Our Perspectives

Vanuatu: at the apex of climate change, disaster risk reduction, and recovery


 Scenes of the destruction caused by Cyclone Pam. Photo: Shoko Takemoto/UNDP

Early morning, I walked through downtown Port Vila, Vanuatu.  Tropical cyclone Pam certainly left many scars throughout the town: damaged buildings, one-sided trees, destroyed boats, and broken sea walls all silently speak of the immense power of what had swept through the land and the sea on the evening of 13th March 2015.

Food security is a concern. The vegetable market at the centre of the town is still closed – there is no fresh produce left anywhere on the islands – and it may take weeks and months before the market will return to colour and life.

Climate change and disasters go hand-in-hand in this exposed island nation, and clearly this disaster requires immediate relief.

But as I continued walking by the waterfront, passing people, I could not help but notice the friendly smiles and warm good mornings that characterises the charm of the Vanuatu people.  

Nambawan Café, a popular outdoor spot for gathering by the waterfront was already open a little before 7am, although it took me a while to notice that it was the same Café because most of the shops and structures around it had changed dramatically. I took the opportunity to speak to the staff there.  

“We heard about the cyclone and had about one week to prepare,” the friendly waitress told me.  “We moved everything in the store, from plates to refrigerators, to a secure place.  When we made it back here last Monday, the structure of the store was damaged, but we cleaned, moved back the equipment, and were able to reopen last Friday – only after one week of the cyclone.”  

“Some of our staff has lost our roofs and the damage was devastating,” she continued. “But, we were well prepared.  We did our best, and we are going to be okay.”  

Interestingly, the waitress also told me that a journalist recently asked her and her co-workers not to smile on the photo covering the devastation in Vanuatu, regardless of the fact that their preparation had left them relatively unscathed.  With a big smile to me, she said she tried her best to put on a not-so-happy face.

Certainly, there is much devastation throughout Vanuatu and people are in need of food, water, and shelter, as well as support to build back better.  But while attending to these immediate needs, we also see stories of courage, preparedness, and resilience.  Stronger institutions and improved communication technologies contributed a lot to an effective warning and preparation for the cyclone – the relatively low death toll is a testament to this. The cyclone may have caused significant physical and economic damage, but it did not seem to have blown away people’s spirits in Vanuatu.  At least for now.  

Later in the day, we sat down with the Government to discuss their immediate and long-term priorities. Officials from the Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC) highlighted that the focus on resilience efforts will be at the heart of the recovery phase and wanted to ensure that the $8 million UNDP has mobilized from the GEF’s Least Developed Country Fund is used strategically to enhance climate and disaster resilience.

There is still a long journey ahead for effective relief, reconstruction and recovery. It’s now up to all of us involved in supporting this process to make sure that Cyclone Pam receives the support it needs, draws on international support to rebuild and, perhaps most of all, does not blow away the smiles from the affected people.

Disaster risk management Disaster risk reduction Disaster recovery Climate change and disaster risk reduction Vanuatu

UNDP Around the world