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First hand experience from Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

Oxfam’s Communications Coordinator Amy Christian writes from Port Vila in Vanuatu.

Yesterday I arrived in Vanuatu to join the Oxfam emergency response team as they respond to the aftermath of Cyclone Pam.

As our plane descended into Port Vila, I caught glimpses of the islands that make up Vanuatu between perfectly formed clouds, the blue of the ocean a calm turquoise canvas below. The islands themselves looked ravaged, trees torn and broken and houses left without roofs or walls.

I found myself imagining how different this view would have been just a week before, on the eve of the biggest cyclone to ever hit the Pacific.

After disembarking from our plane we made our way to a briefing with our colleagues who arrived a few days earlier. The streets of Port Vila were a hive of activity, people were busy at work clearing the debris left behind by Cyclone Pam.

Neat piles of fallen branches and bits of tin roofing lay in piles along the roadside; trucks and lorries full-to-the-rafters filled the roads and smoke billowed out across the sky as people burn the waste that can’t be moved. I was surprised at how much has been done and how improved things looked compared to the photos I saw just a few days ago. 

Today I joined the Oxfam team as they carried out their first distribution — hygiene kits were taken to one of the evacuation centres in Port Vila, Lycee Bouganville, a school taking on a new role in the crisis. 
 
Families greeted us with smiles and thanks and showed me where they’d been sleeping for the last week. Gideon, his wife Aileen and their son John, told me they were worried about having to go home as their house had been completely destroyed. 
 
“It will take me several months to rebuild and repair the damage of the cyclone, as I don’t have the finances to build back quickly. I have no money,” Gideon said.
 
 
Photos - Top left: Scenes of devastation in Vanuatu. Top right: Gideon with his wife Aileen and son John. Bottom left: Gideon with his wife Aileen. Bottom right: Oxfam's Amy Christian.
 
“In our community we don’t have any clean water, we used to use a well but that has been contaminated now. In the next few months my biggest worry is food though. At home our garden is damaged so we won’t have any food available.”
 
Gideon and his family moved to the evacuation centre as Cyclone Pam bore down on Vanuatu last Friday. 
 
“When the cyclone happened it sounded like a big whistling sound. I’d never heard anything like it in my life. I was really scared. The walls shook so hard; rain water came inside so we had to move the children up onto the tables.” 
 
Another family sit together outside one of the classrooms cooking lunch— a big bowl of rice and some tinned sardines in tomato juice.  Hager Kulmet tells me she is worried about how much money her family has had to spend on food since arriving last week. 
 
‘”We have had to use all of our savings to buy food because we couldn’t bring any with us. It is becoming very difficult.”
 
Although Hager and her immediate family now live in Port Vila, she is originally from Tanna Island, one of the outer islands hit the worst by Cyclone Pam. 
 
“We have lots of family in Tanna Island and we are very worried about them now because we heard that Tanna suffered very badly in the cyclone,” she said. “We haven’t heard from them since Friday and we can’t get in touch. We’ve heard that people’s houses have been blown away.”
 
As someone who has never lived through a cyclone, much less a Category 5 cyclone, it’s very hard to imagine all of the worries people like Hager and Gideon now face. I’m humbled today, not just by the capacity of nature to rip apart everything in its wake but by the sheer strength of the human spirit which allows people to cope with whatever is thrown at them, to get back up and make plans to start again. 
 
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Eyewitness – Cyclone Pam

Photo: Isso Nihmei/350.org

We have launched an emergency appeal to help people in the island nation of Vanuatu where Cyclone Pam have wreaked devastation. This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific. The scale of humanitarian need will be enormous and the people of Vanuatu are going to need a lot of help to rebuild their homes and their lives. 

Clean water, sanitation and hygiene supplies are a major issue for those left homeless and also those in evacuation centres, where there simply are not enough toilets or clean water for the amount of people in those facilities.

 

Here is a personal account of what it is like to experience the destructive forces of a Category 5 Cyclone from Colin Collett van Rooyen, Country Director, Oxfam in Vanuatu.

