Photo of the devastation in Vanuatu. Source: BBC.
Cyclone Pam made short work of Vanuatu's 83 low-lying islands. Wind gusts of up to 300kph devastated homes and vegetation, flinging roofs off houses and ripping trees into shreds. A state of emergency was declared. The southern island of Tanna was particularly badly affected, and the vast majority of homes in the capital Port Vila were severely damaged, along with key infrastructure such as the hospital and airport. The cyclone has taken at least 24 lives and displaced half of the entire population of 253,000. People have had to abandon their home villages and are taking shelter in church halls and school buildings. This is a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions. Even though Vanuatu is no stranger to tropical storms, Cyclone Pam is thought to be the biggest the island nation has seen, and one of the deadliest to have ever struck the Pacific region. According to Chloe Morrison of World Vision, speaking to New Zealand Herald reporters,
"Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world... and this still shocked them."
John Key in Vanuatu, 2010.
- Check the safety of people including New Zealanders
- Restore basic services
- Look towards long-term development
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has detailed more of the government's plans for the rebuild. $1m of the additional $1.5m will be given to NGOs providing humanitarian relief, whilst the other $500,000 will be spent on technical assistance and supplies. Mere hours after the cyclone had passed, a New Zealand Defence Force flight travelled to Vanuatu from its base in Tonga to begin investigations of the damage. Two more flights set off yesterday, carrying defence force personnel, Red Cross staff and humanitarian supplies.
Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale (left) in Japan.
Source: Herald Online.
Back in Vanuatu, organisations such as Red Cross, World Vision, CARE International and UNICEF have deployed health, logistics and communications staff to help with disaster relief. The current aim for the agencies is to assess the extent of the damage, work out how best to respond, and get started distributing emergency supplies.
Kiwis being flown back from Vanuatu by the New Zealand Defence Force.
Source: New Zealand Defence Force via Newstalk ZB.
It is a difficult environment to operate in logistically. Vanuatu is made up of a large number of islands, and the challenge of providing assistance across the nation is complicated by the fact that communication lines are down. Some areas are experiencing blackouts and others have limited reception. Whilst all aid agencies are trying to achieve similar tasks, there are differences in focus for each organisation. World Vision reports that its first concern is the children of Vanuatu. UNICEF New Zealand highlights the importance of providing measles vaccines to stop the spread of infection at this vulnerable time. CARE International stresses the importance of providing medical supplies, especially given that the central hospital is damaged and out of power.
Some of the devastation that aid workers have been confronted with.
The situation is dire, but the people of Vanuatu are doing their best to pull through. According to Tom Perry of CARE International, (as reported by Radio NZ), the mood is "still very calm," and even though they are worried about friends and family, the people of Vanuatu are focused on piecing the island back together. But will the people of Vanuatu stoically overcome the disaster and rebuild their lives, only to have another freak cyclone come ripping across the nation a few years later? Is Cyclone Pam, terrible as it is, only the harbinger of what is to come - all thanks to climate change?
Does our imagination run wild when we think about climate change?
Image source: The Telegraph.
It is the opinion of Baldwin Lonsdale that climate change is partly to blame for the latest cyclone. In his Japan speech, the President of Vanuatu said: "We see the level of sea rise: the cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected... this year we have more than in any year. Yes, climate change is contributing to this." The President of Kiribati agreed, "for leaders of low-lying islands atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights..."
But is it correct to suggest that climate change contributed to Cyclone Pam? I'm not a science student, but I am a law student, and if you ask me the answer would depend on how exactly you define the word "contributes"... But such semantics are beside the point. What is important to note is that the reality is not as straightforward as we might like. There is simply not enough evidence currently to figure out whether or not climate change brought about, or exacerbated, this particular cyclone. Scientists are naturally very cautious about drawing such conclusions, because results would have ripple effects throughout the scientific and public policy world.
The New Zealand Science Media Centre is an organisation which seeks to contribute to well-informed public discussions on matters related to science. I would highly recommend having a look at its website. The Centre puts out media releases, digs up pseudoscience and suggests experts for journalists. It was through this Centre that I was put in touch with Dr James Renwick of Victoria University of Wellington's School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. Dr Renwick was happy to talk to me and answer my questions. I asked if Cyclone Pam could be caused by climate change.
