January 2004 saw the worst cyclone in Niue’s history devastate the small island nation. Natural ecosystems and buildings alike were swept away by up to 296 kilometre per hour winds and waves reaching up to 50 metres high. Cyclone Heta was proof of Niue’s vulnerability to extreme weather conditions. It was also an important lesson for the country on planning ahead for natural disasters to secure the future of its people.
With a population of around 1,500 living on a coral island of 260 square kilometres, Niue has just one primary school to look after the basic education needs of the country’s children. Cyclone Heta ravaged this school site, affecting the lives of every one of its students, teachers, and their families.
Annual rainfall, periods of severe heat and sea levels are all predicted to increase in Niue. Australia is planning to fund the construction of a new primary school and early childhood centre in the country that will be able to withstand these effects of climate change. It will be located inland from the sea and classrooms will be built especially to suit learning in a tropical environment. This will dramatically reduce the school population’s susceptibility to future natural disasters. The Government of New Zealand will manage the construction of the new school on Australia’s behalf through a delegated cooperation arrangement; and the school is due to be completed in 2013.
The extreme resilience of the Niuean people was evident in the weeks and months following Cyclone Heta. After a brief closure to carry out basic repairs and cleaning, the Principal of Niue Primary School, Janet Tasmania, prepared a temporary curriculum across all of the school’s subjects to help the children better cope with and understand the trauma they had experienced.
“In Maths we logged the cyclone’s path. In Science we studied how it was formed and what caused it. In Health the theme was ‘How I felt’, looking at stress and mental health of students, water and food, hygiene and safety… In English the children wrote stories of their experiences and in art they drew, painted, and batiked their view of the cyclone,” said Janet in a UNICEF report on the impact of the cyclone.
And at the end of the term, the holiday break symbolised a new beginning for the students.
“It was a way of putting closure to the trauma – after having gained control of it and understanding it, it was time to move on,” said Janet.
Niue has one of the most promising education systems in the Pacific. Education is free and compulsory until the age of 14, and the primary school enrolment rate is 100 per cent. As the response to Cyclone Heta showed, this is a great testament to the dedication of the teachers.
The new primary school will continue to improve the quality of education available to students by providing a better teaching environment and greater access to information technology. But above all, it will serve to protect the safety of the nation’s children.