The critical environmental and sustainability issues of Vanuatu:
- Natural Disasters
Vanuatu is considered to be one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural hazards. For the second consecutive year, it has been rated the country most at risk from natural disasters in the WorldRiskIndex report. Comprising over 80 islands, the country is located on the earthquake-prone “ring of fire” and sits at the center of the Pacific cyclone belt. These hazards result in a high frequency of volcanic eruptions, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surges, coastal flooding, and landslides.The tremors caused devastating landslides and widespread destruction, which impacted more than half a million people. The increased seismic activity of the Ambae volcano in Vanuatu, which began in March 2018, triggered emissions of gas clouds and heavy volcanic ash falls. The eruption left more than 1,400 people displaced in May 2018.
- Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
Most of Vanuatu’s islands have little permanent freshwater and the existing freshwater ecosystems are scattered. Streams, rivers and groundwater are found on the volcanic islands, while lower-lying islands are dependent on groundwater, harvested rainwater or freshwater lenses. Vanuatu’s smallest islands have no surface or groundwater at all. To date, no country-wide assessment of Vanuatu’s water supplies has been undertaken. Outside of urban centres, water supply systems are either poor or non-existent and water quality is sub-standard and prone to contamination, mostly from human and animal waste. In both Port Vila and Luganville, groundwater levels are decreasing as demand for water rises. There is no specific legislation or policy for sanitation in Vanuatu. The Department of Public Health and the Department of Geology, Mines and Water Resources both implement scattered sanitation projects. There are currently no regulations for wastewater management or monitoring and most of Port Vila and Luganville lack sewage and wastewater treatment systems. As a result, waste is usually disposed of via stormwater, directly into water sources or into septic systems that leach contaminants into coastal and freshwater systems.
- Gender Inequality
Vanuatu is one of the three countries in the Pacific (and in the world) with no women in their national parliament. Since independence in 1980, just five women have been elected to the 52-seat legislature. The last two elections, in 2012 and 2016, have seen no successful women candidates. Vanuatu has no sexual harassment legislation in place and in non-compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Vanuatu has an unequal minimum age for marriage – 18 years for males and 16 years for females with parental consent. Three in five women (60%) who have ever been in a relationship have experienced either physical or sexual violence (or both) by a husband or intimate partner. The reason for this is the society that is both traditional and modern and influenced by both customary and modern values. The call to eliminate discrimination against women in Vanuatu began many years ago, but today women continue to experience inequality in the work place and participation in public decision makings. However, there is some progress as women are appointed heads of government bodies and are elected secretary generals and councilors. There is also an increase in the number of women occupying positions in male dominated fields of science, technology and engineering.
- Climate Change
For Vanuatu, the impact of climate change comes in many forms. By 2030, temperatures will increase in Vanuatu by up to 1° Celsius (33.8° Fahrenheit). The sea level has risen by 6 millimetres (0.2 inches) per year since 1993, and will continue to rise to reach up to 18 centimetres (7 inches). At the same time, extreme rainfall events will increase in frequency and intensity, increasing the resulting damages spurred by cyclones, storm surges, landslides, flooding and droughts. Ocean acidification—or carbon pollution that increases the ocean’s acidity—will continue, threatening the health of the island’s reef ecosystems. Cyclones will be less frequent, but more severe, endangering the country’s economy and the population’s livelihood. Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu in 2015, destroyed 96 percent of the island’s food crops. Cyclone Pam, the most powerful cyclone to ever hit Vanuatu, caused economic damage equivalent to 64 percent of the country’s GDP in 2015. The reasons for this are the fossil fuel companies, the financial institutions and the governments that actively and knowingly contribute to the climate crisis.
- Coastal Erosion
Shorelines in Vanuatu have been eroding rapidly due to constant cyclone activities, a serious concern for rural communities. Apart from sea level rise, heavy rainfall leading to coastal flooding and huge waves generated by cyclones contributes to the removal of shorelines. While coastal communities in Vanuatu are vulnerable to erosion, the shorelines are critical to their economy. Shorelines protect communities from erosion and provide habitat for marine lives. The destruction of the shoreline will result in depletion of marine resources. A concern has been raised by the Area Secretary of North Ambrym, Jackson Willie, for local authorities to recognize risk management for future events. Cyclone Oma has uprooted trees along the coast and left homes and infrastructure such as roads and tourism businesses vulnerable.