Located across the Ring of Fire and at the centre of the Pacific cyclone belt is Vanuatu, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.
At the frontline of disasters in Vanuatu is Mr Augustin Garae, Vanuatu Red Cross’ Disaster Management Coordinator who says being a disaster-prone country means they are very, very busy.
“Here in Vanuatu, we experience many disasters — volcanic eruptions, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surges, coastal floods, and landslides.
“In just the last couple of months, our Red Cross team have been working on responses to Cyclone Hola, a flash flood and now the ongoing eruption of Manaro Voui, the volcano on the island of Ambae.”
Manaro Voui, the active volcano which forms the island of Ambae, has been erupting since September last year, killing crops, polluting the air and water, and forcing people to flee their homes.
Recent eruptions have worsened, food crops and water sources are now severely contaminated.
Heavy ashfall has destroyed homes and is thought to have caused a landslide that ripped through an entire village. Many areas of Ambae are now deemed uninhabitable for the near future.
Most of the 10,000 people who call the island home have fled to a safe spot in the south and some have already left for nearby islands.
Vanuatu Red Cross Chief Executive Officer Jacqueline De Gaillande says it’s a tough and uncertain time for the people of Ambae.
“Dealing with the eruption is one thing, but on top of that people are having to contemplate leaving their homes for some time, not knowing when they can return. Leaving your home – which is your land, your food source, your livelihood and your place of history, culture and community are incredibly difficult.
“Our Red Cross teams have been working with local government helping people of Ambae since the eruptions began in September. We’ll continue to support people in their places of temporary relocation and we’ll be there to help them begin to rebuild their lives when they permanently relocate.”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has released CHF 277,550 from its Disaster Response Emergency Fund to support Vanuatu Red Cross to help up to 5,000 people with relief items such as tarpaulins, shelter toolkits, sleeping mats, blankets, kitchen sets, solar lights, mosquito nets, and hygiene kits.
Red Cross volunteers are also working to keep evacuated communities safe and healthy through awareness activities that focus on water, hygiene promotion and epidemic control.
Mrs De Gaillande says due to the nature of the disaster, they are also focusing on the emotional needs of people on Ambae.
“We will be providing psycho-social support, and distributing pre-paid phone credit cards help families separated during this disaster to stay connected.”
Disaster response starts with community disaster preparedness
In a country like Vanuatu, the local Red Cross plays a vital role, and by local, Jelson Naparau, the Project officer for the International Youth Corporation Project-IYCP means not just the Red Cross headquarters in the nation’s capital, but the Red Cross volunteers spread across the islands.
“In Ambae our volunteers are from within the affected communities on the island, their disaster response training and skills have been invaluable, they are first on the scene, they know what to do. Vanuatu is spread across hundreds of islands, our geography is challenging and it takes time and resources to get places, but our volunteers are already there and ready to respond.”
Augustin says the other misconception is that the Red Cross just responds to disasters.
“We are never just waiting to respond to emergencies, we are always working to be prepared – the best response is good preparedness.
“Preparedness is many things – it is making sure people know what to do in an emergency, making sure they understand weather warnings, making sure they have a safe place to evacuate and know what they need to take with them.”
Leaders in disasters and in happiness
While Vanuatu also leads the world disaster scale, Augustin points out it also leads another global index.
“Vanuatu is often rated as one of the happiest countries in the world!
“While we face a lot of disasters and challenges, we do so with a smile. We are strong, resilient people, with families and communities that work together to get prepared to face disasters together.”