El Niño in Vanuatu

The arrival of El Niño-fuelled drought could not come at a worse time for Vanuatu which is still recovering from Tropical Cyclone Pam which hit the country in March 2015.

“Parts of the country are now facing severe water shortages after low rainfall during July, August and September. This is having a serious impact on food crops which were already battered by TC Pam and are now failing due to a lack of water,” Sune Gudnitz, Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Regional Office for the Pacific said.

Affected communities are being advised to conserve water wherever they can but this isn’t easy in a country that is still rebuilding post-cyclone.

“Two thirds of the country’s rainwater harvesting structures were destroyed when TC Pam struck at Category 5 intensity in March and this is making it extremely difficult for many communities to collect and store what little rain has come their way. Many community members are now being forced to walk long distances to reach dwindling alternative water supplies,” Mr Gudnitz said.

Emergency food deliveries are already underway targeting 90000 people in 18000 households, as well as schools and health centres.

A number of children in North Tanna have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition after being screened by village health workers using the Middle Upper Arm Circumference test. Many have been treated at hospitals with doctors and nurses specially trained by UNICEF to manage children with Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM).

“Malnutrition is becoming increasingly common in this part of the country. Just last month, a small child from this area died from illnesses related to the drought and we are working with local health staff to screen as many children as we can,” Dr. Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative said.

“El Niño is impacting children and families in a number of harmful ways. As well as shortages of food and water that are having a direct impact on health and nutrition outcomes for children, there has also been a negative impact on education with decreased school attendance due to illness, and reported cases of children fainting during school hours and suffering from dehydration,” Dr Allen added.

Forecasters predict the drought itself is likely to peak between now and December. However the worst impacts, including crop failure and resulting food insecurity, are likely to extend for many months.

“This is a slow onset emergency that will gradually develop over the months ahead. The Vanuatu government and humanitarian partners are now planning for drought response that could extend well into next year. If no wet season rain arrives, communities will not have their water supplies replenished until the following wet season at the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017. That is a long time for a community to go without water and we need to get prepared for the long haul,” Sune Gudnitz from UNOCHA said.

The National Disaster Management Office is currently coordinating the country’s response with the help of clusters and humanitarian partners. Rapid assessments of El Niño affected areas will feed into the Government’s 12 month Response Plan which is now being finalized. Provincial Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) have also been activated to monitor the situation and send updates to the NDMO in Port Vila.

“OCHA and a range of other humanitarian partners are providing technical assistance wherever it is requested and we stand ready to support the Vanuatu Government as it faces yet another disaster so soon after TC Pam,” Mr Gudnitz said.

(Sources: Vanuatu NDMO, UNOCHA ROP, UNICEF, NIWA, Vanuatu Meteorological Service)