Climate Change in Vanuatu: A Story of Resilience


Cyclone Pam @ Patricia Gil ‘Climate Change’ is a loaded phrase by almost all accounts; one that can produce great emotion in its users and hearers, and one that has been used (and misused) across the globe in recent years. The issue of climate change in Vanuatu is no less complex or emotive.

In a proverbial nutshell, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reviewed and scrutinized the findings of the world’s most eminent scientists on climatology, atmospheric science, oceanography, hydrology and a dozen other disciplines and concluded that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed and sea level has risen.”

So what does this actually mean here in the Pacific and in Vanuatu specifically? The Pacific Island nations are often mentioned during international climate meetings, with the strongest and most passionate pleas for global action coming from the low-lying atoll countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. Vanuatu is less vocal, but at the global forefront: A 2016 United Nations report assessed Vanuatu as the country most vulnerable to climate and disaster risks in the world[i].

That ranking does not bode well for a relatively undeveloped country which is simultaneously facing a host of other complex development challenges. While Vanuatu may not face complete inundation by rising sea levels like some of our sister Pacific nations, most of Vanuatu’s coastlines are already eroding, rain fed agricultural production systems are becoming severely strained, drinking water access is further eluding planners, vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue become more difficult to combat, and damage from severe tropical cyclones creates ever more loss and damage.

The Pacific Climate Change Science Programme (PCCSP)[ii] produced future climate projections for Vanuatu, some of which are already occurring. For example, that Vanuatu’s ocean surface temperature continues to warm and acidify, impacting the health of marine ecosystems, including the coral reefs that provide ni-Vanuatu people with food, tourism and traditional livelihoods.

climate chnageBut even with climatic changes already occurring in Vanuatu, there is reason for optimism. The Government of Vanuatu was the first in the Pacific to establish a Ministry of Climate Change to address what it continues to see as a paramount issue. The recently launched National Sustainable Development Plan (People’s Plan 2030), the highest policy of the Government of Vanuatu, prioritizes climate change, and the Vanuatu National Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Policy has identified seven priorities, including Climate Finance, Disaster Risk Reduction, and Low Carbon Development. In 2018, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Honorable Ralph Regenvanu, announced Vanuatu’s intention to push for a Global Climate Damages Tax, by which the fossil fuel industry would pay for climate change damage and loss facing the most vulnerable.

What truly sets Vanuatu apart as a leader however, is the robust ability of the people of Vanuatu to innovate and cope with the transformative environmental and social changes that have pulsed through these islands for the last several centuries not the least of which have included colonization by waves of early inhabitants and then again by Europeans, depopulation from foreign disease, blackbirding, whaling, and plunder of valuable commodities such as sandalwood and beche-de-mer. Vanuatu has what climate practitioners now like to call “resilience”.

Throughout Vanuatu, from the northernmost Torres Islands of TORBA province to offshore Southern islands of TAFEA, people are showing the world what it means to be resilient and adapt to climate change. Take, for example, the islanders of Mota Lava in the Banks group. They have perfected a technique to dry and preserve breadfruit which can last months, if not years, when cyclones or other climate events affect the supply of fresh fruit. Ditto the capacity by the people of Futuna Island to preserve and store banana via the traditional “Marae” technique. Every island, in fact every micro culture in Vanuatu, has its own unique climate change adaptation and disaster foods, locally perfected to “get people through” the rough times.

Food preservation as a climate change adaptation technique continues to evolve. The late Charles Longwah, former proprietor of the Kava Store, worked with GIZ Vanuatu to refine a solar food dryer, now being used in villages across Vanuatu. Cornelia Wylie of Fine Foods Vanuatu has taken preservation to a whole new level, even now preparing ‘climate-disaster packs’ of fresh-local crops, no refrigeration required, to be used as humanitarian food aid in place of diabetes-causing white rice.

vanuatu climateAdaptation to climate change in Vanuatu takes an incredible range of shapes and forms. The people of Pele and Nguna Islands are employing vetiver grass to stabilize their eroding coastlines. Used for decades throughout Asia to hold soils in place due to its extremely long and fibrous roots, it was first locally used by Vanuatu’s Department of Forestry on Aneityum Island to control loss of topsoil on steep and denuded slopes. Extreme rainfall events, particularly those occurring after unusually long dry-spells, caused mud and debris to flow onto the coral reefs, smothering coral, killing fish and choking filter-feeding invertebrates. By planting rows of vetiver grass across slopes, the erosion has all but stopped, topsoil is retained, forests have grown, and the reefs of Aneityum are now renowned sites for the Green Snail, Trochus, Lobster and other marine organisms. The Nguna-Pele Marine and Land Protected Area Network took the vetiver grass lessons from Aneityum and applied them to its sandy beaches. Surprisingly, vetiver proved salt- tolerant. While sea water wave washovers do ‘burn’ the grass, the roots survive, holding the sand in place, and quickly growing back the coastal plants to a lush green. It may not be the long-term solution to continuously rising sea levels, but vetiver grass is buying local Vanuatu villages time to consider relocation options.