It was a dark and stormy night…no, seriously, it really was! Okay, so it never had a chance of being the perfect night in Vanuatu did it? We knew that Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam (we just call her Pam for short) was on her way. We knew (almost) exactly where she was and what her most likely next move would be and we knew that she would only reveal to us her secrets as she arrived over us.

Radios on, candles at the ready, water set out, lock down level red announced and cyclone tracking maps and pens on the table. Nothing unusual for cyclone season in Vanuatu really. This is a country so prone to cyclones that we have tracking maps in the early pages of the telephone directories. What was unusual was not knowing how strong Pam was going to be; how dark and stormy it would all get given that she was a category five cyclone. A rare beast.

Regular radio announcements in calm tones; traditional Vanuatu string band music in-between statements of how harsh things may be when she gets to us. All a bit surreal really. The cyclone shutters boarding up our windows and doors start to shudder, at first gently and irregularly and then faster and constant. Pam is now moving in, getting closer to us at a rate of 10, 15, 20 kilometers per hour. Her eye moves at an astounding speed, creating wind forces of unimaginable speeds.

Can you imagine ‘over 200km an hour’? I couldn’t at the time. But I could hear it. I now know the sound of 200km per hour or more, and I don’t think I would willingly subject myself to it again. Pam arrived announced by the drum roll of our shutters. Then she roared, she squealed, she hissed. She spat and cursed in deep bass tones, and at the same time she whistled and screeched in ways that messed with our senses. What was that we just heard?

Someone outside screaming? The high-pitched string band notes we had heard earlier on the radio? No, the radio was off and people had taken shelter. It was Pam in her many voices. She spoke a language of essential fear at its most primitive and we understood it instantly.

I could also ‘see’ what more than 200km per hour looked like. It was dark, the lights went out, it had that wobbly candle lit orange to it (not the romantic one you may be used to). It had pictures in my head of houses falling apart, metal sheets ripping of roofs, yachts in the bay turned upside down, trees tearing themselves into shreds, people cowering in dark corners and animals confused and wild. I could see 200km per hour in our eyes where we reflected the fear we were feeling so transparently despite our attempts to do the “I’m cool, you cool” act.

And of course we could feel it too. Pam’s special brand of 200km per hour or more shook us to the core. Our sturdy home rattled a bit at first and then at Pam’s most powerful moments she shook it. Just to remind us that she was in charge. Just to add to that already sharp edge that had moved us to huddle on the floor closest to the strongest walls and as far as possible from windows and doors that felt like they may not hold.

We could feel it too in another way. In wondering about family far away, in thinking about friends close by and those less fortunate to have a sturdy home, and in trying to reconcile this ugly yet astounding moment with the beautiful and gentle Vanuatu we love so much. And then after dragging us around with such aggression she decided to move on, to try her power games on anther small island of Vanuatu, and then another and another.

And at the end of this ‘dark and stormy night’ we were left wide awake, unable to sleep a wink in case she came back, wondering if what we saw in our mind’s eye, what we felt and heard, would be real when we eventually cracked open the doors after the all clear in the morning.

And it was.

Colin Collett van Rooyen, Country Director, Oxfam in Vanuatu. Follow Colin on Twitter here.

You can help support Oxfam’s Cyclone Pam response by donating here.

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Cyclone Pam leaves ‘unprecedented disaster' in Vanuatu

 

Stories of devastation emerge from Oxfam staffers.

Cyclone Pam, possibly one of the worst ever seen in the Pacific region, has now passed over the island nation of Vanuatu, and reports are emerging of the devastation left in its wake as Oxfam prepares to launch an emergency response.

 
Packing winds of up to 160 miles per hour, the storm slammed directly into Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital on the island of Efate, where about 65,000 people live. Oxfam staffers there are reporting the complete destruction of homes: Winds have uprooted trees three stories tall, and in some of the smaller communities, barely any houses are left standing.
 
Power and water have been knocked out and people are still not able to move around freely.
 
“The scale of this disaster is unprecedented in this country and the proud people of Vanuatu are going to need a lot of help to rebuild their homes and their lives,” said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Oxfam’s Vanuatu country director. He said residents have told him that they have never seen a cyclone of this intensity and were scared about the devastation that will likely unfold as emergency teams make their way into hard-to-reach areas.

