Western developed countries are the most significant contributors to climate change. Yet, the most affected by climate change are small and developing countries such as the small Pacific country of Vanuatu. The Republic of Vanuatu is an archipelago of islands located northeast of Australia in the Pacific Ocean. Tourists travel there from all over the world – from neighboring Australia, China, and France – to enjoy Vanuatu’s warm, beautiful beaches. When you are enjoying your holiday in this beautiful country, you will be oblivious to the dangers that the native population faces because of climate change. With a small population of nearly 300,000, Vanuatu is listed as one of the lowest emitters of CO2 – one of the main contributors to climate change, yet, it is bearing the brunt of climate change (Nanettew Climate Change Resilience 2020). How has climate change impeded the economy and culture of Vanuatu? How has it affected the livelihoods of Vanuatu people? These are the questions that will be addressed in this piece.
A Very Brief and General Overview
General insight into Vanuatu’s history and the economy is necessary to understand how climate change has undermined peoples’ way of life and the state itself. In 1980, Vanuatu gained independence from colonial Anglo-French powers who had controlled the Islands since the early twentieth century (Government of Vanuatu 2021). Following independence, Vanuatu became a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations, including Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, Cyprus, Nigeria, and Rwanda. The form of government is what is known as a parliamentary democracy. Since 1994, Vanuatu has been divided into six provinces, each governed by small provincial councils (Government of Vanuatu 2021). These councils collect taxes from locals, have established local by-laws, and provide essential services for their constituencies.
Vanuatu has a small economy held up mainly by tourism, the sea, and agricultural practices. Vanuatu’s economy also relies on imports and exports. This country is self-sufficient enough to produce fish, fruits, vegetables for its population. Vanuatu’s significant importance includes refined petroleum, delivery trucks, poultry meat, and broadcasting equipment (The Observatory of Economic Complexity 2019). Imports come from Australia, China, Fiji, and New Zealand (OEC 2019). As it is an island state, Vanuatu’s main exports come from the sea. Some of its exports include perfume plants, Fish fillets, and non-fillet frozen fish (OEC 2019). Vanuatu exports go to countries located mainly in Southeast Asia – China, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand (OEC 2019).
There are no metropolitan cities in Vanuatu. Port Vila, the capital, has flourishing streets with a range of clothing and equipment stores. There are also markets where natives sell their fruits, fish, and veggies to local and foreign customers. All basic needs can be met in Port Vila, such as banking, phone credit, wi-fi, supermarkets, etc. Moreover, there are several beach resorts located around the capital where tourists enjoy their visit. The native population lives in small villages in different parts of Vanuatu. So, compared to neighboring Australia, Vanuatu cannot combat the effects of climate change on its own.
Effects of Climate Change on Land, Community, and Culture
As mentioned before, Vanuatu is made up of islands, more specifically volcanic islands; hence, earthquakes and severe conditions of weather which could be cyclones or long periods of rain, have frequently struck in Vanuatu. The issue is that climate change has exacerbated these extreme conditions of temperature. In 2015, the United Nations University (2015) conducted a study and found that Vanuatu has the highest natural disaster risk out of all the studied countries. In March 2015, Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam hit the Islands of the South Pacific Ocean, categorized as one of the worse natural disasters in Vanuatuan history, destroyed the infrastructure of many villages, and severely impacted the country’s economy (ILO Disaster Preparedness and Response 2015). Along with the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and New Zealand, Vanuatu was severely affected by the storm, regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in the county’s history. Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, Harold’s second-worst cyclone tore up several Pacific Islands, including Vanuatu, in April 2020 (McGarry 2020). All in all, Vanuatu did not get enough time to recover from Cyclone Pam, and with another devastating cyclone that occurred just in the previous year, it has not recovered at all.
Small Vanuatuan communities living near the ocean are in danger of being submerged by water. Jeffrey Daniel lives in a small village called Marrow on the tiny island of Emao less than 70 meters wide – one of the minor islands in Vanuatu, claiming that the land he lives on was twice as vast as it is currently (The New Humanitarian 2021). Moreover, the patch of land where Daniel used to play soccer as a child with friends has since been submerged by the water where there are only floating boats. Marrow village has left and relocated to Port Vila to seek better opportunities (The New Humanitarian 2021). This is the case with many coastal Vanuatuan communities, given the increasing danger of climate change.
Climate change has also impacted different avenues of Vanuatu’s economy, increasing the migration or relocation of Vanuatuan people from lands they have lived in for generations. Reports have demonstrated that the powerful storms that usually tear through the Pacific are becoming even more chaotic and unpredictable (The New Humanitarian 2021). Extended droughts make staple crops harder to grow, and the food becomes more expensive (The New Humanitarian 2021). The loss of income drives migrating away from lands that have supported families for generations.
“Languages are foundational to identity; the principal means for conveying a community’s culture and heritage” (Minority Rights Group International 2019, 132).
The relocation of small village communities puts indigenous languages at risk as well. Language is arguably the essence of any culture. Vanuatu has over 100 indigenous languages, considered the most significant number globally, with a population of almost 300,000 people (MRG 2019, 130). Given these statistics, Vanuatu is believed to be the most linguistically diverse country in the world. These numerous indigenous languages exist predominantly in the small villages that are directly being affected by climate change. Vanuatu has three official languages English, French, and Bislama, and these languages are not at risk from climate change. English and French are predominantly used in education and business. Whereas Bislama is “a creole based on grammatical structures from local Melanesian languages but with vocabulary primarily from English,” it is increasingly becoming the primary spoken language in Port Vila (MRG 2019, 131). As people relocated from small villages that were so isolated that they did not rely on outside interaction and indigenous languages flourished to Port Vila, the use of indigenous languages might significantly decrease as they will probably adopt Bislama as the primary instrument of communication.
Ahead of the COP26 in November, Vanuatu plans to ask the International Court of Justice to issue an opinion on the rights of present and future generations from the dangerous effects of climate change (Surma 2021). The Vanuatuan government gave out a statement, “in response to the catastrophic levels of climate change loss and damage faced by the small Pacific nation, Vanuatu recognizes that current levels of action and support for vulnerable developing countries within multilateral mechanisms are insufficient” (Reuters 2021). Furthermore, Vanuatu plans to form a coalition with other Pacific Islands and vulnerable nations to amplify their initiative (Reuters 2021). The Vanuatuan prime minister Bob Loughman points out that “the issues are increasingly beyond the control of individual national governments and international cooperation is therefore essential for Vanuatu and other small island developing states to combat the threat of climate change” (Reuters 2021). The effects of climate change are devastating and will only worsen if the global community adopts no combative plans to revert the consequences of climate change somehow. Vanuatu is only one example of a country being overwhelmed by climate change, but many others are.
Humanitarian Content Writer, Act for Displaced
I am passionate about justice and human rights. Growing up in Lebanon, I had a keen awareness for the Palestinians, the violence they have suffered at the hand of Israel and the continuous dispossession they face every single day.