Although I am a Kiwi (who lives in Fiji!), I was in Vanuatu when Cyclone Pam hit. In fact, I arrived a few days before Pam hit specifically to help with UNICEF’s cyclone preparations, and to help to draw the world’s attention to the disaster coming our way. I’ve spent a lot of time helping communities to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies over the years but ‘Pam’ was like nothing I’ve ever experienced for a range of reasons. This slow-moving monster brought unprecedented destruction and left behind deep scars, but it also shone a spotlight on the true resilience, abilities and expertise of Pacific Island nations when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. A few months later, Vanuatu is back as beautiful as it ever was, and it was the community spirit that shone through it all.
Four of the world’s ten most disaster-prone countries are in the Pacific
The Pacific region can lay claim to many amazing features; breath-taking beauty, rich cultures, incredible diversity, sports heroes, amazing entrepreneurs and inspiring community leaders who work to make the world a better place. But for all our accomplishments, there is one record we would rather not hold; four of the world’s ten most disaster-prone countries are in the Pacific.
Vanuatu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively occupy positions 1, 3, 6 and 10 on the list of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, released as part of the United Nations University’s World Risk Report, but no-one in the Pacific is immune. For those in Tuvalu, Tokelau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific atolls sitting barely 3 metres above sea level, the risks from natural disasters are multiplied. In Tuvalu, which sits an average of just 1.8 metres above the sea, the waves brought by Cyclone Pam (which affected Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands as well as Vanuatu) were 4 to 5 metres in height, causing immense damage as they crashed over the country.
In Fiji, the effects of a Pacific-wide El Niño cycle expected to span at least the next 6-12 months are already being felt as drought hits parts of the country, threatening the root crops that so many depend on, as well as the sugar industry. The shift of warmer ocean water to the east associated with El Niño is also bringing colder than usual winters for many, as well as unseasonal cyclones. The risk of stronger than normal cyclones has also increased, bad news for a region that already gets more than its fair share of cyclones. Meanwhile in Australia and New Zealand, extreme drought, floods and unseasonal weather are burning away the doubts of climate change sceptics.
Blending the old and the new; expertise from adversity.
It’s no wonder then, that Pacific Islanders have developed, over many centuries, significant expertise in both traditional and modern approaches to disaster management, including reducing the risks presented by disasters, and responding effectively to them when they hit. Cyclone Pam was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones on record, yet there were just eleven deaths and relatively few injuries. The reasons for this reflect a powerful mix of traditional and modern expertise; traditional houses are built from light materials that flex in the wind and cause less damage if they do break apart – while the government’s use of a new SMS warning system to alert communities across the country to get ready for the cyclone further helped to save lives.
Communities also prepared in ways that reflect the combined efforts over many years of government and humanitarian actors to support more effective disaster preparations; identifying and moving quickly to safe shelters, stockpiling food, water and medical supplies, protecting vital documents and preparing their homes. When you look closely it’s also clear that some communities in the cyclone’s path had very effective means of preparing for cyclones that have protected them through centuries; from house designs with roofs that sit low to the ground, to communities that sheltered in caves with preserved foods already in place. It’s heartening then, as Vanuatu focuses its energy on recovering from Cyclone Pam, that communities and governments are also recognising the value of traditional approaches to disaster management, and perhaps considering what needs to be protected as the country continues to modernise.
‘Community’ lies at the heart of ‘resilience’.
Beyond preparations, the word ‘resilience’ is an often-used term to describe how communities adapt to stress and adversity and, by extension, how they recover after a disaster strikes. A commitment to shared recovery is a key feature of resilience and one that Pacific Island nations have a lot to teach others about. Just a day or so after the cyclone hit, the sound of hammers filled the air everywhere you went. Families who had lost almost everything shared what little remained with others, and helped each other to rebuild.
While I was in Vanuatu I met a three-year-old girl called Rachel. Her world was turned upside down when her house and seven others were washed away by thousands of litres of water from a ruptured water tank at the top of the hill her house once sat on. The tank had been ruptured by the force of the cyclone, which threw trees and power poles around like matchsticks.
When we went to visit Rachel and her family the day after the cyclone we met a child who was fearful and withdrawn. She wasn’t communicating, instead sweeping the bare concrete pad where her house had been, perhaps a child’s attempt to put things back the way they were before.
Her stress was a normal reaction to an abnormal event, one that generally passes with time for most children – but three months on, we nonetheless went to find Rachel again with some trepidation. What if she was still badly affected?
The difference could not have been greater. A completely different Rachel greeted us: a ball of energy, smiling, playing and happy to be photographed. Her small community on the outskirts of Port Vila is working hard to recover. Rachel’s father and other men have managed to build basic shelters for all seven families, using salvaged materials, scrap timber and metal sheets donated by a local NGO. For Rachel’s community, it’s clear that they are determined to recover together.
Preparing for the future.
With so much vulnerability to disasters of all types, Pacific Island nations are leading the push to refocus energy on disaster risk reduction, (reducing the impact of disasters through better preparations), as well as disaster response. Governments are working to ‘disaster proof’ policy in areas such as water supply, electricity, education, food security, healthcare and telecommunications. Pacific leaders are also more active on climate change than many, pushing harder for practical action at the national, regional and global levels than nations that are not experiencing the impacts of climate change first-hand.
