Three months on from Cyclone Pam, every drop of water counts for island communities

Published: 11 June 2015 4:19 CET

By Becky Webb, IFRC

Three months have passed since Tropical Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu and Kalangai Mansale (49), pastor of Feneonge village on Emae Island, is still coming to terms with the impact the storm had on his small community.  

“The damage to the church was really bad” he said.  “This is our main community centre so we are trying to cover it with tarpaulins for now until we can find a longer term solution.”

Today the residents of the village have gathered in the church for a health and hygiene promotion session. Working with the village health committee, Red Cross volunteer Newman Netef (37) is sharing information on how to store safe water and the importance of hand washing, to safeguard against the spread of disease.

“If people really understand what I say, they will go back to their community and then people can have good, long, healthy lives” he explains.

Equipping local residents with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe and well is vital to building community resilience in the face of future disasters. The Vanuatu Red Cross, supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), is planning to recruit and train community based health volunteers in cyclone affected villages across the country, including those on Emae Island.

“Our immediate recovery efforts are focused on training local volunteers in good health and hygiene practices while also addressing the devastating impact the cyclone had on people’s ability to access safe water. The Red Cross will be working in partnership with communities to restore and improve the local water supply”, said Vuli Gauna, IFRC Operations Manager in Vanuatu.

An estimated 68% of the rainwater harvesting catchment structures were destroyed in Vanuatu and 70% of the wells have been contaminated following cyclone Pam, with piped water systems also suffering extensive damage.  For this coastal community on Emae Island, its close proximity to the seafront meant it was particularly exposed to the fierce wind and rains which battered the island during the cyclone. 

‘I live right next to the coast so there was tidal surge that from the sea that flooded my garden and I lost all my crops”, said Pastor Mansale.

 “The wind carried the water from the sea into the water tank and the salt water also contaminated the tidal spring well”, he continued.

Spring wells are a critical water source for local people in Vanuatu but the effects of cyclone Pam have caused many to deteriorate rapidly, meaning they can now only be used for bathing and washing.

“The tidal surges caused by the cyclone have resulted in many spring wells now having high salt water content, meaning communities have lost a valuable source of usable water. Over time the salt will be washed out and the water should improve but in the meantime communities must have sufficient rainwater catchments in place to ensure they have enough water to see them through the dry season,” said Gauna.

To increase the amount of rainwater the people on Emae Island can collect, the Red Cross is providing seven new water tanks and will work with communities to build rainwater catchments and secure guttering so that water can be collected from rooftops during the rains. While efforts are underway to ensure this work is completed before the peak months of the dry season when rainwater will become more scarce, efforts have been complicated by the remote location of Emae and the often difficult sailing conditions to reach the island community.

“The main problem is the availability and transportation of supplies” Gauna continued. “The boats that regularly travel between the islands are fishing boats so they are not designed to carry cargo and during bad weather they cannot travel at all.  The logistics of shipping large and substantial items such as water tanks takes time as we have to charter boats which can withstand the heavy load and the rough sea conditions.”

As the Red Cross intensifies its efforts to improve communities’ access to safe water, the population of Feneonge village has started saving what water they can, ready for the upcoming dry months. “We stockpile water now in plastic cans, ready for the hot season” said Pastor Mansale.

Preparing for emergencies is a common occurrence for the villagers. In the days before Cyclone Pam the community disaster committee (CDC) had visited people in the community to make sure everyone knew when, and where, to evacuate to. Pastor Mansale had heeded these warnings and had boarded up the windows of his house and packed up his families’ belongings when the storm finally arrived.

“The cyclone hit us about 3pm in the afternoon when we were at home with the children. The water came up two meters high. By about 5pm the weather was so bad that we knew we had to leave our home and go to the school,” he said.

“We believed that only the school can save us. The school building is a proper building and the sea cannot reach it.”

In the aftermath of the storm, the true extent of losses for the 132 people in the village became clear and the Vanuatu Red Cross, supported by IFRC, began distributing much needed relief items to all affected households including tarpaulins and tools to help repair homes as well as soap, kitchen sets, water containers and solar lanterns.

In total the Red Cross has reached 30,000 people across Vanuatu with emergency relief assistance and is targeting a further 30,000 with recovery activities over the next two years.