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Cyclone Pam’s Path of Destruction and Recovery Response

by Vanessa Thevathasan, Aid International Development Forum

  •  March 20, 2015
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Vanuatu’s President has appealed to the international community for support after Cyclone Pam caused “unprecedented damage” across the island. The “category 5” storm ripped through the Pacific archipelago with unusual ferocity; sustained winds of 135 knots flattened homes, destroyed livestock and caused massive flooding. In its wake, decades of development has been brushed aside. Aid agencies have begun assessing the country’s outer islands, which suffered “significantly worse” damage than the nation’s capital, Port Vila. Vanuatu will need dedicated international assistance over the coming years to support government and local partners to “build back better” and secure the future of development of the country. With this in mind, the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction has established a set of seven goals, which the international community should prioritise as part of an effective and efficient emergency response.

  Vanuatu is one of the poorest countries in the Asia-Pacific. With a population of around 268, 000 spread of over 65 islands, communities rely predominantly on agriculture for their livelihood. Australia, Vanuatu’s main donor, estimates that around 70 percent of the population live on the remote islands, where there are few services, limited access to drinking water, transport or electricity. Therefore, from the outset of the emergency, communities were dealing with a severely restricted capacity to respond to the storm that effectively wiped out their only means of survival.

  While the low number of deaths, currently standing at 11, is certainly a relief, aid workers fear that communities may be forgotten just as they are running out of food. Therefore, one of the most immediate concerns following the aftermath of Cyclone Pam has been over the devastation inflicted upon households, livelihoods and livestock. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (UN OCHA) Situation Report 16 March suggests growing food insecurity, with emergency food aid needed for an estimated 19,000 households. Crops throughout the island have been destroyed along with farming tools. Alice Clements, a spokesperson for Unicef Pacific, based in the capital, Port Vila, said: “We have discovered that 100 per cent of crops in Tanna have been destroyed – this means that this is an island with no food.” Humanitarian efforts will focus on delivering food aid to the remote islands and over the next months re-establish agricultural economic livelihoods.

  Most of the affected provinces rely on ground water that is now contaminated. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supplies are urgently needed, including the provision of water purification tablets, soap and toilets. The Vanuatu WASH Cluster is helping make rapid assessments and engaging with additional partners including, Oxfam and Save the Children. UN OCHA suggests 80 percent of Port Vila water supply is now restored, with efforts continuing to provide clean, safe water supplies to remote areas. Residents in Moso who are suffering through severe drinking water shortage have been forced to drink harmful saltwater, increasing the risk of dehydration and death. UNICEF has deployed basic health kits to cyclone-affected Vanuatu from its Pacific regional warehouse in Suva, Fiji, including hygiene kits, water tanks, soap for handwashing, collapsible water containers and water purification tables (News Medical 2015).

  Many houses, made of the traditional corrugated iron and wood, have been completely flattened and scattered across the island like confetti; Oxfam has reported more than 90 percent of the homes in the capital have been damaged. Aid agencies are continue to procure tents and shelters; UN OCHA reports 3,300 people are sheltering in 37 evacuation centre in Torba and Penama Provinces and a further 3, 370 people have sought shelter in 48 evacuation centres in Efate. Only 1,400 shelter kits have arrived in the country, whereas an estimated 12,000 kits and 24,000 tarpaulins are needed (UN OCHA 17 March).

  Encouragingly, many emergency procurement best practices are being implemented as part of the disaster response. This is especially true in the case of establishing emergency communication and coordination in the first few days after the disaster. For instance, mobile network operator Digicel is rolling out charging facilities and moving to reconnect remote islands, working with Government and local companies to get technical staff to these areas. Huawai, and other key vendors have provided technical resources and equipment to assist Digicel. Additionally, with the Government leading response efforts through the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) and the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, all clusters have been requested to share information on activities, assessments, and arrivals of international agencies to NDMO (UN OCHA 17 March). UNOCHA has created a Humanitarian Response Page as the central site for the collection information in support of coordinated efforts.

  With the humanitarian community rallying to support the humanitarian response, there is critical need for greater coordination efforts to manage the large-scale assistance so that international actors do not overwhelm local capacity. The UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team are in Port Vile to support the coordination of incoming humanitarian assistance. The communications infrastructure is slowly being built back up in coordination with DFAT Crisis Response to avoid duplication. Updates of network and service availability are being communicated through Digicel Vanuatu’s Facebook page.

  Innovative approaches have also facilitated communications with communities, such as UNOCHA’s MicroMappers which support the UN’s rapid damage assessment efforts. Crisis-mappers monitor tweets about the storm, identifying the pictures and videos of damages that will be collected for UNOCHA for responders on the ground. In other areas, Nethope is working with the Emergency Telecommunication Cluster to assess ICT needs of the response community.

  Agencies are being asked to send information on distribution of equipment to the Logistics Cluster as a way to record and track current and expected stocks that will determine what is needed once assessments are complete. Yet, even though relief flights have been able to land in Port Vila, aid workers on the ground are increasingly concerned that these supplies cannot be distributed until the infrastructure is made accessible and safe. Current assessments by Save the Children’s Vanuatu director Tom Skirrow suggests that the logistical challenges are even worse than Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in 2013.

  The rebuilding efforts will clearly be immense and the effects of the storm will no doubt be felt for years to come. Increasingly, there is a greater recognition for recovery efforts to be shared responsibly at the global level. This was precisely the aim of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Sandai, Japan, incidentally held at the time Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The conference sought to bring more coherent and integrated disaster risk reduction (DRR) frameworks to build upon the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005) and promote a more people-centred perspective approach to DDR.

It is prudent to keep in mind the seven global targets agreed at the conference:

  1. Substantially reduce global disaster mortality by 2030, aiming to lower average per 100,000 global mortality between 2020-2030 compared to 2005-2015.

  2. Substantially reduce the number of affected people globally by 2030, aiming to lower the average global figure per 100,000 between 2020-2030 compared to 2005-2015.

  3. Reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

  4. Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030.

  5. Substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020.

  6. Substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of this framework by 2030.

  7. Substantially increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to the people by 2030.

 

  Committed financial investment and political leadership is needed to bring these goals to practical reality. Cyclone Pam is a timely reminder that much more needs to be done to reduce vulnerability to storms in order to prevent a disaster. By investing now to build resilience more concrete steps can be taken to empower communities to better protect their livelihoods, respond to emergencies, and transform future development outcomes.

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