‘No one was prepared’: Vanuatu feels cost of climate crisis

Twin cyclones hit the Pacific island nation already struggling to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stalls along a beach in Vanuatu. The stalls are mostly palm thatch and are selling colourful clothing. There are palm trees behind
Before the pandemic, more than a quarter of a million people visited the Pacific island of Vanuatu [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Port Vila, Vanuatu – On the waterfront in Port Vila, Mark Philips runs an adventure tours business.

He bought U Power Sea Adventures, which guides holidaymakers through the waters surrounding Vanuatu’s capital, in July last year and was excited about its prospects. Then in early March, Cyclone Judy hit and was swiftly followed by Cyclone Kevin.

“Coming out of COVID, it was a bit of a risky thing to do, to buy a tourism business with no one in the country and having lockdowns for three years,” Philips told Al Jazeera. “We were prepared for other lockdowns as well, but no one was prepared for two Category 4 cyclones in a week.”

The island nation of Vanuatu, which is prone to the highest risk of severe natural disasters in the Pacific, faces an initial recovery bill of tens of millions of dollars following the twin cyclones.

A six-month state of emergency was declared after storms ploughed through the archipelago on March 1-3, destroying homes and key infrastructure, including roads, ports and the airport.

More than 251,000 people – 80 percent of the population– found themselves without power and food. Water supplies were patchy.

“We had a tough time during COVID. Everyone was in a very precarious financial position because of the borders being closed for so long but businesses started to reinvest at the end of last year. There was a lot of hope. Then we experienced two cyclones and it has been very damaging,” Joanna Spencer, the development adviser at Vanuatu’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Port Vila, told Al Jazeera.

Simon Troman and Mark Philips on the waterfront at Port VIla standing outside Troman's cafe. The building's shutters are closed and there is furled blue umbrella to their left.
Simon Troman (left), owner of the Café du Village on Port Vila’s waterfront, and Mark Philips, who operates an adventure tours business, U Power Sea Adventures. These two of the many local enterprises that have seen revenues plummet after Cyclones Judy and Kevin [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Tourism accounted for 45 percent of Vanuatu’s gross domestic product (GDP) before COVID hit, with most of the 256,000 international visitors in 2019 travelling from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and United Kingdom.

The country was also a popular stop-over for cruise ships, with passengers using the time to shop at local markets, eat at cafés and restaurants, and explore villages as well as coastal marine life.

But with COVID-19, the cruise ships stopped coming and people like Philips are now grappling with a sharp drop in sales while also needing to repair buildings, boats and equipment.

“For March, we were expecting at least eight to nine cruise ships, but they were all cancelled, so we had zero in the month of March,” Philips told Al Jazeera. “We have tried to do the best we can with reduced hours and opening up when we can, just to keep the business floating.”

Both the wharf and its access road suffered cyclone damage and cruise ships are not expected to return until the end of April.

Local hopes of a jump in tourism during the Easter holiday period, a major holiday in Australia, took a further hit when the only Boeing 737 operated by Air Vanuatu, the national carrier, was stranded with mechanical problems in the Australian city of Brisbane, on March 31. It is yet to resume its international routes.

Philips still faces ongoing expenses.

“We have employees and they have also lost their homes. They need the business to be able to pay them so they can rebuild their homes. We have kept every employee on board from the day of the cyclone to make sure everyone is fed and taken care of,” he said.

Climate vulnerability

Further along Vila Bay, Simon Troman owns Le Café du Village, a popular bar and restaurant. Sitting on his outdoor terrace, Troman said he had seen an 80 percent drop in customers since the cyclones. And he has yet to repair the damage they caused.

“We lost the [veranda] roof completely. We’ve lost all the gates at the front [of the café] and all the signage and the electrics and lighting along the water frontage were smashed,” Troman explained.

“I haven’t totted up what the value of it would be. But another issue is that not a lot of the equipment is available here. So, we are now looking at two to three months lead time to bring things in, which is going to take us into June and July before we’ve got things back in place”, he said.

Rain lashes a Vanuatu market. There is a woman to the left with her back to the camera in a colourful, floral dress. There are stalls in the middle undercover with a few people milling about. The ground is very wet and rain is cascading from the roof.
Extreme weather usually affects Vanuatu during the wet season from November to April [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Vanuatu is located west of Fiji in the southwest Pacific Ocean and on the volcanically active “Pacific Ring of Fire”. It faces a 56.8 percent risk of a natural disaster every year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Nine years ago, Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Lusi and the following year by Cyclone Pam, which caused economic losses of $449m. Then in 2020, Category 5 Cyclone Harold dealt losses to the private sector of 7.58 billion vatu ($64m) and reduced economic growth that year from 3.4 to 0.6 percent.

The government reports that combined economic losses from COVID-19 and Cyclone Harold amounted to 54 percent of the country’s GDP.

A short distance from the waterfront is a large covered market occupied by about 24 handicraft entrepreneurs. Here, 38-year-old Dalida Borlasa started her business, Yumi Up Upcycling Solutions, one year ago, designing fashion accessories with recycled plastics.

During the cyclones, “the market building was damaged, the market tables and display stands were broken and boxes containing our products were thrown across the floor”, Borlasa told Al Jazeera.

“My tears fell when I saw everything we had all worked hard for, all destroyed in three days.”

Borlasa has since conducted a survey of the effect of the cyclones on her fellow vendors and submitted it to the Department of Industry.

The IMF warned in 2018 that extreme climate events posed an increasing threat to fiscal stability, trade balances and economic growth in Pacific Island countries. It also warned that damage to key economic sectors, such as agriculture and tourism, could lead to a loss of government revenues and exports as demands for government spending on reconstruction increased.

Climate damage also risked diverting public finances away from national development, the IMF added.

The warnings have not gone unheeded in Vanuatu, which graduated from the United Nations List of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in 2020.

It has been pursuing hopes of climate justice through its ICJ Initiative, which aims to investigate how international law can be used to protect climate-vulnerable nations through the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The international campaign, now supported by 132 other countries, made a significant step forward on March 29 when the UN voted to task the ICJ with establishing nations’ climate action obligations and clarifying the repercussions if they are not fulfilled.

Cyclones Judy and Kevin hit the country five months after a breakthrough agreement on a global loss and damage fund was announced at COP27 last year. But details about how the fund will work are not expected to be announced until the next UN climate change conference in Dubai later this year.

A floating pontoon and three boats belonging to U Power Adventures on the Port Vila waterfront. There is a big banner covering the roof and advertising the business. Lifejackets are hanging up. The sky is overcast
Mark Philips’s U Power Sea Adventures is gearing up for the return of the international tourists that are vital to his business [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

As Vanuatu waits, the government faces the enormous cleanup bill on its own

It has introduced post-disaster financial and tax relief measures for local businesses but most are banking on a rapid return of tourists to help the country weather the storm.

“We need the tourists to come back now. We are open, we are ready, come on in, because that’s what we need right now. Nobody wants handouts,” Philips declared.

Source: Al Jazeera