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Vanuatu, A Small Island Fighting Against Disaster Displacement

By Alex Butler

Vanuatu is a small, developing nation located in the South Pacific. Over the past several years, it has been suffering from the severe effects of climate change. Its location already places it in the path of tropical cyclones. They are particularly vulnerable to El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation cycles, which can increase drought, floods, and rainfall. It is also located in the Ring of Fire, which puts them at high risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides, per IDMC.


Vanuatu is made up of a remote chain of 82 islands and has a population of around 300,000. From the total population, a minimum of 50,000 are at risk of being displaced every year, close to 20%. Vanuatu's economy is mainly circular, relying on secondary or renewable materials, and it depends heavily on a healthy environment. Almost all of the population and settlements are located in coastal areas as the interior is mountainous, volcanic, and not suited for human habitation. Of course, living by the coast and a lack of natural defenses, increase their vulnerability to environmental damages.


The IIED and ICCAD report that several areas within the islands are remote with little to no roads, electricity grids, or network coverage.


According to the UNDP, agriculture is entirely rain-fed and thus vulnerable to changes in rainfall. Increased rain could damage seedlings, lead to run-off and soil erosion, and increase pests and disease, while drought can place stress on crops. Because of the location the country finds itself in and their way of life, Vanuatu is particularly vulnerable to several climate change-related issues. Certain areas are prone to extreme droughts, landslides, forest fires, and the loss of water sources. This can all result in food and water insecurity, negatively impacting the population's health.


Climate change has stressed local crops, and fish poisoning in particular has become a recent danger, further limiting the population's food supply. Coastal erosion and flooding have impacted nearly the entire population as all settlements are located along the coast to stay close water and food resources. Ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and coral bleaching have also limited the population's access to fresh food and water.


Storm surges represent one of the biggest threats to Vanuatu's population. Other sudden-onset hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and cyclones, also represent substantial risks to Vanuatu. These disasters can affect the economy, housing, roads, power, and water supplies, per IDMC.


The most recent natural disaster was the Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Harold that hit Northern Vanuatu in April 2020. Because of the lack of mobile phones or internet in the country, many areas were caught unaware and were unable to prepare for the storm. The cyclone resulted in the death of flora and fauna, the destruction of forest habitats, damage to coral reefs, the siltation of rivers, the erosion of the coastal line, and presented an onslaught of landslides.


The government reported that the cyclone resulted in more than $600 million USD in loss and damage, yet the country has received less than $100 million USD in development aid in response, per ICCCAD.


The cyclone has had other long-lasting after-effects. IDMC reports that as of June 2020, more than 6,200 individuals remained displaced. The local population has had to overexert other environmental resources to make up for the damages, including the overhunting of certain animals, unsustainable harvesting of building materials like palm leaves and further deforestation to plant new crops. Local water systems have also been severely damaged, and water-borne illnesses are increasing as a result. Extreme food shortages shortly followed as the cyclone damaged crops, and the following dry season and drought made it hard to make up for the lack of produce.


The cyclone also created physical barriers around the islands due to fallen trees and vegetation. This has made it difficult for the population to hunt and access building materials and medicine.


IIED and ICCCAD stress that Vanuatu women and girls are more vulnerable to climate change as they tend to be less educated, have limited access to resources and economic options, have less mobility, and are limited by patriarchal discrimination. Women and girls also depend more on natural resources for their livelihoods as they are often expected to do the agricultural work, gather fuelwood, and fetch water for their communities.


Although Vanuatu has contributed very little to greenhouse gas emissions, it has made several ambitious steps towards combating climate change. Vanuatu is the only Pacific Island to have completed a National Adaptation Program of Action and a National Action plan for Disaster Risk Reduction. According to the IIED and ICCCAD, it has submitted one of the most comprehensive Nationally Determined Contributions globally, stating a goal of committing to achieving 100% renewable energy by 2030.


Vanuatu is also taking climate change into account when it comes to reconstructing and relocating homes and other community structures. The government has created a National Advisory Board on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Project Management Unit within the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department, which is its supreme policy-making and advisory body for all disaster risk reduction and climate change-related activities. The Guardian reports that in September of 2021, Vanuatu asked the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from climate change.


Vanuatu can only achieve so much on its own. Even planning for the worst, the country can only merely mitigate the effects of climate change. Vanuatu has thus taken steps to spread its advocacy to its neighbors by forming a coalition with fellow Pacific Islands and other particularly vulnerable nations. Vanuatu emphasizes that climate change issues are beyond the capacity of any individual country, and international cooperation is necessary for Vanuatu and similar nations to survive.


It is clear that only through a monumental global effort will Vanuatu and similar countries be safe from increasing natural disasters. Until then, Vanuatu's people, plants, animals, and land will continue to suffer under the increasingly worsening effects of climate change.



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