Climate ‘tragedy’: Vanuatu to relocate ‘dozens’ of villages

Vanuatu is developing plans to resettle ‘dozens’ of villages over the next two years as they transition rising sea threatthe head of the climate service for the Pacific region told AFP on Thursday.

Climate Change Minister Ralph Regenvanu said combating the effects of global warming is a major challenge facing the 300,000 Vanuatu who live on the chain of islands that stretches between Australia and Fiji.

Regenvanu said the response will inevitably involve the relocation of long-established communities from coastal areas where climate change is causing sea levels to rise and more severe storms.

He said the Vanuatu government has identified “dozens” of villages in “risk areas” for relocation “within the next 24 months”, while other settlements are also earmarked for longer-term relocation.

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“Climate displacement of the population is the main feature of our future. We have to be prepared for this and plan for it now,” said Regenvanu, who took over the ministerial portfolio after early elections in October.

“It will be a huge challenge and a huge tragedy for many people who will have to leave the land of their ancestors to move to other places, but this is the reality.”

Vanuatu and climate change

Low-lying Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu are already experiencing the effects of climate change.

Half of Vanuatu’s population was affected when Cyclone Pam hit the capital Port Vila in 2015, killing a dozen people, destroying crops and leaving thousands homeless.

According to the annual World Risk Report, Vanuatu is considered one of the countries most prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and tsunamis.

Other Pacific nations are also seeking to relocate endangered communities, including Fiji, where dozens of villages have been earmarked for relocation due to the effects of the climate crisis.

Scientists predict that sea levels in the Pacific Ocean will rise by 25 to 58 centimeters (9 to 22 inches) by mid-century.

This is a devastating prospect for Vanuatu, where about 60 percent of the population lives within a kilometer of the coast.

– All kinds of threats –

Regenwanu wants to strengthen the coastal defenses.

“Our biggest challenge right now in Vanuatu is basically keeping our people safe,” he said.

“We are increasingly discovering that our people are exposed to all sorts of threats from volcanoes, floods, cyclones and so on.

“Therefore, we must now focus on relocating populations and building resilient infrastructure to keep our people safer in the coming years.”

Vanuatu already has the experience of moving its people.

In 2005, it was one of the first Pacific countries to relocate the entire community on the northern island of Tegua from a flood-prone coastal zone to higher ground.

And in 2017, all 11,000 people living on Ambay, an island in the north of the country, were ferried to other islands in an armada of boats after the Manaro Vui volcano erupted, raining rocks and ash down on the villagers.

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Vanuatu’s parliament declared a climate emergency in May, and its government is seeking to accelerate global action by leading efforts to take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Regenvanu attended the UN COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh last month, where a landmark deal was struck to help vulnerable countries cope with climate change by providing a “loss and damage” fund.

Countries participating COP27 reiterated its commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels, but Regenvanu said the pledges didn’t go far enough.

“In essence, there is not enough commitment to reduce emissions,” he said.

“And so we’re going to see a temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees, which we know will be disastrous for the Pacific – we have to focus on adaptation and especially loss and damage.”