Insight for 24 May 2015 - Vanuatu & Tussles over Cyclone Aid

From Insight, 8:12 am on 24 May 2015

In March, Cyclone Pam ravaged Vanuatu. Its 360 kilometre per hour winds wreaked havoc on the Pacific island archipelago leaving 11 dead, more than 90,000 people homeless and a damage bill of $600 million.

Insight takes a closer look at the power play behind the relief effort.

Women seek refuge from the scorching sun. With no leaves on the trees and no roofs on their houses, exposure to the elements was a major concern.

People seek refuge from the scorching sun after Cyclone Pam devastated their island Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

Listen to Insight - Vanuatu & the Tussle over Cyclone Aid:

People siftng through rubble tried to sort things in to piles of what was reusable and what was not. The latter they burned.

People salvaged what they could after the cyclone struck Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

It was only a few days after the cyclone they called the Monster had swept through Vanuatu.

I was accompanying a group of local business people who'd decided to club together, load up their barge and get food and water out to some of Vanuatu's more remote islands.

There was no way to reach the beach so the Epi Dream captain dropped the ramp on the barrier reef precariously holding the barge in position and away from the dangerous coral.

The Epi Dream at work Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

As we pulled into a bay in the Shepherds group in Vanuatu's north, we came across a gleaming super yacht, the Dragonfly, at anchor.

Dragonfly at anchor off Erromango while relief crews go ashore.

The Dragonfly anchors in the remote Shepherd Islands Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

Curious and hoping for an internet connection so I could file my stories, our barge pulled up alongside.

Instead of wealthy yachties soaking up the tropical sun and feasting on delicacies, I found a crack team of medics, engineers and technicians, busy ferrying thousands of litres of water they had desalinated and purified via the yacht's on board system to villagers waiting on the beach.

The Dragonfly, 73m top speed 27knots range 4300 nautical miles. One of the villagers in the Shepherd Islands said too him it was like a floating City had arrived.

"A floating city has arrived," said one Shepherd Island villager Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

"When the storm hit, we as a crew and fortunately, supported by the owners, felt that there was no better team to come down and help, providing aid, search and rescue, delivering water, delivering food and just trying to do as much as we can to help the people of Vanuatu," said the Dragonfly's skipper, Mike Gregory.

The owners weren't on board and did not want their identity revealed.

The multi-skilled and multi-national team included ex-navy seals who were running the logistics, a "smoke-jumper", doctors and water purification experts.

Lucas a US Pararescue Medic running one of the emergency health clinics, this one was at Lamen Island North Epi.

Lucas a US Pararescue Medic running one of the emergency health clinics, this one was at Lamen Island North Epi. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

They were all brought together by the Dragonfly owners to deliver aid and provide an essential emergency response to Vanuatu's subsistence communities, most of whom had not received aid more than a week after the cyclone.

I left the barge and joined the team.

As a speaker of the local Bislama, I found a useful role translating for the crew as we made contact with the villages.

Koroi Hawkins (left) with Chief Ben Lovo of Erromango

Reporter Koroi Hawkins (left) with Chief Ben Lovo of Erromango who said he was able to warn people to take shelter a few hours before Pam made landfall by listening to Radio New Zealand International. Photo: RNZI

Over 12 days we traveled from the Shepherd Islands in the north right through to Tanna in the south.

It was going on two weeks since the cyclone and everywhere we went we found people in desperate need of help.

A widow and her granddaughter, in front of what used to be their home, Shepherd Islands.

A widow and her granddaughter, in front of what used to be their home, Shepherd Islands. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

Some villages were in a worse state than others but the core needs were the same - water, food, shelter and medical supplies.

But Captain Gregory said it had not been easy getting the green light.

He said he had to first convince Vanuatu's disaster authorities they had a limited time to utilise his huge resource, a vessel with a 4500 nautical mile range and 27 knot capability to speed around the far flung islands.

Military Aircraft from New Zealand, Australia and France were the first to reach Vanuatu after the cyclone as the airports Navigations Aids were destroyed by the cyclone.

Military aircraft from New Zealand, Australia and France were the first to reach Vanuatu after the cyclone Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

Back in the capital Port Vila fast arriving international aid was being stacked and stored in warehouses.

Vanuatu's disaster management plan had kicked in led by the Vanuatu Disaster Management Office (NDMO), and all organisations had been banned from distributing their relief supplies until its disaster assessments were carried out.

Vanuatu Red Cross workers load relief supplies brought in on a NZAF Hercules. Much needed tarpaulins, water containers and health and sanitation kits were being stored until further notice was given from the NDMO

Vanuatu Red Cross transports sanitation kits, tarpaulins and water containers to storage. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

The NDMO's technical advisor Benjamin Shing said there were two reasons why the government wanted to control the distribution of aid.

