20 Jun 2019

Tokelau plots site for airstrip after helicopter controversy

3:42 pm on 20 June 2019

Tokelau's village councils are considering a site for a runway on the atolls, its leader says, re-igniting controversial plans for air services to the territory.

Tokelau is only reachable by boat from Samoa and previous air service plans were shut down after New Zealand was outraged it spent millions on two helicopters in 2016. In the fallout, two Tokelauan public servants were fired - now the subject of an employment dispute in Tokelau's High Court - and New Zealand launched an investigation, drafting spending restrictions on the government.

"As I speak, the elders and the council at home are considering a site for a new airstrip to be built," Tokelau's ulu, or leader, Kelihiano Kalolo told a meeting of the UN Special Committee on decolonisation in New York on Monday.

"We now own three boats, including an inter-atoll vessel and the ship to shore facilities have been improved and are now safer."

Last year, New Zealand's Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, indicated it might support Tokelau with an air services business case.

Various feasibility studies conducted since 2010 have produced cost estimates ranging from $US1.8 million to $US13.7 million for a single airstrip.

At the UN meeting, Mr Kalolo thanked New Zealand for its support to Tokelau, including toward tagging the territory onto an undersea internet cable due for completion in 2021.

New Zealand is putting $US14.8 million toward connecting Tokelau to the NEXT cable, New Zealand's administrator to Tokelau, Ross Ardern told the UN meeting on Monday. Tokelau's government will put forward another $US4.5 million toward the project.

Mr Adern said New Zealand had also commissioned a review of Tokelau's patient referrals, which determine who can be medically evacuated for treatment in Samoa. The scheme has come under fire by locals who say needing to travel to Nukunonu atoll's hospital for assessment is obstructive.

Mr Ardern said New Zealand was also assisting Tokelau with climate change and disaster resilience in village planning and an international firm was developing a "coastal hazard reduction plan".

The atolls are protected by a small two-metre sea wall but parts of it have eroded over the years and there are fears rising sea levels will swamp homes.

Last year, New Zealand announced part of a $US65 million boost in climate-related assistance over the next four years would help reduce the risk of coastal flooding in Tokelau.

During a trip to Tokelau in October - the first by a New Zealand minister since 2004 - Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi also announced a new weather station on Nukunonu atoll to monitor changes in the climate.

New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who is Mr Ardern's daughter, has committed to visiting the territory before the end of her term in 2020.

On Monday, Mr Kalolo reiterated Tokelau's ongoing commitment to self-determination but said it would not take the same path as Niue and the Cook Islands, which both gained independence from New Zealand but kept strong ties.

"Tokelau may take a slight deviation given its emerging governance model links to the importance we hold of our customs and traditions. This is an issue which Tokelau wishes New Zealand and the committee to take up and solve."

Mr Ardern said New Zealand was supportive of these moves, which would also draw on governance models used outside of Tokelau, adding that his government had made Tokelau a priority under its Pacific Reset policy.

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