Homelessness in Vanuatu
Cyclone Harold tore through Vanuatu in early April 2020 and brought torrential rain, flash flooding and destructive wind up to 145 miles per hour. The storm devastated Espiritu Santo and Pentecost Island, bringing about significant impacts to the rest of the country’s northern and central islands. The cyclone wiped out trees and crops, flooded cities and towns, knocked out power, disrupted communications and destroyed countless homes and businesses. World Vision Vanuatu stated that 160,000 people, which is more than half of the country’s population, became homeless. In some villages, including one on Pentecost Islands, the cyclone destroyed all the homes.

General Relief Efforts

Addressing homelessness in Vanuatu after Cyclone Harold has been challenging due to COVID-19. While the country is one of the few places in the world without any cases, a single outbreak could put the island’s population and healthcare system in jeopardy. Therefore, the country halted international travel, forbade foreign relief workers from on-the-ground efforts and required the decontamination of all aid equipment. As a result, many communities did not see immediate relief.

The Santo Sunset Environment Network and Edenhope Foundation established a coconut weaving program to help rebuild after Cyclone Harold. The program employs people from the island of Tanna in the southern part of Vanuatu. The Tanna weavers held workshops with residents of the affected communities and taught them how to build with coconut fronds, rope and bamboo. Although islanders typically use Natangura palms to construct homes, Harold destroyed most of them, so residents had to adapt. While builders constructed most of the new buildings for communal purposes, they are looking to build private homes and cyclone-resistant buildings as well.

Down Under Rally, an Australian boating tour agency, started Project Nakamal, another local effort to address homelessness in Vanuatu. Down Under Rally also operates in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Its priority is to rebuild the Nakamal structure, a building that locals use for ceremonial and community purposes. These buildings are at the heart of each community and serve as an important facet of Vanuatu society. The boating tour agency teamed up with Port of Call Yacht Services to provide materials for rebuilding. The organization has now exceeded its original fundraising goal of  $10,000 Australian dollars, about $6,948 in USD.

Larger organizations like World Vision Vanuatu set a goal to reach 3,000 households in Sanma Province, which includes the islands of Espiritu Santo and Malo. These organizations collaborated with World Vision’s Asia Pacific regional office and Vanuatu Women’s Centre to raise money for shelter, water purification and hygiene kits to support people with disabilities.

Through the help of U.N. Women, the Vanuatu Women’s Centre was able to make mobile counseling visits to various areas that the storm affected and help homeless women as well as their families. The organization reports that many women were concerned about their children and avoiding domestic violence. While various women called in need of food, water and shelter, others reached out to alleviate violence and sexual abuse.

Future of Relief

Despite the fact that Vanuatu’s carbon footprint is small, it is at the forefront of dealing with challenging weather. According to a study from Griffith University, the University of Queensland and the University of the Sunshine Coast, stronger and more frequent tropical cyclones threaten the island chain due. Rising sea levels also threaten the country, which would only exacerbate homelessness in Vanuatu. The study found that community-centered initiatives were most successful in addressing these issues. These local programs were scientific but complemented traditional beliefs.

It is important to expand and further implement the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The document received signatures at the U.N. General Assembly in 2015 and set specific goals for disaster mitigation through 2030. The agreement seeks to reduce global disaster mortality, the number of people who disasters affect, economic losses and infrastructure damage. It seeks to increase warning system availability, international cooperation to developing countries and the number of countries that have both national and local mitigation strategies.

Bryan Boggiano
Photo: Flickr