boat had been saved.” One of the reasons Dr. Vine, Mr. Bone and OceansWatch succeeded in securing the funds from Expo Dubai 2020 was because their proposal fitted precisely with the Expo’s main theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”.

The Expo’s own outreach project, True North, sent a 70-foot sailing ship around the world as part of the bid. “The effort to talk to maritime communities resonated with the themes of Expo 2020 Dubai and the committee wanted to see what would happen if they funded this kind of project,” says Dr. Vine.

His introduction to coral reefs came in 1964 while working as a volunteer teacher in the Gilbert Islands, now Kiribati.

Vine then completed a doctorate in marine biology, leading coral conservation expeditions in the Seychelles and becoming Deputy Director of the Cambridge coral research group in Sudan.

“I’ve always tried to find ways to help reef communities ever since then,” the media executive explains. He established OceansWatch after meeting Bone on a sailing trip in New Zealand.

“We found that we were both working on the same idea, to harness yachtsmen and yachts to try to make a difference to the most remote, forgotten communities where there are no services and no facilities.” Bone’s epiphany came while sailing from Australia to the Philippines.

“My crew jumped ship because they were frightened of pirates. That meant I had to stay in Papua New Guinea for quite a few weeks and while I was there, people kept asking questions: Do you know about this?’, Can you help us with that?’, Our water doesn’t work, can you fix it?'” The defining moment for Mr. Bone came just as he was about to leave, when members of the local community asked if he would return with help.

“It was a profound moment,” the quietly spoken yachtsman explains. “I realised that sailors who I had met over many years could have helped these people in many, many ways and that I had the skills and the contacts to help them.

“After that, I felt that it was almost beholden upon me to do something, so I gave them my word that I would come back. After that everything else just fell into place.” For Bone, the concept at the heart of OceansWatch is to fund, equip and populate expeditions to areas such as Temotu Province, the eastern region of the Solomon Islands that is home to Fenualoa, and beyond the reach of more traditional NGOs.

There is no airport near the island and it takes eight days to sail there from OceansWatch’s base in New Zealand, a sea crossing that can extend to 12 days in bad weather.

“When larger organisations start to look at areas such as Temotu Province it becomes a logistical nightmare,” Bone says. “There’s no accommodation for a start. Our teams stay on their boats so they don’t impose themselves on the communities they are working with.” Luckily for OceansWatch, the charity is drawing on three resources – yacht owners, yachtsmen, and environmental scientists – where there is plenty of potential.

“If you look at marinas in the U.A.E., or in the Mediterranean, you see thousands of very expensive boats, owned by quite wealthy owners who probably don’t use them very much.

“In that context, we think there are boat owners and yachtsmen who care about the ocean and we’re trying to find a way to harness that good will.” Of about 7,000 yachts sailing around the world, Bone estimates one in 10 are willing and able to help in OceansWatch initiatives.

Within three months of launching the charity in 2008, a contact of his donated a yacht that is still used on OceansWatch expeditions while the charity has just been lent another for the next four years.