'The sea is moving in'

“In my community, we blow the conch shell in emergencies, and it means ‘act now!’" says Clerence Tamara, a community leader in Vanuatu. "I would like to blow the conch shell so everyone in the world can hear it, because climate change is an emergency, and to stop it, we all need to act now.” Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

In the small Pacific nation of Vanuatu, Oxfam is helping communities facing storms, drought, and sea-level rise tackle the challenges of a changing climate.

The ocean water around Vanuatu is arresting. First you might think the light turquoise near the beach is the most beautiful color you’ve ever seen, and then you spot a deep blue and a darker turquoise, each more jewel-like than the last. You would be forgiven for just staring. Add volcanic landscapes and gentle breezes, and this island nation in the South Pacific can look like a refuge from everything troubling in life.

But of course it is not.

For starters, when it comes to natural hazards like cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis, Vanuatu is about the most vulnerable in the world (second only to Samoa). A dramatic example was Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 typhoon that hammered the islands in 2015.

“We lost most of our houses,” says Clerence Tamara, a resident of Pele Island. “Our gardens and animals were gone.”

Since then, the quieter depredations of climate change have been eroding a way of life.

“Since Cyclone Pam there has been a lot of drought,” says Nguna resident Phelina Cyrus. “We can’t grow sweet potatoes or taro anymore, and crops like yams and bananas are only growing to half the size they used to. We are harvesting our bananas before they’re ripe because the root crops aren’t ready, and we need something to eat. And because of the droughts, the grasses that used to feed the goats are gone, so we raise fewer goats.”

“Now, we are eating more food that we didn’t grow,” she adds, “so we have less money.”

The coral reefs, which provide a nursery and habitat for fish, are also suffering. “We don’t know what’s causing coral bleaching,” says Meriam Tasaruru, who lives on Nguna, “but we know we have fewer fish to eat.”

In one of the most ominous developments, waves and rising seas are eroding the beaches that once protected their communities.

“The sea is moving in,” says Tasaruru.

Communities taking charge

Life in Vanuatu is on the bleeding edge of climate change. Yet for the most part people here don’t own cars or fly in airplanes, and they often serve up food on banana leaves instead of plastic. The country’s contribution to global carbon emissions, in other words, is minuscule.

While the nations of the world that are responsible for climate change slow-walk their way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Oxfam is calling on governments around the world to take rapid and sustained action to prevent further warming, and to finance the crucial work of helping vulnerable communities adapt to their rapidly changing environment. In Vanuatu, we’ve helped create a diverse network of advocates that are pressing the government to strengthen its internal climate policies and take strong stands in international forums. But we are also giving a hand to communities that are on the front lines of the climate crisis. In the island villages of Vanuatu, we’ve helped establish 50 community-level committees to address disasters and climate change, and we’ve provided them with practical trainings.

“I’ve learned a lot,” says Tasaruru, who attended several workshops. “Like how to alert the community when storms are coming, how to evacuate people from risky places, how to assess the damage, and how to keep water clean during an emergency.”

We’ve worked closely with the national and provincial authorities throughout.

“We have an early warning system for cyclones,” says Ronneth John, who represents Nguna and neighboring Pele islands on a provincial council. “Each of the communities now has an emergency response plan and also a longer-term action plan for reducing risks.”

As part of their new action plan, community members on Nguna come together on an October morning to try something new: plant a special grass along the beach to anchor the sand and soil. Vetiver grass, as it’s called, has very strong roots, and it has proven useful elsewhere on the islands in preventing soil erosion on steep slopes, which in turn prevents mud from blanketing the nearby coral reefs. Whether the grass can survive the sandy, salty conditions closer to shore remains to be seen, but everyone is game to try.

Shifting power and perspectives

Facing down climate change requires all hands on deck, so excluding groups like youth, women, girls, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQI community from leadership or participation is counterproductive in every way. When a plan to build an evacuation center stalled out over issues of leadership, Oxfam offered a set of trainings and discussions to help the community embrace its diversity—and that got the project moving forward again.

“Before the Oxfam training, we didn’t recognize the rights of everyone in our community,” says Tamara.

“Now people have a clearer picture.”

Eddy Maliliu is the Disaster and Climate Change Officer for Shefa Province, a position funded by Oxfam. Reducing risks, he explains, goes hand in hand with reducing power imbalances. “Each community disaster and climate change committee has ten members, including women, men, youth, and people with disabilities.”

The women in leadership are noticing a change.

“Now people in the community give me more respect because they know my role,” says Tasaruru, who chairs her community’s committee.

Tamara, her counterpart on Pele Island, agrees. “As a woman leader, you get challenged and questioned a lot. But women make good leaders, because we think about the whole community. I’ve been going to the Oxfam workshops and briefing my community afterward, and now everyone shows me respect.”

Messages from the front lines

Asked what they would like to say to the fossil-fuel guzzlers of the world, residents were ready to speak out.

“In Vanuatu, we are really suffering from the effects of climate change, but we didn’t cause it,” says Cyrus. “We want to ask the countries responsible to please reduce their emissions before it’s too late.”

“Climate change is destroying our homes and our islands,” says Tamara. “I would like to say, ‘Please stop and think about others.’”

And, says Tesaruru, don’t forget that communities like theirs will need international support to face a dangerous future.

As Tamara wraps up a meeting with visitors, she says, “Climate change is really threatening our community, but now we’re able to take some steps to protect ourselves. It’s not a substitute for stopping climate change, but it’s making a big difference to us.

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