Unicef NZ: Climate change and preparing for the coming storm

UNICEF NZ

Climate change sees storms in the Pacific becoming stronger and more common and they are hitting the islands hard.

OPINION: You can't help but stare open-mouthed and goggle-eyed at the Banyan trees of Vanuatu.

They're immense. And spectacular. As much a feature of life on these islands as the Ni-Van people themselves. But one of the other regular features of life in Vanuatu are the tropical cyclones that pound the country.

And it's why the massive banyans are more than a magnificent centrepiece of village life. Because for as long as people have lived on these islands, the trees have been a traditional cyclone shelter.

Children in Vanuatu play in the branches of a village banyan tree.
UNICEF NZ

Children in Vanuatu play in the branches of a village banyan tree.

Vanuatu's people have lived with cyclones for many thousands of years, and the banyans are how they've lived with them. During cyclones, entire villages would wriggle down into the tree's extensive root system, tucking children into the cavities, and waiting out the storm. Even if the tree were uprooted, the entire root structure would come up, leaving those within safely cocooned and protected from flying debris.

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But in 2017 not everyone lives in a village, or has a nearby banyan tree, and even if they did, the effects of cyclones linger for weeks, and months, and sometimes years.

Families shelter inside the Wan Smol Bag Yut Senta in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila ahead of Cyclone Donna.
UNICEF NZ

Families shelter inside the Wan Smol Bag Yut Senta in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila ahead of Cyclone Donna.

Lusi, Ula, Winston, Pam, Cook, and Donna are all tropical cyclones to affect Vanuatu within the last three years. All damaging. Because beyond the winds, the salt spray, and the rain, there are other ways a cyclone can hurt.

In the days after Donna, we bounced our way down a pot-holed dirt road to a small community in Teouma Valley, half an hour outside of Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. There, a small group of families had gathered in an unused kindergarten, fleeing from their riverside homes when the waters began to rise and the winds began to intensify. The solid building meant they were safe and dry while they waited out the storm. But waiting out the lasting effects wouldn't be so easy.

The people we met earn money from growing and selling produce such as yams, ginger, maize, mango, sweet potato and cassava. Vanuatu's rich soils and tropical climate ensure near-perfect conditions for growing crops. But the winds and rains from Cyclones Cook and Donna left trees stripped of their leaves, crops drowning in waterlogged fields, and fruit rotting.

What was previously workable land is now underwater. Crops of papaya and cassava are now struggling to grow in the ...
UNICEF NZ

What was previously workable land is now underwater. Crops of papaya and cassava are now struggling to grow in the waterlogged ground.

"All the bananas the wind destroyed and took down and then the wind swept them away... When you go to our gardens there is nothing there. It's totally bare. It looks like someone has swept the place. As if there was never anything there in the first place."

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Kouia was one of the mothers we met, still sheltering in the kindergarten, and wondering where they could go next.

"Where we live at the bridge the water rose up and wrecked all out things so that there is nothing left standing. All our houses, our kitchens, are all down," she says.

A child outside the kindergarten he lives in.
UNICEF NZ

A child outside the kindergarten he lives in.

The increasing effects of climate change mean the storms that have always been part of the Pacific are becoming more prevalent, more violent, and more likely to develop out-of-season.  Local wisdom says out-of-season cyclones, like Donna, are more unpredictable, making them more dangerous.

It is children who will experience the full impact of climate change. Kouia's daughter Serah, just eight years old, has already lived through three major cyclones.

"During Cyclone Pam my family went to a big school in Port Vila where we took shelter. I was afraid because I could see trees falling down. Now with Cyclone Cook and Cyclone Donna it is very different. My family tried to move to town to take shelter but no transport will take us. We stayed here instead. I see the water rising and I am afraid that the water will take me away."

Papaya trees damages by the winds and rains from successive cyclones means fruit is rotting on the trees.
UNICEF NZ

Papaya trees damages by the winds and rains from successive cyclones means fruit is rotting on the trees.

It's a frightening experience Kouia doesn't want her child experiencing, but she and her family are left with little choice. Escape is no option, when you have no way of escaping, and nowhere to escape to.

"I go to sell my produce at the market in town and at the roadside market just here. I plant kumala [sweet potato], manioc [cassava] and island cabbage but with Cyclone Donna the water has taken all of my crops," says Kouia.  "There is nothing right now. There is nothing. Right now we are just eating the cassava damaged by Cyclone Pam and all the water. But once the cassava has rotted there is nothing there to eat."

With no crops, Kouia has no income. With no income, she has no idea how she can continue to pay for her children's time at school.

Children and their families outside the kindergarten they live in.
UNICEF NZ

Children and their families outside the kindergarten they live in.

That's where UNICEF can assist - offering educational support alongside Vanuatu's government, providing clean water and medication, and ensuring that people have the tools to help them back to their feet.

At the kindergarten, arrangements were made for Engineers Without Borders to fix the failing water purifier, and a member of UNICEF's team would stop by to check the children's medical and educational needs were being met.

It's relatively straightforward stuff, but reducing the impact of climate change is far more difficult.

The wet dirt road leading to the children's home.
UNICEF NZ

The wet dirt road leading to the children's home.

So what can we do? At the very least, we can ensure people living in the developed world are aware of what a difference climate change is making to the lives of people like Kouia and Serah.

Rising sea levels, more frequent droughts, increasingly violent storms, and disrupted weather patterns mean millions upon millions of people are under threat from economic impact of climate change, as much as environmental impact.

And for so many people, the days of weathering the storm within the reassuring roots of the village banyan tree, are well and truly gone.

This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ. UNICEF stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. 

Find out more at unicef.org.nz

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