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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
PORT VILA, Vanuatu , Apr 4 2023 (IPS) - One month after the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu was hit by two Category 4 cyclones within three days, food scarcity and prices are rising in the country following widespread devastation of the agriculture sector.
In the worst affected provinces of Shefa and Tafea, the “scale of damage ranges from 90 percent to 100 percent of crops, such as root crops, fruit and forest trees, vegetables, coffee, coconut and small livestock,” Antoine Ravo, Director of Vanuatu’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development told IPS.
Vanuatu is an archipelago nation of more than 80 islands located east of Australia and southeast of Papua New Guinea. More than 80 percent of the population of more than 300,000 people were impacted by Cyclones Judy and Kevin, which unleashed gale-force winds, torrential rain and flooding across the nation on the 1 March and 3 March. Properties and homes were destroyed, power and water services cut, seawalls damaged and roads and bridges blocked.
In the aftermath, many households turned to their existing stores of food and any fresh produce that could be salvaged from their food gardens. But these have rapidly depleted.
In the large undercover fresh produce market in the centre of the capital, Port Vila, about 75-80 percent of market tables, which are usually heaving with abundant displays of root crops, vegetables and fruits, are now empty. Many of the regular vendors have seen their household harvests decimated by wind and flooding.
Susan, who lives in the rural community of Rentapao not far from Port Vila on Efate Island, commutes
daily to the market. “The cyclones destroyed our crops and our homes. We lost a lot of root crops and bananas. Today, I only have half the amount of produce I usually sell,” Susan told IPS. But, faced with the crisis, she quickly diversified and, alongside a small pile of green vegetables, the greater part of her market table is laden with packets of dried food, such as banana and manioc or cassava chips.
Agriculture is the main source of people’s income and food in Vanuatu, with 78 percent and 86 percent of households in the country relying on their own growing of vegetables and root crops, respectively, for food security and livelihoods.
But, as families grapple with increasing food scarcity, they have also been hit by a steep rise in prices for basic staples that are the core of their daily consumption. A cucumber, which sold for about 30 vatu (US$0.25) prior to the disasters, is now priced from 200 vatu (US$1.69), while pineapples and green coconuts, which could be bought for 50 vatu (US$0.42) each, also sell for 200 vatu (US$1.69).
Leias Cullwick, Executive Director of the Vanuatu National Council of Women, said that, in the wake of the cyclones, children were experiencing deprivation and anxiety. “Water is the number one concern [for families] and, also, food. And children, when they want water and food, and their mother has none to give, become traumatised,” she told IPS.
Lack of clean water and contamination by the storms of water sources, such as rivers and streams, in peri-urban and rural areas is also causing illnesses in children, such as dehydration and diarrhoea. Meanwhile, the current wet season in Vanuatu is increasing the risks of mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, Cullwick added.
It will take months for some households to regain their crop yields. “Root crops have been damaged, and these are not crops that you plant today and harvest tomorrow. It takes three months, it takes six months, it will take a while for communities to get their harvests going, so it’s a concern,” Soneel Ram, Communications Manager for the Pacific Country Cluster Delegation from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told IPS in Port Vila. Although, he added that access to food at this time is easier in Pacific cities and towns.
“In urban areas, the main difference is access to supermarkets. People can readily access supermarkets and get food off the shelf. For rural communities, they rely on subsistence farming as a source of food. Now they have to look for extra funds to buy food,” Ram said. In response, the government is organising the distribution of dry food rations to affected communities, along with seeds, planting materials and farming tools.
The Pacific Island nation faces a very high risk of climate and other natural disasters. Every year islanders prepare for cyclones during the wet season from November to April. And being situated on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, it is also prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts that Vanuatu will experience increasingly extreme climate events, such as hotter temperatures and more severe tropical storms, droughts and floods, in the future. And, on current trends, global temperatures could exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming as early as 2030, reports the IPCC.
The impacts of Cyclones Judy and Kevin in the country follow damages wrought by other cyclones in recent years, including Cyclone Pam in 2015, which is estimated to have driven 4,000 more people into poverty, and Cyclone Harold in 2020. And the impacts of the pandemic on the country’s economy and local incomes, especially from agriculture and tourism, since early 2020. Agriculture and tourism are the main industries in Vanuatu, and agriculture, forestry and fisheries account for 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The most important cash crops are copra, cocoa and kava, with copra alone accounting for more than 35 percent of the Pacific nation’s exports. Now the environmental havoc and the sudden decline in international tourist arrivals following the cyclones threaten to hinder the building of recovery in the country.
The government reports that this month’s disasters will leave the country with a recovery bill of USD 50 million. And it predicts that the rescue of the agricultural sector will take years.
“It will take three months for immediate recovery of short-term food production, and six to nine months for mid-term crops, such as cassava, taro, yam and bananas. But it will take three to five years for coconut, coffee, pepper, vanilla and cocoa,” Ravo said.
With climate losses predicted to continue accumulating in the coming decades, the Vanuatu Government remains determined to pursue its ‘ICJ Initiative’, now supported by 133 other nations worldwide. The initiative aims to investigate through the International Court of Justice how international law can be used to protect vulnerable countries from climate change impacts to the environment and human rights.
IPS UN Bureau Report
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