Commentary | 17 March 2015

Don't turn away from Vanuatu's destruction

Don't turn away from Vanuatu's destruction

Jenny Hayward-Jones

ABC The Drum

17 March 2015

Please click here for the online text.

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones

Don't turn away from Vanuatu's destruction

Jenny Hayward-Jones

ABC The Drum

17 March 2015

Please click here for the online text.

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones

Executive Summary

Tropical Cyclone Pam has devastated food security and education systems in Vanuatu and will test the famed resilience of its people. Governments are helping and we can too but not forgetting about the archipelagic nation when the headlines disappear, writes Jenny Hayward-Jones.

While the full impact of Tropical Cyclone Pam on the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is yet to be assessed, what is clear is that this is the worst disaster to have struck the nation.

It may also be the worst natural disaster in the modern history of the South Pacific, with infrastructure and communities also affected in Tuvalu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.

Vanuatu is an archipelagic nation of 83 islands and some 267,000 people. Up to 70 per cent of households may have been affected or displaced by Cyclone Pam. The official death toll stands at 11 but may well increase once the full extent of the cyclone's impact on the outer islands is known.

Power and water supply in the capital, Port Vila, have not yet been fully restored. Communications links are beginning to be re-established in Port Vila but it will take longer to reconnect telephone access in the outer islands, which is patchy at the best of times. Particular concerns are held for the people of Tanna, who were under the eye of the storm for some hours.

The people of Vanuatu are very resilient. Up to 85 per cent of the population live a subsistence lifestyle in rural areas, with urban communities also relying on their own gardens for food. Disasters are, unfortunately, a common experience and the country is vulnerable not only to cyclones but also earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and floods.

The unprecedented scale of this disaster though will test their famous coping mechanisms. Temporary accommodation and traditional housing can be constructed relatively quickly. But it is the damage to gardens and consequent loss of subsistence crops that will have the longest and deepest impact on the nation's food security, an issue already identified by the Vanuatu Disaster Management Office as a major concern.

UNICEF has estimated that all schools in Vanuatu have been destroyed or damaged. Schools will need to be repaired or rebuilt and new educational materials will need to be sourced. Rural schools that depended on gardens for traditional food will have to source food elsewhere at greater expense. The need to rebuild communities may draw older children away from school. The impact of the cyclone could have a devastating effect on Vanuatu's efforts to improve school participation and completion rates.

Full official assessments from reconnaissance missions will be required before the Vanuatu authorities can plan a response to the disaster, with the help of international partners.

Australia, New Zealand and French military assets were mobilised quickly after the cyclone had passed. All three countries cooperate and coordinate responses to natural disasters with affected countries in the Pacific Islands region under the FRANZ Arrangement, which has guided relief efforts in the Pacific since 1992.

Australia, as Vanuatu's largest donor (the bilateral aid program is worth $60.4 million), has taken the lead in helping the Vanuatu government coordinate responses to previous disasters and is doing so again. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced an initial emergency aid package of $5 million as well as the deployment of a medical team, search and rescue personnel and other disaster response experts.

The Australian Defence Force deployed a reconnaissance team and two AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft providing airlift and aerial damage assessment support to Vanuatu. More aid and assistance, including from Defence Force assets, in conjunction with regional partners, will be forthcoming when the Vanuatu government decides on its priority needs throughout the island chain.

It is not only our Government that has a role in helping Vanuatu in this time of need. Australians who have travelled to or lived in Vanuatu all have fond memories of the beauty of the island paradise and the friendliness and generosity of the Ni-Vanuatu people. We can help our neighbour most now by contributing to appeals from the organisations already delivering assistance on the ground. We can also continue to holiday in Vanuatu once facilities are ready. This disaster will disappear from the headlines within weeks but Vanuatu deserves our continued attention and support.