Impacts of severe storm may result in weeks of hunger for Vanuatu

By Niina Heikkinen | 03/23/2015 08:31 AM EDT

The record-strength Tropical Cyclone Pam moved beyond Vanuatu a week ago, but the devastation wrought by its strong winds, heavy rains and flooding will continue to cause shortfalls in the South Pacific island nation’s food supplies for weeks to come, according to a preliminary report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

FAO’s initial rapid assessments of agriculture in four of the country’s six provinces found widespread damage to crops, livestock and fishery infrastructure. The Category 5 tropical cyclone stripped fruit trees bare and destroyed most of Vanuatu’s bananas, coconuts and leafy vegetables, as well as its staple root crops. Many of the country’s smaller animals, like pigs and chickens, were also killed.

Destruction of Vanuatu’s agricultural sector will have a widespread impact on the population. In a country of more than a quarter-million people, at least 80 percent rely on subsistence farming, said Daniele Donati, the head of FAO’s Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division.


Almost all residents of the country’s outer islands depend on local crops for food and income, and three-quarters of residents in the capital city, Port Vila, consume produce they grow themselves. Nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product comes from agriculture.

Since the cyclone hit, even reserves of harvested food have been destroyed, increasing the risk of food insecurity.

Food for 8,000 families; 30,000 are in need

"About 30,000 families are badly affected and are in need of assistance," Donati said. "The government has resources for 8,000 [families]. We have to appeal to donors, even though their attention is focused on a number of very important areas like Nigeria, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine. Having timely assistance for all is very difficult."

In response to the situation, Vanuatu Minister of Agriculture David Tosul urgently called for food aid delivery through the end of June, at which point fast-growing replacement crops could be harvested. He also requested $2 million in financial aid to help purchase goods to deliver to the islands most affected by the storm.

In addition to immediate imports of food aid, the country needs seeds, fishing boats, farming and fishing equipment, as well as expert help to re-establish agricultural production. FAO is working with the Vanuatu Food Security and Agriculture Cluster to coordinate efforts across agencies and nongovernmental organizations that are working to protect food security.

"Supporting Vanuatu after the disastrous cyclone begins with emergency agricultural assistance that FAO will provide together with the Government of Vanuatu and other partners but can only end when full recovery is achieved and Vanuatu has increased its resilience to extreme weather events that are bound to occur again," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva in a statement.

The destruction in Vanuatu is just the latest example of how devastating natural disasters are to agricultural sectors in poorer nations.

Earlier this month, an FAO report provided a rough estimate of how much crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry in developing countries were hurt by medium- to large-scale disasters. The researchers evaluated 78 post-disaster assessments of 48 countries from 2003 to 2013.

On average, the agricultural sector in developing countries experienced 22 percent of the total economic impact from disasters ranging from droughts and floods to earthquakes and tsunamis at a cost of $30 billion.

When researchers looked at climate-related disasters such as drought, flooding and tropical storms, a quarter of damages were in the agricultural sector. Drought was especially problematic, causing 84 percent of losses.

Most humanitarian aid not focused on agriculture

At the same time, 3.4 percent of all humanitarian aid focused on agriculture.

Since damages to different sectors are not typically calculated individually, it hadn’t been evident how significantly agriculture had been affected. The report called for more detailed data collection in order to better prepare for future disasters.

Whether or not climate change will lead to increases in tropical cyclone activity is still unclear, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Many experts agree that Pacific Island nations like Vanuatu will continue to be especially vulnerable to an increasingly variable climate and rising seas.

Despite the level of destruction in Vanuatu, Gavin Wall, FAO’s subregional coordinator for the Pacific, said that communities are already beginning the rebuilding process.

"We know that Vanuatu communities have long-standing traditional coping mechanisms to address immediate food needs and resume their agricultural production. FAO must ensure its interventions support their work and address the long-term rehabilitation of the agricultural sector," said Wall in a statement.

A complete assessment of damage to Vanuatu is expected by the end of this week. Until then, FAO will continue to provide provisional seed, fishing gear and some veterinary services, FAO’s Donati said.