Slightly smaller than Northern Ireland, Vanuatu is a Y-shaped chain of four main islands and 80 smaller ones made up mostly of mountains with narrow coastal plains. Though many of the islands are uninhabited, the total population of the country is estimated to be close to 267,000 - that's around twice the population of Cork city.

Port Vila, the capital, has been named in the Natural Hazards Risk Atlas as the city most exposed to natural disasters in the world because of the risks it faces from earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, and cyclones like Pam.

 

Wake-up call for disaster risk reduction

For the president of Vanuatu, the terrible reality of those risks reportedly brought him close to tears as he delivered his opening statement Saturday at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. The event is aimed at tackling the devastating impacts of disasters.
 
“I speak to you today with a heart that is so heavy,” said the president, Baldwin Lonsdale. “I stand to ask you to give a lending hand to responding to this calamity that has struck us.”
 
Ben Murphy, the humanitarian advocacy lead for Oxfam Australia who is attending the conference, said Lonsdale’s words are a wake-up call for the international community which is not doing enough to help reduce the risk of disasters like this and the impact they have on the world’s most vulnerable people.
 
“With Cyclone Pam and Typhoon Haiyan scale events likely to increase in severity, including due to the effects of climate change, current disaster risk reduction, preparedness, and response capacities from the local to the national and international levels will increasingly be pushed to the breaking point in the future,” said Murphy. “That’s why delegations meeting in Sendai need to have President Lonsdale’s words ringing in their ears as they negotiate new international framework on disaster risk reduction.”
 

Oxfam in Vanuatu

 
Oxfam has been working on disaster preparedness at both the local and national level in Vanuatu for the past four years. We have been funding communities to build cyclone-proof classrooms and coordinating the Vanuatu humanitarian team while working closely with governments and donor agencies to strengthen disaster preparedness across the country.
 
Following disasters like Cyclone Pam, Oxfam’s first step is to assess where the greatest needs are and then make determinations about shelter, clean water, sanitation, and food supplies.
 
The Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, coordinated by Oxfam, is now in action. As we learn more, we will continue to provide updates on the situation.

 

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Celebrating female climate change fighters

This International Women’s Day, we want to celebrate Female Climate Change Fighters. In places like Bolivia, the Philippines and Zimbabwe, small-scale female farmers show resilience and strength as they battle the effects of climate change and make their livelihoods happen despite unpredictable weather, dry spells and extreme flooding.

These women are fierce in their efforts to support their families and communities, producing crops that often fail or are destroyed because of the impact of climate change on their environments.

Rosario lives in Guayaramerin in Bolivia and is part of The Santa Rosa Community, made up of around 30 families living in the extreme north-east of the country. In recent years, the climate has changed bringing extreme and uncontrolled floods with devastating results.

Rosario says: “We talk a lot about the climate and how it is affecting us. We, as people who live in the forest, see [that] the main issue is deforestation – that is affecting us all and is impacting on the climate. Because we are all so concerned, we have implemented agro-forestry systems, which are our way of trying to preserve the forest, and ensure we are not contributing to climate change.

“In the past it was cooler during the day but now more and more there is extreme heat and the sun is burning more and more strongly. For me, it is really hard. For everyone it is a challenge to find the right way of cropping because the weather has changed so much.

“Everybody should be getting involved in this issue – especially Governments. But at the moment we don’t see enough results. This is what is worrying.”

In the Philippines, 20 year old Langging has lived in the farming community of Bagumbayan in the south island of Mindanao in the Philippines her whole life. She loved attending school, until unexpected extremes in weather meant her family’s harvest failed and her parents didn’t have enough money for her to continue her studies. Her plan was to train as a vet so she could support her community in caring for their livestock.

Despite this setback, she is using her energy to support her community in the fight against climate change. She is a Youth Leader for her local area and brings together groups of young people to talk about their experiences of the effects of climate change, bringing their concerns to the local government, and other people who have the power to make change happen.

“Climate change is a big concern for young people like me. If it’s hard to plant and grow crops now, what about the next few decades? What about when we’re trying to grow enough food to survive the longer dry spells in the future?

“As a youth leader, I’m inspired to call for other young people to act on climate change. It is important for us to dialogue with the people in power – the government officials – so they will know what the issues are.”

