Photo credit: Dave Hunt, CNN
I live a relatively comfy life in London and have no experience of what it feels like to have everything around me destroyed, my family swept away by a flood. And, if having survived, how terrifying it must be to know that there are just a few doctors within reach, the only hospital is damaged and disease is setting in everywhere. With injured people needing urgent medical help, power lines down, land waterlogged and buildings flattened, that’s the grim reality for the inhabitants of Vanuatu at the moment, after Cyclone Pam did the worst damage of any storm in the island’s living memory on 6th March. My friend Erwan is out there right now, trying to help the locals out as much as he can. He says things are absolutely desperate, especially on the remote islands such as Tanna, where people are dying from lack of food and water.
Vanuatu is one of the remotest and most magical places I have ever travelled to, two whole days’ air travel away from the UK to the South Pacific via Australia. I was about 25 at the time, it took me a year-and-a-half to save for the airfare to go and visit Erwan and his girlfriend Laure. It was like going to the ends of the earth, and I will never forget how blown away I was by everything I experienced. The virgin rainforest, the waterfalls, unsullied beaches and coral reef, the volcano on Tanna island chuffing out clouds of toxic smoke. Most of all, I was really humbled by how friendly and unassuming the local people were. I ate homecooked food sat cross-legged on the floor, children sang to me at a church service in the middle of the jungle, and families on the small outlying islands gave me places to stay in their homes. Beautiful, hand-woven straw hats were given to me and my friends by one of these host families – we looked completely ridiculous in them, though. Cheeky kids ran to and fro, teasing me about how ungainly and pale I was (that hasn’t changed)!
I don’t think that the Vanuatu I experienced exists right now. Cyclone Pam’s wind speeds reached over 300 km per hour. The islanders can’t remember any other storm that has wreaked this level of destruction. They anticipated it to some degree, but Pam’s effects have been especially cruel, especially on the smaller islands where people live in traditionally built homes. The capital, Port Vila, which is literally a network of about four main roads, has had many of its buildings flattened. There is no running water, very limited electricity and nearly all phone lines are down. Food is in very short supply, not to mention safe drinking water. Although he understands the challenges ahead, Erwan is frustrated by the slowness of the relief effort, as people are starting to die and there are barely enough doctors or drinking water to meet demand. Trees, rubble, cables and debris have blocked the streets. Vegetation and dead animals are rotting, people are becoming sick from drinking soiled water and infections are rife.
Most people in Vanuatu survive by subsistence farming, growing their own vegetables on their land and in their gardens, but everything has been destroyed and now they have nothing to eat. The capital, Port Vila, has one main supermarket and a few small shops, but that’s it. Supplies are running out. There’s nothing else in the way of shops on the outlying islands as people live in rural communities and grow their own food. Oxfam have been quoted as saying that this is likely to be one of the worst disasters to have ever hit the Pacific islands.
If you have even a spare fiver or ten dollars, PLEASE could you donate something? No matter how small – it really would help the Vanuatu locals get on their feet again. It’s going to take years to put everything right again and rebuild. Solidarité Vanuatu is a charity set up by the people working with Erwan right now in Vanuatu. The money will reach them directly, it won’t get snagged up in lots of red tape. It’s pretty straightforward, and time is of the essence.
If you don’t have any cash to spare, please share this article on your social networks and get the word out, as we all know how quickly the news broadcasters move on to new topics. Thank you – whatever help you can give will truly make a difference.
Donate here: Solidarité Vanuatu