El Niño brings drought and heightened cyclone risk to Vanuatu

Published: 21 October 2015 12:21 CET

By Olivia Warrick, Red Cross Climate Centre and IFRC

Seven months after Tropical Cyclone Pam tore across Vanuatu, many communities are still recovering from what many consider to be the most destructive disaster in the country’s history. Now, they are facing another threat in the form of drought, which is linked to El Niño conditions in the Pacific.

Malampa, Shefa, Tafew, Matasu and Emae are all facing food and water shortages to varying degrees due to lower-than-normal rainfall and the lasting damage caused by Cyclone Pam.

The Vanuatu Red Cross Society, supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), is working with the government to carry out assessments and respond to the needs of communities.

Dickinson Tevi, communications coordinator at the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said that Cyclone Pam had a marked impact on farming production in North Tanna. “People are confused and said they have never experienced anything like this. Cyclones come and go, but damaged plants usually grow back and produce food. This time, though, it is six months later and root crops are of poor quality and don’t provide adequate food supply for the community.”

The Red Cross is also conducting sensitisation sessions around water, sanitation and the promotion of good hygiene. Many communities rely on rainwater, so Red Cross teams are helping to rehabilitate wells in communities.

Olivia Warrick, the Red Cross Pacific Climate Advisor, said it was vital to be prepared. “Communities across Efate should not be fooled by the recent rains. The total amount of rainfall over the past three months has been lower than normal for this time of the year,” she said. “El Niño is typically unpredictable and people should prepare with stocks of food and water in case conditions deteriorate.”

It is likely that the impact of El Niño will be felt during the coming cyclone season which begins in November. The Climate Division of the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-Hazards Department (VMGD) announced this week that El Niño conditions help to boost tropical cyclones. According to the forecast, Vanuatu can expect to experience between two and six cyclones during the 2015-2016 cyclone season.

Training for resilience

Vanuatu is vulnerable to natural disasters and recently 30 community members from Epau, Efate Island, came together in a unique initiative with representatives from the VMGD, the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), the Red Cross, the IFRC and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) to draft an action plan for climate and disaster resilience in the community.

Epau is vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis, and heavy rain can cause flooding. The town was severely affected by Cyclone Pam in March; most houses were damaged, and vegetable gardens needed for food and income were flooded.

The week-long workshop brought timely and useful climate and weather information to the community, but also allowed authorities and the Red Cross to better understand community needs.

Examples of activities that Epau prioritized in their new plan include building a traditional cyclone shelter, coastal tree planting, small-business development, and first aid training. Plans also include improving access to early-warning information through radios and community notice boards, using simulations to highlight potential problems before they arise, and reviving traditional knowledge on hazards.

The workshop was funded through the Finnish-Pacific Project. The IFRC and SPREP are working with National Societies in the Pacific to bring similar projects to other island nations.

The Vanuatu Red Cross Society has worked with the National Disaster Management Office to draft a National Drought Contingency Plan. Since March this year, the Red Cross Water, Sanitation and Hygiene promotion team has constructed or rehabilitated rainwater harvesting systems and reached 1,425 people across five islands.