Published on 8th December 2015
As the Paris climate talks continue, it’s likely Pacific voices will be among the loudest calling for decisive action. It is no wonder that the leaders of small countries such as Kiribati are world-famous in environmental circles - their countries are among the world’s most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Already, the 2015/16 El Niño is thought to be the most intense ever, exceeding the previous high of the 1997/98 season, which killed 20,000 people worldwide and caused US$97 billion in damage. El Nino’s intensity is driven by rising ocean temperatures and is bringing with it either too much water or not enough.
In the Pacific, our volunteers are reporting that the drought is setting in and causing widespread problems. In Vanuatu, which is still suffering the effects of Cyclone Pam, Jeremy Thompson has described driving through “coconut plantations where the browned grass was so dry that little bush fires were starting up and sweeping through.”
Allanah Kidd, volunteering in Suva as Climate Change Programme Officer with UN Women, describes drought as a “slow motion natural disaster”, unlike an earthquake or cyclone, where support floods in. Pacific neighbours can’t call on each other to help, as they’re all affected. UNOCHA has estimated up to 4.7 million people across the Pacific will be affected.
In Fiji, the Government is trucking water across Vitu Levu from Suva in order to provide at least drinking water and keep all the schools open. The drought’s impact on crops, and on the power supply where hydroelectricity is common, will cause yet more widespread problems.
And, Allanah adds, “we’ll be ending the drought with more severe cyclones. Where and when that happens, we don’t know.”
NIWA has forecast up to 13 tropical cyclones, of which up to four could reach ‘category four strength’ with wind speeds greater than 196km/h. Vanuatu, Fiji and Samoa would be the hardest hit in terms of the number of cyclones.
The effects of this El Niño season will extend beyond the predicted September 2015 – April 2016 time-frame. With drought affecting crops, people who rely on selling produce at markets for income may no longer be able to afford school fees or health care and therefore pull children out of school or delay seeking medical attention.
This problem would be worse if people are buying food and water when they had not previously. Typically, stressful situations lead to increased domestic violence. Health conditions may worsen in locations where medical facilities are not equipped to deal with these problems and hygiene practice and water safety are reduced.
VSA CEO Gill Greer says “VSA is working to monitor the situation in communities where work, ensuring our volunteers have sufficient water and food supplies and emergency plans in case of disaster. Volunteers are working with their partner organisations to make sure they, too, have emergency plans, and that information is shared.
“Pacific states have done the least to cause climate change, yet they are reaping some of its worst effects. Our volunteers will continue to work with them in any way they can to face this challenge.”
Update January 26, 2016: The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has advised that El Nino conditions have weakened in the new year, and heavy rains that have come with recent cyclones have brought drought relief in some areas. However the drought risk remains for most of the Pacific, with many countries facing food security concerns due to interrutions in crop cultivation. The UN estimates that 4.3 million people across 12 countries have been, or will be, affected.