Vanuatu struck by cyclone Pam

Vanuatu struck by cyclone Pam – how people all over must gradually learn to adapt to extreme destruction in times of global warming, and how funds must be made available for this.

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On March 13, 2015, the island nation of Vanuatu was struck by cyclone Pam, a category 5 cyclone and one of the strongest ever recorded in the Pacific Ocean. It hit most of these volcanic islands located east of Australia and left behind a devastating trail with nearly 90% of the buildings in Vanuatu affected. The cyclone left 110,000 people without clean drinking water and destroyed their food gardens.

People on Vanuatu have been used to cyclones during the maybe 5,000 years the islands have been inhabited, but with sustained wind speeds of 250 km/h, it is the strongest on record.

In spite of its ferocity, just 16 people were killed. This is in part because people had been warned well in advance and know what to do. Villagers buried food and fresh water and sought shelter in the strongest buildings such as churches, schools and coconut drying kilns.

Nearly all of Vanuatu’s quarter million people live in villages spread out and isolated on 65 islands, and they depend on food from their gardens and the sea. Until emergency aid arrived, for some only weeks later, they managed to live of what they could salvage among the uprooted crop. Then comes the work of reestablishing the food gardens. With the long-gained experience the farmers have of creating productive and resilient gardens, and thanks to a giving tropical climate with plentiful rains, the crops will grow up again – until the next cyclone comes along.

STRONGER CYCLONES AHEAD

Farmers in Vanuatu and on the many other islands in the Pacific Ocean have for generations had their gardens destroyed in the cyclone season. But they can see that the cyclones are turning more destructive. Whether this can be blamed solely on human induced global warming or also on long-term cycles in the Pacific Ocean is somewhat irrelevant. Scientists agree that tropical cyclones – or hurricanes and typhoons as they are called in other places – will become stronger as the ocean temperatures rise. This means that the islanders in their lifetimes will experience more of the cyclones that previously only hit once in a century. They can register that while the number of weaker cyclones has decreased, the strongest cyclones have become even stronger over the last decades.

Millions of people living in coastal areas at risk of cyclones will be affected.

Such as the many Filipinos struck by super typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

CYCLONE HAIYAN

Super typhoon Haiyan with wind speeds up to 315 km/h is the strongest storm ever to make landfall. It left at least 7,500 people dead or missing and caused US$ 12.5 billion in damages. 11 million people were affected – many of whom were left homeless.

The island nation of Philippines knows about typhoons and has established systems with shelters and evacuations that normally function sufficiently well to avoid massive deaths. Typhoon Haiyan, however, grew over just a few days to a size that was completely unexpected. In addition to the damages from wind and rain, a 4-5 m high storm surge swept everything away in the town of Tacloban and left 90% of the town in ruins. Many other low-lying coastal areas were also flooded. Such low-lying areas are the ones in the greatest risk of hurricane damages, as also became obvious when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

A year later, in December 2014, the Philippines was again hit by a typhoon. Many more people were evacuated this time, and this time there was minimal flooding, so few lives were lost.

Low-lying coral island nations at risk from rising sea-levels

With the rising sea-levels, low lying areas have become more at risk from cyclones. In Tacloban, the worst damages came from the wall of seawater surging through the town. This will become worse as the waters rise.

Some islands in the Pacific Ocean are experimenting large sea-level rises. At Fiji, for example, the waters rise with an average of 6 mm every year, while the global average since the start of the 1990s has been about 3 mm per year.

The rising sea-levels are due to several factors. One is because of melting ice at the poles and from mountain glaciers. The other factor is that as water gets warmer it expands. Until now, the oceans have been able to store practically all the heat that has been produced as result of human emissions of greenhouse gases and this heat results in an expanding ocean. (It is uncertain how long time more the oceans will continue to store heat and when more of the heat will stay in the atmosphere and thus accelerate global warming).

A rise of some millimeters every year does not sound like much, but for people living just above sea-level, this change of 3 or 6 cm per decade has an impact. One has to remember that it is not just the average sea-level that counts. At times tides, storms and wind direction are added to the increased sea-levels and result in the sea water reaching much higher inland than normally and creating floods.

This is what people of Kiribati, another island nation north-east of Vanuatu, are experiencing on their coral islands rising only 2-3 meters above the Pacific.

Already, some of its 33 islands regularly have high spring tides that wash away farmland, contaminate wells with salt water and flood homes.

In July 2014, the government purchased 20 km2 of land on one of Fiji’s main islands to be able to resettle its people as Kiribati’s islands disappear into the waves.

Most low-lying islands already have a problem of getting sufficient freshwater. With stronger cyclones and rising seas this will become much more difficult to solve. There will be a great need for plants to desalinate salt water – and for systems to reuse waste water so every drop of freshwater is cleaned and used again.

MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD LIVE IN LOW-LYING AREAS

A 1-meter rise in sea-levels will displace around 5 million people in the South Pacific and 300 coral islands will disappear from the map.

Most of the millions and millions of people who will be affected by stronger cyclones and rising oceans, however, live in Eastern and Southern Asia and in Central and North America. In Bangladesh, where one sixth of the country will be flooded when the sea-levels rise one meter, 15-20 million people will be displaced. In India, the figure is 7 million people, while 10 million people will need to move from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Long before all these people are forced to move, their farm land will be destroyed by salt water – unless salt-resistant varieties of rice or of other crops have been developed by then.

Parts of rich countries are also at risk from combinations of storms and flooding, such as from hurricanes in the US or European winter storms.

In 2014 the floods in Europe, winter storms in the U.S. and typhoons in Asia led to US$ 106 billion in economic losses. This was a “cheap” year. The average annual cost when looking at similar disasters over the last ten years was US$ 188 billion.

Compared to the 1980s, costs related to natural disasters have become four times as high.

Global warming is not only leading to fiercer disasters due to higher temperatures. The recent years have shown how northern countries risk much colder winter periods, such as the costly snow storms seen in the US in 2015. It seems that the warmer Arctic region changes the wind patterns high in the atmosphere with the result that cold Arctic air at times gets much further south than what it used to.

THE RISING COSTS OF CLIMATE-INDUCED NATURAL DISASTERS

In the rich part of the world a large part of these costs are covered by insurance companies – or rather, by the others who are paying the insurance fees, but who have not been hit. But think of the recent floods in Malawi that killed 276 people, made 230,000 homeless and destroyed 64,000 hectares of food crops. They are left to the mercy of emergency aid funds.

The insurance giants, corporations that cover the many smaller insurance companies are getting nervous about the impact of climate change. SwissRe, one of these giants, estimate that if things continue with business as usual, then ever greater natural disasters could cost one fifth of the world economy at the end of the century – creating a totally chaotic and unmanageable situation.

FUNDS TO ADAPT TO A FIERCER WORLD

Nobody can have an interest in such a scenario, and that is also why the governments at the climate summit in Peru in 2014 agreed to the establishment of the Green Climate Fund. It has a goal of obtaining US$ 10 billion annually from now on, and increasing this figure to 100 billion by 2020.

As so often before, agreement in principle is far from actual payment of the funds, and so far only four countries have actually signed contribution agreements. (the Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg and Panama with US$ 80 million).

Compared to other kinds of expenses that rich governments undertake, then this should be no big deal.

Australia gives a clear example. In the wake of cyclone Pam, the government announced it would send at least $5 million of emergency relief to Vanuatu. Fine – and totally appropriate. But in 2014 the same government cancelled a $2 million-a-year package to assist Vanuatu in adapting to climate change that had been instituted by the previous government.

Many World Bank studies have shown that for each dollar that is invested in preventing disaster damages, 4-7 dollars are saved at a later stage.

So the Australians ought to restore the funds for adaptation. They could for example take out a fraction of the $3.5 billion that the government annually pays in subsidies to corporations for fossil fuel exploration – investments that are main drivers of further climate-related disasters.

ADAPTING TO NEW SCENARIOS

The only way forward to minimize the damages from these disasters is that people become prepared for them and that all possible measures to adapt to the new situations are implemented.

As within various other areas, Cuba shows a way of dealing with weather calamities. Being an island very exposed to these, Cubans know what it means to get a direct hit from a hurricane. In 1963, Hurricane Flora killed 1,200 people, and this made the government set up measures to minimize the risks. Besides prevention measures and massive evacuations, a main thing has been community education and thus preparing Cubans from the very earliest years to be alert and take responsibility. This is part of the school curriculum from preschool through university.

This has worked and while the country was hit by 16 major hurricanes in the decade of the 2000s, only 30 people died. This is quite few when comparing to USA and other nations in the region.

The material damages, however, have been great. Just in 2008, three major storms left 600,000 people homeless and resulted in US$ 10 billion in damage. The preparedness of its people shows under such conditions. Before Hurricane Sandy in 2012 became the famous super storm Sandy that hit New York, it struck Cuba where it damaged more than 700 schools. Within days, the students had set up makeshift schools in hundreds of homes to continue their studies.

There is a huge need to prepare for the coming disasters among millions and millions of people at risk. The international community, and especially the rich countries as the ones causing the havoc, must do their part and supply the necessary funds to the poor parts of the world. And in the areas at risk, people, organizations and governments must do their part in ensuring community education and prepare for the coming calamities. For example by starting up some of the fairly low-cost measures that exist, such as:

  • planting trees to protect against strong winds or storm surges,
  • restoring wetlands that absorb floodwater,
  • reducing risk of mudslides with trees, bamboos, vetiver grass and maintaining essential vegetation cover
  • experimenting with crops and crop varieties that are better adapted to the new conditions
  • experimenting with intercropping and mixes of annual and perennial (living more than one year) crops