Long-term action on climate change is needed from Australia

By Donna Lu
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Vanuatu — Disaster, Recovery and Resilience | K & L Gates Brisbane

Tropical Cyclone Pam, which ravaged Vanuatu from 12 to 15 March, was one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. On April 23, a panel discussion was held at K & L Gates Brisbane to discuss the efficiency and effectiveness of Australia’s disaster response and recovery effort.

The panel featured Kevin Keefe of the Australian Red Cross; Michael Hassett, Director of DFAT’s Humanitarian Response Section; Myles Harrison, Director of World Vision’s Pacific and East Timor division; and Nicole George, Senior Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland.

Vanuatu lies in a region that is particularly prone to natural disasters. Further, as an archipelago consisting of 82 islands – of which 65 are inhabited – its geography presents logistical challenges in terms of transport and access to remote areas.

Despite wind speeds of up to 250–320 kmph, the Cyclone Pam death toll was less than 20, partially due to disaster preparedness and improved communications.

Harrison of World Vision, who travelled to Vanuatu in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Pam, detailed stories of resilience and survival, and recalled meeting families who had already begun crop seed planting within days of losing their livelihoods.

However, the event caused widespread structural damage to infrastructure as well as devastation of the tourism and agricultural industries. The World Bank estimates that Cyclone Pam has set Vanuatu’s development back by six years, while 110,000 people were left without clean drinking water and 13,000 households were damaged.

Both the preparations and immediate response to Cyclone Pam were timely and well-planned, in large part due to the Vanuatu government, who played a key role in marshaling the international response. The Australian government pledged $10 million towards the immediate relief effort, primarily to provide on-the-ground humanitarian supplies.

On the panel, Keefe of the Australian Red Cross said that Australian community donations, which were galvanised by the ABC’s appeal and extensive coverage, totaled an additional $7 million. An on-the-ground coordinated response was enacted between the governments of Australia, France and New Zealand, with additional support from the UK and the UAE.

Under the direction of Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, various NGOs provided further relief. Harrison of World Vision, who travelled to Vanuatu in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Pam, detailed stories of resilience and survival, and recalled meeting families who had already begun crop seed planting within days of losing their livelihoods.

Dr George of UQ explained how natural disasters can place households under enormous strain. Her research across the Pacific shows spikes in rates of violence against women after events like Cyclone Pam, which comes from men’s frustration as their “prescribed roles as protectors become difficult or impossible to attain”.

Similarly, she noted that higher numbers of Apprehended Violence Orders were issued after the 2011 Brisbane floods in suburbs that were the most severely affected. The duty to protect at-risk women and girls is ongoing; as part of their immediate aid provisions, the Australian government pledged money for sexual and reproductive health services.

Despite the Australian government’s commendable role in the emergency response to Cyclone Pam, pertinent long-term action on climate change must still be taken.

In terms of medium- to long-term recovery, the restoration of industry and infrastructure is a major priority for the Vanuatu government. Hassett reported the Australian government pledged a further $5 million towards soft infrastructure – for development of educational and health institutions, as well local markets. Whether future foreign aid will be provided for sustained development remains to be seen.

Harrison noted that the provision of seeds is essential, as crop gardens and agriculture are important for both consumption and export. Dr George expressed concerns that the restoration of gardens to ensure food security will fall on the shoulders of women, which will be significant work given the extent of the damage.

Dr George also touched on the Pacific region’s dissatisfaction at Australia’s failure to take global leadership on the matter of climate change, especially because the problem is a reality for many low-lying areas, rather than a hypothetical. Echoing the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, she pointed to scientific consensus that says natural disasters in the region will only increase in frequency and intensity as a result of global warming.

Despite the Australian government’s commendable role in the emergency response to Cyclone Pam, pertinent long-term action on climate change must still be taken.

Caption: The damage wrought by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu.

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