More help needed in Vanuatu volcanic evacuation crisis

Thousands of Vanuatuans are struggling with resettlement following a mandatory evacuation from Ambae island

Evacuees from Ambae are short of many of the basic neccesities needed to rebuild their lives

PHOTO: Chris Shearer

By Chris Shearer

September 7 2018 


Children skitter in and out of the tents that rise up between the banana trees like giant white mushrooms. It’s sticky in the midday heat, so their parents watch on from the shade of towering trees or hastily erected tarpaulins. Nearby, a tired-looking man burns coconut husks beneath a small, blackened pot. The smoke gives the air a sweet, hazy quality. For a community of 200 people it’s surprisingly quiet. Only a few voices drift out of the around twenty five tents spread throughout the tropical scrubland that makes up the Ban Ban Anglican Church compound. They’ve been here, outside Luganville on the Vanuatuan island of Espiritu Santo, for a week. They don’t know if they’ll ever be able to go home.

These people are just some of the around 11,000 people that have been compulsorily – and perhaps permanently – evacuated from Ambae island, roughly 260km north of the capital Port Villa and 50km east of Luganville, after the Manaro Voui volcano once again began blanketing the island in ash. The population had been temporarily evacuated in September last year when Manaro Voui first began coughing over Ambae, but the danger seemed to pass and the residents went home. But early this year the ash returned, heavier this time, smothering crops and villages. At times the fine grey powder fell so intensely that villagers were forced to use torchlight at midday. Acid rain began to fall. Incidences of skin infections and asthma began to rise. It seemed inevitable that the Ambaens would be uprooted again.

In July, as Manaro Voui showed no signs of simmering down, the government declared a state of emergency on Ambae and ordered the compulsory evacuation of its residents. It wanted them to go to Maewo, an island of about 3000 people roughly only 12km to the east. Maewo, though, is arguably more remote than Ambae, and many residents decided to instead evacuate west, to Santo, where more opportunities might be found in Luganville’s streets or the even along the dusty rural roads. Maybe 6000 Ambaens went west, increasing Santo’s population by 25% in little over a week. But there was no state of emergency declared on Santo, and so no government support for these people who had left their homes and livelihoods behind. They have no choice but scatter throughout the island, staying with family, erecting tent villages on church grounds or finding floor space in the overcrowded evacuation centres.

“While the government is trying to look after the people in Maewo, it doesn’t concentrate on the people here in Santo,” says Ethel George, a member of the Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACOM) who has been helping to coordinate the church’s response to the crisis. She says the greatest needs now are ensuring the evacuees have a steady supply of food, access to clean water, and adequate shelter – especially as the rainy season is not far away. But the resources to provide such basics are in short supply.

“The church is trying to mobilise themselves [but] I can admit that churches do not have the capacity financially, and with facilities as well, to be able to look after these people,” Ethel says.

“We desperately need help from our Australian brothers and sisters.”

The church is now coordinating with the Santo Emergency Operations Centre in an effort to stretch resources and know-how. Stop-gap funding from ACOM recently helped buy almost a week’s worth of food for vulnerable people when the EOC supply ran out.

Recently consecrated Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, Bishop James Tama, says ACOM has been able to provide for some of the community’s basic needs, but much more needs to be done.

“If the government has no plan to for those who have already evacuated to Santo, then there is a question as to how we can help them as a church,” he says. “We need to give them love. We can preach love, we can preach care, but if we have nothing to share with them it doesn’t make sense.”

He hopes more international help will come soon to help deal with the crisis.

“ACOM is depending very much on our church partners overseas, especially AOA [Anglican Overseas Aid] and CAN-DO [Church Agencies Network – Disaster Operations].”

This outside help will need to be ongoing, potentially for years. The thousands of people now in Santo arrived with little to rebuild their lives, often hardly more than a few clothes, cookware, and padded mats to sleep on. In a cavernous, traditionally-built hall that until recently served as Luganville’s tribal chieftain meeting place, an Anglican priest from Ambae looks over hundreds of people’s worth of these meagre possessions. They are his congregation, his flock, his community. When he is asked what he thinks the future holds for them, he begins to sob.

This is part one of a two-part special feature on the unfolding Ambae volcanic crisis. Anglican Overseas Aid will be fundraising to help Vanuatu throughout September.  If you would like to contribute, please visit their website: