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Vanuatu won't be the last poor country devastated by climate change inaction

Posted by Mark Goldring Chief Executive of Oxfam GB

24th Mar 2015

Oxfam's CEO Mark Goldring on the effects of Cyclone Pam and what the world can do.

 

As the world keeps warming, it is expected that both the speed of winds and the amount of rainfall associated with tropical cyclones will increase. And as sea levels rise, storm surges and other coastal flooding will only get worse.

The world's poorest people are being hit harder and harder by disasters 

For Vanuatu and other Pacific Island nations, cyclone Pam has been the worst-case scenario: in Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, 90% of the housing has been badly damaged; kids have nowhere to go to school, and the town's hospital was left with no power. In the country's outer islands, where most people live, about a quarter of a million people had little or no protection from the cyclone's 160 mph winds. And if people cannot get clean water and at least temporary toilets very soon, a 'second emergency' could follow from water-borne diseases. That is why the world's focus must be on meeting these urgent needs before any more lives are lost.

At Oxfam, we are already providing trucks of drinking water to people living in the evacuation centres. We are also distributing kits around the capital that include items designed to maintain high levels of hygiene. We have been carrying out assessments on some of the outlying islands and are working with local organisations to support food supplies amid fears that stocks will run out in two weeks

If you would like to give an emergency donation to Oxfam's life saving work in Vanuatu please visit our fundraising page.

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No other city in the world is as exposed to disasters as Port Vila - an unenviable distinction recently recorded by the Natural Hazards Risk Atlas. What makes this all the more tragic is that Vanuatu was doing all the right things to prepare for disasters. Its people, government and all the local organisations with which Oxfam works knew only too well how vulnerable Vanuatu was to typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis.

These efforts were not wasted - setting up cyclone evacuation shelters in advance, for example, saved lives - but they could never have equipped this small country for something as big as cyclone Pam.

Last year, I saw in the Philippines that nothing could have prepared the people there for the power of typhoon Haiyan. Even the US struggled to cope with superstorm Sandy, which struck New York, New Jersey and other states in 2012.

So who or what is to blame? According to Vanuatu's President, Baldwin Lonsdale, climate change has contributed to 'the level of sea rise… the cyclone season, the warm, the rain, all this is affected.'

Whether we will see a greater number of cyclones as a result of climate change is uncertain, but scientists tell us that one thing is clear: those that we do see are likely to be stronger and more destructive.

Take action on climate change 

This is the threat that the people of Vanuatu and millions of people in coastal or low-lying areas will increasingly face. Millions more in other parts of the world will encounter drought, increased flooding and other hazards.

In a 2013 report, the Met Office and Overseas Development Institute said "climate change and exposure to 'natural' disasters threaten to derail international efforts to eradicate poverty by 2030". According to the same study, by 2030 "up to 325 million extremely poor people will be living in the 49 most hazard-prone countries" in the world.

The world's poorest people are being hit harder and harder by disasters. It was so poignant that, as cyclone Pam was tearing across Vanuatu, the world's governments were gathering in Sendai, Japan, to plot a supposedly bold course to reduce the risk of future disasters.

Back in 2005, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the international community agreed a 10-year plan - the Hyogo Framework - to make the world safer from natural hazards like typhoons.

But a decade on, all the measures to reduce the risk of disasters are being overwhelmed by the rising tide of calamities that the world faces. What was needed was a step change in response. That's why I've been arguing for a new framework with ambitious, measurable targets to reduce the risks for vulnerable people, a target really ensures that local authorities and NGOs have the funding, technical capacity and decision-making power to make meaningful changes where they are most desperately needed. But rather than that, the world's governments have agreed only minimal improvements on the Hyogo Framework.

The Sendai Framework will have its value, but it would have had far more value if it had gone further, and if wealthy countries had offered far more financial and technical support to the countries struggling to recover from disasters. Back in 2009, developed countries promised to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to climate change and reduce their emissions. The UK's record on contributing its fair share of that has been good. But global progress is slow, and uncertainty of future finance for this purpose looms large over countries like Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam reminds us again that so much more than money is needed. We must recognise that poorer countries like Vanuatu - with the least responsibility for climate change - are already suffering the devastating consequences of inaction. Like every richer country, the UK must act on this stark fact more than ever before. Whoever finds themselves in Government after 7 May must lead the way in tackling climate change at home and abroad: in the former, by committing to phase out coal emissions from the British economy by the early 2020s; in the latter, by standing strong on the need for new concrete commitments on climate finance at the UN conference on climate in Paris this December.

Join us at Speak Up, For the Love of on 17th June to speak to your MP about action on climate change ahead of the climate talks at the end of the year.

My heart goes out to those whose lives have been devastated in the Pacific. But in my head I know that the challenge of climate-driven poverty, inequality and disasters is likely to get dramatically worse.

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Header Image: Philippe Metois

Blog post written by Mark Goldring

Chief Executive of Oxfam GB

More by Mark Goldring