Vanuatu begins rebuilding but faces severe challenges
Descending into Vanuatu’s international airport in Port Vila, I could see the devastation Cyclone Pam caused on March 13, sweeping nearly two dozen islands. What used to be a lush green landscape is washed brown by saltwater, trees are dead and uprooted, and houses have lost their roofs.
More than half of the population was affected by the cyclone. 15,000 homes got destroyed and 96% of the country’s crops as well as coconut and banana trees are wiped out. A true disaster for a country that relies heavily on subsistence farming for food security and income.
Two weeks into the emergency, I was meeting with communities in the capital Port Vila and witnessed the impressive resilience of the people of this island nation. Even though their need for basic humanitarian assistance such as food, water, medical aid and shelter was still high, people had started to rebuild their lives on their own. Roofs were being fixed, roads cleared, uprooted trees cut and piled up, damaged bridges restored and those who could were going back to work.
One of the severe challenges communities are now facing is lack of employment and income.
“Because of the disaster, markets are closed and women can’t sell their remaining produce,” says Helen Mavoi, mother of four children. “My work schedule at the bar I work at has been reduced to two days as tourists have stopped coming.” Helen tells me that her family doesn’t have the means to properly fix the makeshift roof damaged by the cyclone, as well as restore the destroyed outdoor kitchen and bathroom.
Everyone I talk to is telling me the same thing– they need one thing most urgently now: money. “I have to rebuild my house and need to buy material for a new roof and carpenter tools,” explains farmer Robert Chilia, who lost his source of income when Cyclone Pam destroyed his cotton field.
UNDP is now adjusting its existing programmes, which helped communities to adapt to climate change and prepare for disasters, to the new reality post-cyclone. We are also formulating a joint programme together with other UN agencies and the Government of Vanuatu that is seeking to address the most urgent recovery needs of the Vanuatu communities and local government.
Activities will focus on informal sector women entrepreneurs, debris removal, community infrastructure, restoration of local government capacities and disaster risk management to improve resilience of communities over the longer term. One of the key components will be a “Cash-for-Work” programme that strives to inject cash into local economies. Communities will receive a stipend for helping to clear debris such as fallen trees and recycle them, for example build furniture out of them. Money earned can be used for any of their urgent needs such as paying off debts or buying building material.
Pam has shown us that climate change is real, especially for Vanuatu and many other vulnerable small islands states that increasingly get hit by typhoons, floods and other extreme weather events.
Here in Vanuatu, while global media attention is fading, the international community has to scale up their support to avoid a secondary emergency. We have to help Helen, Robert and 188,000 other affected Vanuatuans to rebuild their lives better in a sustainable way, so they can face the next cyclone that for sure will come.