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For Vanuatu's volcano evacuees, the struggle has just begun

Evacuees from Ambae island face challenges around shelter, nutrition and water on Maewo

Father William Bice Qorig (right) shows some of the few vegetables his community has been able to buy. Evacuees from Ambae are facing a shortage of leafy vegetables, and are relying on government provided rice and canned fish for each meal

By Chris Shearer

September 14 2018

This is part two of our special report on the response to the mandatory evacuation of Vanuatu’s Ambae island following dangerous volcanic activity. You can read part one here.

Singing voices drift out from a small church building on the island of Maewo, the words of the hymn clearly audible from the lookout across the road. With the devotional notes at one’s back, a visitor can gaze south west beyond the jungled cliff face and across the tranquil ocean towards Ambae. It’s only a dozen or so kilometres away, and a clear day too, but the island melds into the horizon, a blue-grey protuberance of neither sky nor sea concealed by a drifting veil of volcanic ash. 

A week ago, this was still the home of Vanuatu’s Ambaens. Today, the island has been abandoned by humanity. Beneath thick ash banks the Ambaen’s crops wither and thatched roofs sag or collapse. It’s unknown if they’ll ever be allowed to return, or whether there will be anything left for them to return to. 

The Manaro Voui volcano had been grumbling and belching for months, but the risk of an eruption became so great mid this year that the Vanuatuan Government ordered the 11,000 residents to evacuate. The government wanted them to come here, to Maewo, a thickly-jungled island to the east where subsistence farming is the main way of life. Some 3,500 have, doubling the island’s population in the process. 

Yes, there is space for these people, in tents along the roads, in clearings up the mountains, in village halls and temporary shelters. But there is a lack of resources. For a people forced to evacuate with whatever few possessions they could carry, life has yet to begin again. 

“The biggest challenge we are facing now is our shelter,” says Father William Bice Qorig, the head of an Anglican congregation that used to be based in north Ambae. He gestures at a row of 30 tents erected by the side of the road, where the beach sands meet the tree line. 130 people live here now. Even though they’re shaded for much of the day, they become oppressively hot during daylight hours. The government says it is going to purchase several plots of land on Maewo so the Ambaens can build new villages to call home, but no one seems to know when that might happen. In the meantime, they are reliant on the tents. 

“Living in tents for one or two months is not safe for children, vulnerable people, for all of us living in tents at the moment,” Father Qorig says. He’s particularly worried about what will happen if they are still in these tents when the wet season arrives in November. The chance of them flooding, he says, is very high. 

In its own way though, the island needs the rain. Many Vanuatuans know Maewo as the ‘water island’ due to the numerous streams and rivers that run through the hillsides and down to the sea, but the island is facing a drought. It’s already impacted the crops this year, and now there’s twice as many people to feed. 

The disaster response has been providing the evacuees food, but Father Qorig says it is so basic as to be a nutritional concern. 

“The government assistance to us is only rice and tinned fish. For me, its not quite healthy for children, for elderly people, because in Vanuatu we have greens. We survive by way of gardening. We have vegetables, things like cabbages, banana, but at the moment we don’t have those things with us.” 

“Since we arrived here, the people here were very friendly. They welcomed us here in this far part of the island… [but] they find it very difficult to prepare for 130 people, because their population is only 70 people.”

“They do not have a lot of resources here to provide for 130 people… They don’t have a lot of greens to provide a lot of people here.” 

Access to fresh drinking water is also an issue for Father Qorig's group. While there are wells dotted around the island, it’s a four kilometre round trip from here. The disaster response does deliver carboys of water, but a week after these people arrived five water tanks capable of holding thousands of litres of water still stand empty at the emergency operations centre. Apparently, they are awaiting installation in the new permanent settlements. That could still be months away. 

In the meantime, the Ambaens here will wait. There is little else for them to do until permanent settlements are created. The Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACOM), supported by Anglican Overseas Aid, offers what little support it can, but it is difficult. There are only two small flights to Maewo from Luganville each week, and the boat takes eight hours when the seas are calm. With their current resources, ACOM is struggling to provide for the 6000 Ambaens who have fled to larger island of Espiritu Santo, where there is a greater familial and church presence but no government support for evacuees. 

As traumatic as the evacuation was, for many Ambaens it only marked the beginning of their struggles. 

Anglican Overseas Aid is fundraising to help the people of Vanuatu throughout September. If you would like to donate, please visit their website: www.anglicanoverseasaid.org.au