By Tom Perry, CARE Australia
When people talk about the South Pacific and countries like Vanuatu, they often use words like ‘idyllic’, ‘relaxed’ or ‘peaceful’. And yes, there are plenty of parts of the South Pacific that fit those descriptions. Yet Cyclone Pam has, for at least a little while, changed the world’s image of Vanuatu. Images of lush green islands and cosy lagoons, usually in the newspaper’s Travel section, have been replaced by photos of homes that have been flattened by the worst natural disaster to hit the region in recorded history.
But for those who know the Pacific, it’s far more complex than the postcards would suggest. The Pacific is tough. Getting from one part of a country like Vanuatu to another can take weeks. Boats are completely unreliable and dangerous. Petrol – the lifeblood of travel in the Pacific – is extraordinarily expensive, and plane flights are reserved for the lucky few that can afford them. This makes getting to everyday essentials - clean water, markets to buy and sell food, schools or medical clinics – a huge task.
Yet people of Vanuatu are adaptable, tough and fiercely proud of their way of life. They’ve used the knowledge of their ancestors to grow, cultivate and market international-quality crops and livestock in some of the toughest terrains on the planet. They’ve pushed phone companies to expand into areas that are unlikely to be commercially viable because they know, better than most, how important a simple cyclone or tsunami warning SMS can be for communities that are a 10 hour boat ride from others.
This toughness, this resilience, is one of the most remarkable stories of Cyclone Pam. Within days of the cyclone hitting, people were out in the street, many on empty stomachs and with little water, lifting destroyed iron sheets into piles and chopping away at timber.
I arrived in the Vanuatu capital Port Vila on Sunday 15 March, and with Cyclone Pam’s winds and rains still lingering in the south of the country, there was a darkness, both literally and emotionally, that was hard to miss. The airport was still officially closed; it looked like it’d been bombed. Yet within 24 hours, the roads were full of people lining up for petrol and chopping at trees strewn across their path.
The energy to get on with recovery and rebuilding was everywhere, and it was infectious. When I was passing through Port Vila’s Freshwota area four days after the storm, I stopped to see a family pulling apart a 20-metre wide structure made of iron and timber. Robert, the elderly man who was leading the charge, told me that it was the entire roof of the nearby government building that had blown 100 metres through the air, and that sitting underneath it was the flattened shell of his former home.
Shocked, I put my arm on Robert’s shoulder and asked if he was ok.
“Well,” Robert told me with a half-smile. “It’s not too bad. Now I have some great new materials for my new home.”
And this remarkable positivity – this resilience – is reflected across the country. On Tanna Island in the south, I met many people who, despite being hungry, thirsty and exhausted, weren’t cursing Mother Nature or getting angry at the size of the food rations they were receiving. They were up and about, carefully managing what food and water stocks they had while offering to help our hygiene, shelter and food delivery teams get help to others as quickly as possible.
It’s been a remarkable thing to witness and be part of, and hardly fits the laissez-faire stereotype of the Pacific. The “island time” clichés that many people assume are the norm have been dismissed and replaced by energy, strength and endurance.
Yet make no mistake, despite this resilience, Cyclone Pam has been a massive disaster for the people of Vanuatu. It has destroyed 15,000 homes, left much of the country without food or clean drinking water, and blown away around 90 per cent of the country’s crops.
This disaster needs, and will continue to need, a massive response from the international community. If you can chip in to support the people of Vanuatu, then I urge you to do so, because while resilience is important, it doesn’t buy rice, it doesn’t buy water filtration systems and it doesn’t buy materials for a new home.
Those are the things that we can provide, and help give the people of Vanuatu a well-deserved hand to rebuild their lives.