Cyclone Pam has been one of the worst natural disasters the Pacific has ever seen, and the small island nation of Vanuatu was hardest hit. The immediate disaster relief effort is crucial but it is important to realise that the devastating impact of this disaster will be felt in Vanuatu for years to come.
The death toll stands at 11 but communication has not yet been re-established with many of the outer islands, so the true scale of the disaster is still unknown. However, it is likely that up to 70% of the country's population has been displaced. The geographic nature of Vanuatu makes it especially difficult to coordinate the response to natural disasters. Vanuatu is an archipelago of approximately 83 islands, of which 65 are inhabited and only accessible by air or sea. It is common for communications to be lost during storms.
Although Vanuatu is used to natural disasters this one was so huge it has attracted international attention, with the unintended consequence that aid agencies and media outlets are making early and unhelpful predictions in their wish to report information.
For example, earlier in the week UNICEF was reporting that every school in the country had been damaged. It is now clear that islands in the north-east of the archipelago, like Malakula and Santo, suffered little or even no damage. These kinds of blanket assertions so soon after the disaster are a hindrance for relief efforts, which need to focus on accurately assessing the extent of damage and coordinating the response from that point.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Joe Natuman has been critical of the influx of NGOs into his country in the wake of Cyclone Pam. At present there are more than 100 NGOs in the country. The Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) has been working closely with the governments of Australia, New Zealand and France, and key NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam International, to coordinate the initial disaster response. The presence of so many other NGOs puts pressure on the country's heavily compromised resources and has the potential to confuse the relief effort.
The key challenge the country now faces is a food and water shortage. 80% of ni-Vanuatu rely on subsistence agriculture for food. This is true of the outer islands but also for many communities around the capital, Port Vila, where gardens are an important source of nutrition. The Vanuatu Ministry of Agriculture released a statement saying that the staple crops of fruit trees, leafy greens and root vegetables have been irreparably damaged. The majority of processed food stocks were also destroyed. It is likely that the affected communities will run out of food in less than a week.
The Vanuatu NDMO has a plan in place to deal with this situation through the Food Security and Agriculture Cluster, and is stressing the importance of all efforts being coordinated through this organisation. This situation needs to be urgently addressed in the coming weeks but it should be acknowledged that any government would struggle to cope with a natural disaster of this scale. The Vanuatu Government will require long-term assistance from the international community to ensure food security for its people.
Following a visit to Tanna, one of the most badly damaged islands, Prime Minister Natuman said that even though it was the Government's job to serve the people, they will need to survive on their own. The Government will provide some relief, he said, but in the long term they must become self-sufficient. This has always been the reality for the majority of ni-Vanuatu. There are few government services on outer islands and communities have always been self-sufficient. But the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam means this is no longer an option. It will take years for Vanuatu to recover.
Having said that, the word that has been most used to describe ni-Vanuatu people in the wake of Cyclone Pam is 'resilient'. And it's true they are an extraordinarily resilient people. Their famous strength has been evident, with people immediately going into action to clean up debris and take the first steps on the road to recovery. Oxfam International's Country Manager for Vanuatu told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat that he had never seen such incredible motivation to put things right.
Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale was, ironically, at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan when the cyclone struck. He gave an emotional interview saying that all the development progress they had made has now been wiped out and that Vanuatu will have to start again.
Australians can make it easier for Vanuatu by continuing to contribute to the vital tourism sector, which makes up 40% of the economy. Even though some facilities in Port Vila may take time to recover, other destinations in Vanuatu, such as the island of Santo, were not hit by the cyclone and are open for business.
President Lonsdale described his country as a paradise on earth. I have lived in Vanuatu and I agree, as would many who have visited the country. The ni-Vanuatu people are incredibly generous, warm and strong, and they will recover. But they are going to need continued support. Red Cross and the ABC are holding a Tropical Cyclone Pam Appeal Day today, Friday 20 March. ABC Radio is hosting a one-hour special with Jon Faine from 11.00am on ABC Local Radio, midday EDST on Newsradio and 2405 UT on Radio Australia.
Photo by Flickr user Jordi Bernabau Farrus.