Villagers in Vanuatu have implemented world-class marine adaptations too. Vanuatu’s coral reefs are now reeling from the whole range of climate impacts. From high-temperature bleaching, to slow growth rates due to carbon acidification, from physical damage from extreme storms to temperature-related outbreaks of invasive species, it is unlikely that coral habitats will be able to continue to provide the food and services to local people as in the past. Willie Kenneth from Pele Island is not taking the loss of his village’s coral reefs lightly. In the face of climate change, he and his community are fighting back by re-planting healthy coral in degraded areas. Finding the right coral species that do not easily bleach when sea temperature are high, and those varieties that are robust to handling, took Willie and his village years. Now the village of Worasiviu is famous for its thriving planted coral gardens. Their climate change reefs are in front of the community in water just deep enough to avoid cyclone wave damage, and just shallow enough to enable easy access for cleaning and maintenance, and of course access to tourists. Visitors to Pele get the opportunity to work with villagers to collect coral fragments and plant them on movable beds and cages. Their work to adapt to climate change has been recognized internationally, but it is only a small step taken by a determined village unwilling to let climate change win. To replant all of Vanuatu’s coral reefs is neither financially or practically feasible, and so at some point in the not-too-distant future, the irreversible loss of coral reefs now happening in Vanuatu will require a transformational change to fishermen’s livelihoods.

coral vanuatuEver determined, and in response, Vanuatu’s local fisherman are now moving offshore. The Department of Fisheries has helped dozens of communities to set up fish aggregating devices “FADs” which are partially submerged rafts that attract pelagic fish (species that do not live or feed on the coral reefs, like tuna, wahoo, and marlin). These specially designed Vanuatu FADs, are even cyclone resistant, many withstanding category 5 Cyclone Pam in 2015. To adapt to the climate impacts on reefs, some Vanuatu fishermen are even moving onshore! Aquaculture is taking off in a big way. On the island of Santo , hundreds of famers are now rearing Tilapia, locally called the ‘climate change fish’ because it can survive in hot, low oxygen and otherwise inhospitable conditions, even in hand-dug ponds and backyard containers. Careful to ensure these invasive fish do not get access to local water bodies, ni-Vanuatu Tilapia farmers are proving that they can maintain access to fresh fish protein, even in the face of severe climatic change.

vanuatu climate changeSanto is also home to Vanuatu’s Agriculture Research & Training Center (VARTC), where ni-Vanuatu scientists are field-testing sweet potatoes and other tubers for climate traits like drought and salt tolerance. Cuttings of these climate-improved crop varieties from the VARTC research facility have been widely distributed to villages throughout the country. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Risk and Resilience Unit has set up mixed basket climate crop gardens in several provinces to make these varieties even more accessible to farmers. On Nguna Island, some key farmers are taking climate change adaptation into their own hands. Local expert Marcel Tarip helped over ten villages establish climate gardens with new climate resilient planting techniques like drip irrigation, composting and even organic home-made pesticides. His vision is that every ni-Vanuatu family must have a backyard climate garden, one easily accessible to the household (even in bad weather), a garden that takes advantage of household wastewater and can be more easily managed for pest and disease outbreaks. He worked tirelessly after Cyclone Pam to transform his island’s agriculture systems so that no future storm or extreme climate event would put his people at such risk.

There is no easy way to cope with the negative impacts of climate change, and in Vanuatu the cross-sectoral nature of its impacts, have led to a multi-fronted response. Vanuatu communities are not working alone in this fight. Local and international NGOs have set up the Vanuatu Climate Action Network (VCAN) which meets regularly to share best practice, elevate community voices to decision-makers and push ambition to act on climate change to ever increasing levels. VCAN is linked into the umbrella body Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) which in turn is a regional node of the international Climate Action Network (CAN), one of the most vocal and influential bodies demanding action from Governments and polluters across the world. And it is not just civil society working on this issue. In 2017, local businesses under the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry formed a special body to focus on climate change and disasters. The Vanuatu Business Resilience Committee (VBRC) has members from the transport, tourism, energy, banking, agriculture, and even construction sectors. The VBRC made international news in 2018 by hosting a major climate change tradeshow where over 100 businesses presented their climate change adaptation ideas and proposals to donor agencies. The Government has been laudably open to external support to tackle the climate challenges it faces, even putting NGO and business leaders on its official delegations to the annual UN Climate negotiations. In 2018 for example, Vanuatu’s team of UN negotiators will focus on finalizing an international ‘rule-book’ to keep all countries accountable on climate change.