Dr James Renwick - climate expert at Victoria University.
Image source: Victoria University.
"The thing to understand is that we can't yet link one isolated event to climate change," Renwick explained. "It isn't certain whether or not we are experiencing more tropical cyclones; you'll find arguments for and against this. What is certain is that our atmosphere and oceans are getting increasingly warm in most locations.
"But many factors - more than just sea and atmospheric temperatures - control tropical cyclone strength. The composition of the atmosphere is one, the structure of winds is another. And of course it depends which statistics you look at as to whether or not you see a trend...
"So it's not clear at the moment if climate change will result in more cyclones, or even in more intense cyclones. We might get the same number and intensity of cyclones, but the one thing we can be sure of is that climate change will help these cyclones cause more damage. They would carry more rain with them since a warmer atmosphere contains more moisture, leading to more flooding, and higher seas would bring about stronger sea swells and a greater risk of coastal inundation."
Dr Renwick's comments were consistent with observations by UK academics recorded on the Science Media Centre's website. According to Dr Nick Klingaman of the University of Reading, (my italics) "The latest projections suggest that climate change will reduce the total number of tropical cyclones in the South Pacific, though the average intensity of those that do form may be stronger than at present. In a warmer world, rising sea levels and more intense tropical cyclones may increase the damage caused by an individual cyclone, even if the overall number of tropical cyclones decreases."
The Greens reckon we must address the root cause of disasters.
According to Myles Allen of Oxford University, "basic thermodynamics means that a warmer atmosphere... makes more intense cyclones possible... But this does not mean cyclones have necessarily become more likely. The latest assessment of the IPCC stated explicitly that there is no clear evidence at present for any human induced increase in tropic-wide cyclone frequency. Other factors such as sea-level rise will exacerbate any storm's impacts. Some of the observed sea level rise in this region, but probably not all, can be attributed to human-induced global warming...The science isn't there yet, but we are getting there."
Whether or not the science is there or not hasn't stopped the Green Party from getting their penny's worth on the issue. Dr Russell Norman has stressed that the New Zealand government must do more than just providing aid, it must also address the underlying causes behind the problem. On Monday Norman argued, "while solidarity and post-disaster assistance are normal, we must remember that it only goes so far if governments are not willing to proactively work on climate change... The Green Party would also like to see the government use this opportunity to develop a strategy around climate change refugees and help the people of Vanuatu."
The issue of climate change refugees is a terrible and fascinating one which will have to be the topic of a future blog post. For now it is interesting to note the international response to this question on the link between climate change and 'natural' disasters. The situation seems clear enough in the mind of Ban Ki-Moon, with the Secretary General of the United Nations making this telling comment at the summit in Japan:
"Climate change is intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas... What we are discussing here is very real for millions."
How long will it take for Vanuatu to rebuild?
Source: Island Escapes.
It remains to be seen how these important discussions will play out in the public forum. I notice that bloggers in New Zealand and abroad are already writing opinion pieces on the topic, some of which quickly become very emotive. In the interests of time I won't refer to these articles today, but you can google them yourself if interested.
What I do want to finish with today is a reflection on how society is so interlinked. I found this comment by Dr Ilan Kelman of University College London on the Science Media Centre's website: "A cyclone itself does not create a disaster. There must be vulnerability also." If you ever look at Helen Clark's twitter account (the former PM produces a steady stream of thought-provoking tweets and selfies at international conferences), you'll see the link between development and resilience come up time and time again. To reduce the impact of disaster, we need people to be educated and financially secure, and to have flexibility to responding to crises. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and a lack of access to quality infrastructure and support services are literally a recipe for disaster.
Climate change also must be factored into the mix. Although the science is inconclusive on exactly how climate change will impact us, the great bulk of evidence suggests that it is happening and that people already vulnerable to disasters will (continue to?) be hit hard unless we take action. We don't want climate change to undo the progress we are making in many areas of development and poverty-alleviation around the world.
Sources for this post:
- Radio New Zealand
- New Zealand Herald
- The Guardian
- The Independent
- Deutsche Welle
- New Zealand Red Cross
- CARE International
- UNICEF New Zealand
- World Vision New Zealand
- Science Media Centre