In Zimbabwe, rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic and it's hard for farmers like Ipaishe to predict when to plant.

Passionate and energetic, Ipaishe along with other women in her community is part of an irrigation project, trying to adapt and continue to grow crops despite the decreasing rainfall. They use their experience to campaign for climate change adaptation techniques to ensure farmers in Zimbabwe can grow enough food to feed themselves - whatever the weather.

“The way we survive here is by farming - it’s the only livelihood we have. The food we produce makes us healthy and strong, and the surplus food we grow, we can sell and get money for school fees and hospital fees.

“Over the last 10 years the climate has changed. We have had times where there was a lot of rain and all of our crops were destroyed and so we couldn’t harvest any food. Another time the rains came as normal but went very early, and the crops wilted and died due to the heat.

We must unite with others and all learn about climate change.”

Female Climate Change Fighters

Watch our new film made using stunning drone footage and powerful interviews with women climate fighters across four continents. You might want to watch this one in full-screen!

To celebrate International Women’s Day and the inspirational women in our lives, we’ve launched a special campaign on Facebook to help support women like Rosario, Langging and Ipaishe through Oxfam’s work worldwide.

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Celebrating the Female Food Heroes of Nigeria

Breakfast in Lagos, the same as the day before, two large slices of boiled yam (a root vegetable) with spicy egg sauce. Surprisingly it actually works as a breakfast and my stomach has been fine. The strong spices make the bland yam edible and I find myself enjoying the combination. Lunch and dinner will be more spicy soups and sauces along with fish or other meat and eaten with various porridges made from cassava and other crops. Nigeria, like the rest of West Africa, has a strong culinary history with a wide variety of dishes prepared from indigenous crops. Nigeria also has the hottest, spiciest food of any country in the world. If you have never tried it and especially if you have blocked sinuses, you need to try proper Nigerian hot pepper soup.

I was in Lagos for the 2014 Female Food Hero awards, a competition that began in Tanzania. These 12 great rural women came from all over Nigeria and were selected from more than 1,200 nominations. They, along with millions of other women, grow the crops, care for the livestock and in the end produce the food that makes up the exciting Nigerian cuisine I was enjoying. These 12 women spent a week together in Lagos in the build-up to the final award ceremony and announcement of the overall winners. In the past two years the awards were held only in certain states among women farmers that Oxfam and partners worked with, but this year for the first time it has become a national competition open to all women involved with primary food production.

During the week, the women joined together in morning exercises with Tony the trainer, who also works as a model and actor. They had training sessions with different people on a range of topics relevant for women and for farmers. They held discussions and went on field trips. To the end, even in celebrating the eventual winners, they demonstrated a unity that this large and complex country sometimes lacks. 

Clockwise from top-left: Catfish at urban fish farm in Lagos – this visit showed how nutritious food can be produced and made into a good business, even with limited space. An exhibition of farmer produce set up during the award ceremony. The 12 finalists of 2014 competition join winners from previous years and a representative of the farmers organisation on a field trip. From left to right: second runner-up Chinasa Asonye; first runner-up Monica Maigari; and Female Food Hero 2014 Marian Buhari. From left to right: Oxfam’s Acting Nigeria Country Director Evelyne Mere; first runner-up Monica Maigari; overall winner Marian Buhari; second runner-up Chinasa Asonye; Oxfam Food and Land Rights Advisor Marc Wegerif. The finalists visit the Tropical Naturals Ltd factory which turns agricultural products like shea butter and honey and turn them into creams and products for export.

These women also underwent health checks and received healthy living advice. Stress management was one of the favourite topics. There are so many stresses that rural women face that they are normally expected to simply cope with themselves. They learnt they have a right to care for themselves and be cared for. There were also meetings with celebrities, actors, singers and women leaders. There were dramas that the women themselves prepared and as well as the hard work, lighter moments and lots of singing. The whole process was filmed and is being produced into a series of TV programmes. 