"The first one is to get government ownership over the reconstruction process and the relief efforts, but also to ensure that all the aid that's delivered is delivered in the most efficient and the most effective manner," said Mr Shing.

"It's also recognition that all our development partners are treated equally, and also to be transparent and accountable to them."

A nightly press briefing at the NDMO head office in Port Vila. The international media were very critical of the delays in aid distribution.

A nightly press briefing at the NDMO head office in Port Vila Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

The government was also mindful of Vanuatu people's resilience.

"A lot of them live off their root crops and the government has calculated that they will still be able to survive with the food that they have and especially with the yam season at the present. The government is banking on the people being able to use those until relief supplies reach them," said the chief government spokesperson at the time, Kiery Mannaseh.

Kerby and Ellen Vatoko show me the last of their yam covered by mud from the floods at Mele Village.

Kerby and Ellen Vatoko display the last of their yam covered by mud from the floods Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

The assessments ended up taking two weeks and in that time people in need of food, shelter, water and medical supplies were left to fend for themselves.

Many people just wanted some indication that help was on its way.

"The people who are here just want to know if the government could give some answers to them quickly," said Sikal Iaruel, who had taken shelter in one of the numerous make-shift evacuation centres.

Ralph and Mary Yalu and their family at the Freswota Evacuation Centre. They lost everything in the cyclone but gained a new family member inside the blue mosquito net who was born during the Cyclone. They named her Pamina.

Ralph and Mary Yalu and their family at the Freswota Evacuation Centre Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

But help was still not coming. And while they refused to openly criticise the government, it was obvious NGOs and aid agencies were getting frustrated.

One of the NGOs, Save the Children, had begun delivering aid to evacuation centres despite the government ban.

Vanuatu's disaster authorities said they were trying to manage relief distribution so as to ensure social equity.

An emergency management expert and senior lecturer at Massey University, Jane Rovins, said Vanuatu's predicament was seen when disaster strikes all over the world.

"The problem in a place like Vanuatu is logistically it's a bit of a nightmare. You have hundreds of islands, some are inhabited and some are not. You have a lack of landing strips to bring in aircraft. You have a lack of deep water ports so they can't bring in the big shipments. You're relying on small boats, helicopters in a remote part of the world."

Aid delivery "complicated by politics"

A ni-Vanuatu academic at Victoria University of Wellington, Pala Molisa, said the aid distribution was also hampered by politics, "such as inter-communal politics, political issues around what communities get what, which leaders are seen to take the lead and so on".

Villagers in South Epi who had been waiting for a week and a half at this point without receiving relief aid listen to Prime Minister Joe Natuman's reassurances that aid is on its way.

Villagers on South Epi had been waiting for a week and a half with no relief. They listen to Prime Minister Joe Natuman's reassurances that aid is on its way. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

Dr Rovins said Vanuatu's insistence on controlling aid was a growing global trend.

"We're seeing this more and more where governments are asserting themselves and saying 'we want your help, but you've got to help in ways we think we need help'."

Ian McInnes said a good disaster action plan shouldn't entail full disaster assessments before people get help.

"At some point it breaks down, and it's very important that government and the humanitarian actors get together and work out exactly how are they going to action those plans all the way to the end of the line because if it breaks before it gets to the community well it hasn't done the job."

Damage bill hits $610 million

In the next few weeks the Vanuatu government will wind up its humanitarian relief efforts and look to the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase.

This little girl was sent by her mother to get some of the clean water being delivered for her baby sister.

A child helps collecting water for the family Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

The World Bank has said the country's damage bill is NZ$610 million. There is concern the country does not have the capacity to fund this with huge loans and there needs to be re-prioritisation of existing development projects.

Meanwhile, the Vanuatu government has called for future relief funding and donations to be channeled through its own coffers.

"Routing all aid through governments is a bad idea for all the obvious reasons not least it can be hard to trace," said Ian McInnes, the CEO of Tear Fund and the chairperson of New Zealand's NGO Disaster Relief Forum.

"There can be problems with corruption and that was the case in some of the early food distribution and I saw the government move quickly and rightly to say that they would prosecute anyone found stealing food aid.

Dr Rovins said the real question was whether the government had the ability to deal with tens of millions of dollars in aid.

"If they can prove fiscal management I have no problem with the idea that aid would go straight through the government. They know their country better than others."

Vanuatu is still reeling from the storm they called the Monster but many are calling it a miracle. After all, only 11 people died and major outbreaks of disease have been avoided.

The country has six months to hone its disaster management skills before the start of another cyclone season.