Aid to Vanuatu has begun after Cyclone Pam ripped through the islands five days ago. A high proportion of the population is now homeless and 90 percent of the buildings in capital Port Vila were seriously damaged. Aid has begun to the small Oceanian nation’s outlying islands, which have been cut off since Pam hit. Some 80 percent of the 230,000-plus population live rurally. According to the UN, 3,300 people may remain homeless.
There have been reports of locals on some islands signaling survey planes with mirrors or drawing large white “H’s” on the ground after phone and internet connections were taken out. The death toll however, has remained relatively low – 24 at the time of writing – although that number may rise. Experts have partly attributed this to preparedness and a lifetime of dealing with natural disasters. Houses are designed to keep people safe, with cyclone rooms that have no windows and low doorways. Crops across the country have also been destroyed and aid agencies are keen to point out the utterly devastating scale of the damage.
Capital Port Vila is considered the most vulnerable city in the world when it comes to natural disasters, according to Verisk Maplecroft, which puts together the Natural Hazards Risk Atlas. It and Taipei are the only two cities outside of the Philippines to be among the top 10 most vulnerable cities in the Atlas. In addition to cyclones, the Vanuatu capital is threatened by tsunamis, earthquakes and flooding.
However, it is the remote islands – Vanuatu comprises 83 islands in total – that are in the most danger. “On a good, sunny day outside of cyclone season it’s difficult to get to many of them,” said Colin Collett van Rooyen of Oxfam Vanuatu, speaking to the Associated Press two days ago. “Until today, the weather has been particularly cloudy, so even the surveillance flights would have had some difficulty picking up good imagery.”
On the island of Tanna more than 100 people now homeless are still waiting on food and water, according to the New York Times and agencies, and there are fears of disease outbreaks. Foreigners, including young Australian volunteer teachers, are still missing, also.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced on March 15 on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website that an initial package of support to Vanuatu of AUD5 million ($3.8 million) and humanitarian supplies to aid up to 5000 people would be provided, after a request from the government of Vanuatu. A medical team and urban search and rescue team (USAR) will also be sent, and will coordinate with the Vanuatu and New Zealand governments. New Zealand’s donations to the Red Cross have totaled NZD280,000 ($206,000), according to New Zealand news sources, and the government is sending the HMNZS Canterbury to Vanuatu carrying heavy equipment and personnel. An Air Force plane has also left with supplies.
However there have been problems with smaller aid agencies and faith-based organizations not cooperating with Vanuatu’s government, but conducting their own surveys or aid delivery without oversight, national disaster committee deputy chair Benjamin Shing said. There are an estimated 100 agencies in the country but only some partner with the government.
Sam McLean, the national director of GetUp, has urged Australians not to simply donate to the Red Cross but to question their government as to why the Australian aid budget has been so deeply slashed. Major cuts were announced last year and widely criticized by major agencies such as World Vision.
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.