Current Forecast: Vanuatu and a Changing Climate
From rising temperatures to rising sea levels and resulting storm surges, Vanuatu faces the effects of a radically shifting climate, like its neighbours in the region. Vanuatu has worked in partnership with international agencies to bring innovation to scale, blending technology and education to prepare and safeguard the country.
• The country, in brief. Home to some 260,000 residents, the remote archipelago nation constitutes 82 volcanic islands, many of which sit just 0.9 metres (3 feet) above sea level. Spread across more than 1,280 kilometres (800 miles) of sea, the country’s isolation makes communication a challenge when confronted with devastating weather events.
• For Vanuatu, the impact of climate change comes in many forms. By 2030, temperatures will increase in Vanuatu by up to 1° Celsius (33.8° Fahrenheit) per year. The sea level has risen by 6 millimetres (0.2 inches) per year since 1993, and will continue to rise to reach up to 18 centimetres (7 inches). At the same time, extreme rainfall events will grow in frequency and intensity, increasing the resulting damages spurred by cyclones, storm surges, landslides, flooding and droughts.
• Ocean acidification—or carbon pollution that increases the ocean’s acidity—will continue, threatening the health of the island’s reef ecosystems.
• Cyclones will be less frequent, but more severe, endangering the country’s economy and the population’s livelihood. Root crops, such as sweet potatoes and plantains, provide food and income for more than 70 percent of Vanuatu’s majority-rural population. But changing rainfall patterns cause damage to seedlings and soil and cause contamination of the environment in which crops grow, making the ground—and thus, these staple food sources—vulnerable to pests and diseases. Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu in 2015, destroyed 96 percent of the island’s food crops. Adaptive farming offers residents a means to better understand the effects of climate on their traditional agricultural practices, all while showing the way to sustainable strategies to respond and adapt to the increasingly destructive weather patterns.
Tropical Cyclone Pam, the most powerful cyclone to ever hit Vanuatu, caused economic damage equivalent to 64 percent of the country’s GDP in 2015, some $590 million. Pam blazed through the country on March 13, leaving more than 60,000 children at risk and some 75 thousand residents stranded without homes. An estimated 250 thousand residents on Vanuatu’s outer islands had minimal, if any, protection from the cyclone’s winds, which reached speeds of 320 kilometres (200 miles) per hour.
The storm wiped out subsistence crops, putting the country’s food security in jeopardy for years to come. With crops that have since failed, and wells that continue to run dry, many residents today survive on food handouts.
Cyclone Pam destroyed roads, infrastructure and buildings. As a United Nations officer described, Vanuatu looked like “it had been hit by a bomb.”
Cyclone Pam paints a stark picture of what could be the nation’s future. Uncovering sustainable means to prepare for major storms and before, mitigate the damage and recover quickly remains crucial to protecting the nation and the people who call the islands home.
Detemination and innovation underscore Vanuatu’s sustainable approach to climate-adaptation.
Working alongside an Australian research organization, Vanuatu launched an online data-modelling tool, allowing a visual take on potential impacts of rising tides and storm surges. Using Google-based mapping technology, the model provides authorities and islanders with data to make informed climate planning and policy decisions.
Elsewhere, government agencies have enacted efforts to crossbreed crop varieties and identify which—if any—could survive through periods of long droughts. But the research suffered a setback when Cyclone Pam upended the greenhouses that housed the crops researchers were testing. Projects have further explored adaptive farming methods, such as alley cropping, to cultivate crops using varying techniques. These efforts seek to identify optimum conditions to grow new food sources both tolerant of and can adapt to extreme rainfall, drought and heat.
Education also presents a vital component in broadening awareness of climate change. Vanuatu Institute of Technology’s certificate-level, five-month course in climate change and disaster risk aims to equip the country’s rural residents with the knowledge to understand and thereby mitigate the impact of extreme-weather-related disasters.
Resilient Policies: Domestic and International Responses
Working across government agencies and in partnership with international organisations, Vanuatu has adopted a broad range of in-country measures to protect the country’s future.
The Vanuatu Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Policy convenes partners across the government, private sector, civil society and international agencies to direct the country’s climate-change and risk-reduction efforts. In partnership with programs such as the Coping with Climate Change in the Pacific Island Region, Vanuatu has activated sustainable practices to meet food production needs, all while encouraging efficient energy use to protect the country’s land and marine environments.
Vanuatu is one of 43 nations on the Climate Vulnerable Forum and has been a vocal proponent in limiting temperature rise from global warming to 1.5° Celsius. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change seeks to limit temperature rise to 2° Celsius.
Vanuatu ratified the Paris Agreement in April 2016.