In July, Vanuatu and other Pacific Island countries were vocal and expert participants in the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific consultation held in New Zealand. The Summit brought together leaders and community advocates from across the Pacific region and the world to identify ways to improve how we prepare for and respond to emergencies, including natural disasters, and the multiple impacts of climate change.
Conference participants had a clear message for the world, calling for greater involvement of Pacific communities in all aspects of disaster preparedness and response. People from across the Pacific, including those most recently affected by Cyclone Pam, spoke up, saying that the voices, expertise and abilities of communities must be heard and respected when it comes to emergencies. Critically, communities also reminded donors, governments and humanitarian actors that the ability of communities to prepare for, and survive, disasters is directly linked to the quality of the long-term development work that came before. A piecemeal ‘fly-in-fly-out’ approach is not good enough.
Children have a vital role to play.
Children in the Pacific must also be a vital part of these conversations, both as those most affected by emergencies, and as those who can and will contribute to building more resilient communities in the future. When a disaster strikes, children’s lives are changed forever. Death, injury, illness and the loss of the most basic human rights can happen in a moment; schooling comes to an end, family incomes disappear, hopes and dreams are washed away. When it comes to climate change, with rising sea levels, prolonged droughts and intensified storms, those least responsible for this unfolding environmental disaster are shouldering the consequences of climate change.
As a first step, we must listen to children and communities. After Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, UNICEF asked ni-Vanuatu children for their views on what had happened and advice for adults and children. Brenen, age 12, told us “In the past, people didn’t really think about what might happen to their houses. So they built houses that looked nice but weren’t very strong. After the cyclone people realised their mistake, but it was already too late.” Cliffson, age 11, talked about the food shortages after the cyclone, saying “Now both the birds and people are trying to look for food.” Brian, age 12, told us “My message to other young people is not to give up if your house was destroyed by the cyclone. Try to help your parents to build a new home.”
Just as children’s voices must be heard, children must also be actively involved in preparing for disasters. At UNICEF we are investing in school-based preparedness efforts so that children will be prepared for emergencies from their youngest years; just as children learn to brush their teeth or wash their hands, they must also be aware of the simple actions they can take to prepare for emergencies and become more resilient, together.
We have also established technology-based systems for engagement and consultation with children and communities, which can also be used to warn them about impending disasters and steps needed to protect themselves, as well as real time monitoring and reporting.
Learning from the past to protect vulnerable groups.
We must also ensure that we learn from the past. In her opening address at the Pacific Summit, Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former Prime Minister and now the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called for greater attention to women and girls, reminding delegates that “More women than men die in most disasters; for example, seventy per cent of those who died in the 2009 Tonga tsunami were women.”
People with disabilities, the elderly, children, and other groups made vulnerable by their position in society are also disproportionately and differently affected. These groups are often the last to be reached by relief efforts, and say that they are rarely consulted or included during preparedness or recovery planning. If we are serious about assisting those most affected by disasters, then these groups need to be prioritised and supported in practical and meaningful ways.
And don’t forget climate change!
Last, but by no means least, we must also remember that delaying action for children and communities on climate change is not an option. Climate change will not wait. Natural disasters will not wait. Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati spoke passionately about this at the Pacific Summit, saying “At the rate we are going it doesn’t seem likely we will be able to keep what we have for our children.” We must act to protect children now and in generations to come.
For those who live outside the Pacific, the reality of climate change and other natural disasters can be hard to grasp. The idea of the sea literally washing away your home sounds like something out of a disaster film set far in the future. For the children of the Pacific however, this is today’s reality. Beaches, cemeteries, homes, businesses and entire communities are disappearing, as sea level increases of even a few centimetres push the Pacific Ocean further and further inland, especially on low-lying atoll nations like Kiribati. This incredible vulnerability means that even a moderate storm or tsunami can cause immeasurable damage.
We all have a role to play.
The Pacific is leading the way on action to reduce the impacts of climate change. Policy changes, investment in climate change resistant crops, improved water supply and treatment methods and community-led mitigation efforts are all pieces of a much larger puzzle. The same is true for disaster preparedness and response. Just as the Pacific looks to others for expertise and guidance, the rest of the world has much to learn from the Pacific region. We are, after all, experts by circumstance.
Whether you live in or beyond the Pacific, we all have a role to play, both in everyday actions to reduce the effects of climate change and in simple measures to better prepare ourselves and our communities for emergencies. Cyclone Pam, Hurricane Katrina and the Christchurch earthquake are powerful reminders that no country is immune to disasters, so every step we make to prevent and reduce the impact of climate change and natural disasters in the Pacific is an investment in a safer and more resilient future for all.
Story by Alice Clements. Photography by Vlad Sokhin.
Alice manages the communications for the fourteen countries supported by UNICEF’s Pacific office, helping children and communities affected by poverty and disadvantage to raise their voices. She has worked as a communications first responder in several major emergencies around the world, including the Pakistan floods, Typhoon Haiyan and Cyclone Pam. Alice holds a Master of Arts in Communication from RMIT University in Australia. She is based in Suva, Fiji.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of all children. UNICEF works in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. In the Pacific region, UNICEF works in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. These fourteen Pacific island countries are home to 2.3 million people, including 1.2 million children and youth, living on more than 660 islands and atolls stretching across 17.2 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. For more information about UNICEF Pacific visit: www.unicefpacific.org