The field trips included a visit to the inspiring factory of Tropical Naturals Ltd. They take agricultural products like shea butter and honey and turn them into creams and products like the famous Dudu-Oson black soap that is sold in Nigeria and exported. The dynamic Chief Executive Officer, Abiola Ogunrinde, stressed to the women the importance of adding value to all their agricultural products in order to get a greater return as farmers and for the nation.

An urban fish farm showed how nutritious food could be produced and made into a good business, even with limited space in a densely populated urban area. Some of the finalists are already involved with fish farming, others were inspired to start.

Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa with 180 million people and famous for its oil industry, but agriculture remains a vital part of the economy. Agriculture makes up more than 30% of the economic activity and importantly 70% of all employment. Women provide most of the labour in the sector, but get little recognition and little support, something that these awards are working to change.

By highlighting the importance of women’s contribution to food production and the economy, the Female Food Hero awards help increase public support for women involved with food production. The awards also show the challenges women face, through the stories of the female food heroes themselves, told by themselves. We are asking for the creation of a more supportive environment for women food producers. Look what they have done despite all the challenges they face and imagine what they could do with a more enabling environment. The responses have been good and other women food producers have also been inspired.

On Friday 20th November the hall at the hotel was crowded and sometimes chaotic during an exciting celebration of the Ogbonge (strong, heroic, magnificent) Nigerian Women Food Heroes of 2014. As many speakers stressed, all the finalists are good representatives of the millions of hard-working women who produce most of the food in Nigeria. But everyone also wanted to know who would be the winner and walk away with the largest prizes.

Above, left-right: Some of the produce made by first runner-up Monica Maigari. Previous Female Food Hero award winner Gloria works out in the gym. Tony puts the women farmers through their paces in the gym. 

Guests included government officials, NGOs, farmer organisation representatives and private sector representatives. Jennifer Abuah of OLAM Nigeria Ltd noted that of 10,000 cocoa farmers they work with on sustainable cocoa production, only 500 are women. “We know they are there, but they are not visible”, she said. “Women don’t own their land, they are farming the land that belongs to the men in their families and women are doing so many other things besides farming.”

Karima Babangida, the Head of Gender and Youth in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, announced the winners for 2014, but not before she praised the “12 very beautiful hard-working women” who made it to the finals. She also committed the Ministry to providing start-up kits with fish for all the finalists to start or expand fish farming. 

The second runner-up was Chinasa Asonye from Lagos state. A young married woman with three children, she has gone from only cultivating ofada rice to now processing and packaging the rice, for which she gets a much better return. Chinasa leased land from Lagos state government under the Rice for Jobs Initiative and has also branched into fish farming. Last year, she harvested 31 sacks of rice and 5.2 tons of catfish.

The first runner-up was Monica Maigari from Kaduna state. She is a mother of four and farms soybeans, maize, guinea corn, rice, poultry and goats. In 2013, she produced and sold 34 sacks of grains, 130 birds, 360 crates of layers and eight goats.

It was hard to get any picture of the winner, Marian Buhari, when she was announced as people crowded around with cameras to capture the moment. Marian is from Kwara state. She is married with five children and farms cucumbers, maize, cassava, melons, tomatoes, cabbage and fish. She was assisted by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to get started in fish farming with catfish fingerlings (young fish) and two bags of fish feed. Now in 2014, she harvested over 150 tons of produce. Like Chinasa, she had also relied on renting other people’s land for her production.

The best speakers of the day were the women farmers themselves. The past winners shared how much the awards had meant to them, including their activities as ambassadors for women farmers that had taken them to national events and international events in the United States and African Union meetings in Ethiopia. This year’s finalists called for women to get better access to inputs, machinery, finance and land with secure rights. 

As the finalists often chanted:

Ogbonge Women, Our Future! Ogbonge Women, Our Farmers! Ogbonge Women, Our Nigeria!

Marc Wegerif is a South African, currently based in Tanzania, who has worked on development and human rights issues in a range of organisations for over 25 years and has a Masters in Land and Agrarian Studies from the University of the Western Cape. Marc has focused on land rights issues for much of his professional life and is currently Food and Land Rights Advisor with Oxfam Ireland. In this role Marc is involved with international advocacy and running several multi-country projects. He is married with two daughters. This blog is a personal reflection and the views expressed are not necessarily those of Oxfam. 

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