GIZ vanuatuWhile Vanuatu’s local stakeholders are primarily focused on adapting to climate impacts (because they mean life or death), there are also important and meaningful actions happening in carbon dioxide emission reduction (mitigation). Vanuatu emits less than 0.01% of the total worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Although data is patchy, the last calculation revealed the largest contributor to Vanuatu’s GHG emissions is the livestock sector (amounting to ~57% of Vanuatu’s annual total). But the small nation is doing its part to reduce global emissions: in its commitment to the United Nations in 2016, Vanuatu has set a target of transitioning to 100% renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2030. This target would replace nearly all fossil fuel requirements for electricity generation in the country! It may sound unrealistically ambitious, and the target is certainly conditional and dependent on getting funding from developed countries, but with strong support from the two major power companies, Vanuatu is already getting a substantial portion of its energy from hydro, solar, wind and even coconut fuel! A stroll through villages in even the most remote parts of Vanuatu proves that climate-saving renewable energy has exploded, thanks to innovative subsidy programs. Solar panels sit on most thatched roofs, and portable solar lanterns give lighting for evening school study, and keep mobile phones charged and ready to receive climate warnings and forecasts from radio and SMS.

In fact, early warning is one of the most successful climate change adaptation strategies used in Vanuatu. You can’t do much if you don’t know an extreme climate event is coming, but with a bit of advance warning, lives are saved, property is protected and the resilience of the community is strengthened. The Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department has a section dedicated to climate early warning. They provide 3-month advance ‘outlooks’ which give farmers, fishermen, tourism operators and others some idea of what to expect on the medium term scale. These freely available outlooks are not as detailed as the daily forecast, but important decisions can be made. Take for example famous Vanuatu bee-keeper Gilbert Gibson. He knows that prolonged or above average rainfall is not good for local honey production. Rain washes away the flowers’ pollen that is critical for bees to turn into honey. When the climate outlook suggests above normal rainfall, Gibson takes the warning seriously and starts to buy and position sugar solution near hives so that he can ‘feed’ his bees and get them through the lean times. Early warning has helped him and countless other Vanuatu bee farmers cope with changing climate patterns. Getting climate information into users’ hands is so important that Vanuatu recently applied for, and was successfully granted, over 26 million USD from the UN’s Green Climate Fund to develop targeted climate information products for five critical sectors.

Early warning in Vanuatu extends into education. The Ministry of Education has already included climate change topics in nearly every subject from Kindergarten through Yr 13 in its newly released official curriculum, and a range of climate teaching materials, books and posters have been developed specifically for Vanuatu. One locally-produced cartoon movie called ‘Cloud Nasara’ (meeting place of the clouds), continues to be a national hit and clearly explains to students the differences between climate and weather, giving practical examples of climate adaptation in Vanuatu. In 2018 the Ministry of Education is again holding the Climate Zone competition among all of Vanuatu’s 52 English and French language secondary schools. The competition started in May with a written pre-test and in October, all top-ranked schools from each province will travel to Port Vila for the live final. Winning schools will be given finance and technical expertise to implement an adaptation project of their choice. And it is not just students in the formal school system that benefit from climate education. The Vanuatu Institute of Technology (VIT) launched a Certificate I course on Climate Change in 2017, with village champions from every province. Next month, VIT will launch a follow-up Certificate III course to ensure that even remote community leaders have access to top tier, action-oriented education on how to adapt to climate change in the real Vanuatu context

So where does all of this leave Vanuatu? Well, Vanuatu’s climate has already changed and continues to do so faster and with more severity than initially predicted. Regardless, Vanuatu’s people, its Government, NGOs, businesses and development partners are ever more able to stand up to the relentless onslaught of climate change. Our traditional knowledge, insightful government policies and commitment to act decisively on all fronts at all levels, sets Vanuatu well apart, sets Vanuatu up for continued effective adaptation, and sets us on the course for sustainable and resilient development for the future.

Story by Christopher Bartlett. Photography courtesy of GIZ.


[i] The World Risk Report 2016 was published by Alliance Development Works (Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft) in collaboration with the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and utilizes The World Risk Index, calculated by the University of Stuttgart.

[ii] From the Australian Government’s Pacific Climate Change Science Programme: Climate Variability, Extremes and Change in the Western Tropical Pacific: New Science and Updated Country Reports 2014).