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The violent Manaro Voui volcano has forced the people of Vanuatu’s Ambae island to flee their home numerous times in the past year. After living in makeshift camps on surrounding islands, these displaced residents are now anxious to return to their ash-covered homes – even if the danger has not yet passed.

V anuatu comprises more than 80 islands, with the country located on the earthquake-prone “ring of fire” and in the centre of the Pacific cyclone belt. Not to mention the volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, storm surges and coastal flooding.

As such, Vanuatu is considered to be one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural hazards. It is something that the people of Ambae know all too well.

Ambae Island is home to 11,000 people and the treacherous volcano, Manaro Voui. The volcano has plagued residents for decades and in March of this year started spewing torrents of ash, toxic gas and rocks from its crater. The debris caused breathing and health problems, buried vegetable plots and crops under a thick blanket of black ash, and produced thick, ash-laden landslides.

Yes, the volcano is dangerous, but families are coming home is because their things are here, and their animals are here, even their hearts are here.

Chief Titus Karack

By July 2018, the Vanuatu government had declared a state of emergency on the island of Ambae and ordered the entire island’s population be evacuated to the neighbouring islands of Santo and Maewo with no idea of when they could return.

“Over the past year the people of Ambae island have been forced to leave not once, but twice, after the Manaro volcano rumbled to life,” says Jason Raubani, Coastal Fisheries and Aquaculture Management and Policy Specialist of Pacific Community (SPC), who grew up in Naone village on the island of Maewo. “Much of Ambae is now under a thick blanket of ash that has contaminated the water supplies, and caused landslides.”

‘Our lives have been put on hold’

Fast forward six months and today clusters of small, tarpaulin-covered villages have popped up all over the thin, long island of Maewo. Hundreds of Ambaean families have left behind their homes, livelihoods and assets. Communities have been fractured and ties to the land suspended; the displaced now live in temporary shelters constructed with a mixture of traditional and modern materials.

“Our lives have been put on hold until it’s safe to go home,” explains 62-year-old Ambaean community leader and Chaplin Lee Moses, who has been living on Maewo since the government ordered an evacuation.

Chaplin Moses believes if Maewo is to become a legitimate second home for some of Ambae’s people in the long term, then a safe and sustainable life must be attainable. Genuine support for rebuilding livelihoods and community are required. Not only a safe home but one which includes a sense of community and provides a nurturing environment for their children and elderly.

“There have been resettlement issues, but conditions here are vastly better than on Ambae, where ash is everywhere.” The people of Maewo have welcomed the new arrivals. According to local custom Ambae’s surrounding islands are part of a family — Santo being the mother, Maewo the father and Ambae the son.

Provincial Maewo Chief Albert Weiss says there is good cooperation between host communities and evacuees. “It is a good thing to take in the people of Ambae. It is safe here and there are no volcanoes.” Chief Albert explains that most local villages on Maewo have given space to evacuees to build temporary shelters, and the people provide them local food crops and vegetables.

Australian aid

Countries including Australia have also provided aid and financial help for the evacuees. The Australian Government has provided $AU5.5 million to support the government of Vanuatu for logistics, provision of health and education services, and emerging infrastructure needs on Santo and Maewo, with a focus on the needs of women, children and people with disabilities.

The University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) has been working with the Vanuatu Fisheries Department since 2014 to support coastal fisheries development through collaborative research, and have also responded to help the people of Ambae build a brighter future.

ANCORS Research Fellow Dr Dirk Steenbergen has been working with the Department of Fisheries on community-based fisheries management.

Sustainable fishing will be vital in securing the nutritional and livelihood benefits from coastal fisheries. Photo: Paul Jones

“Almost overnight, the population on the island of Maewo doubled, putting pressure on natural resources on land and at sea. We are working with Vanuatu fisheries officers to increase fishing capacity of the Ambae evacuees so as to ensure they have access to fish for food,” says Dr Steenbergen, who leads the initiative in Vanuatu.

With the state of emergency lifted on November 27, the Vanuatu government have encouraged evacuees not to rush to return home.

“It’s not that the Vanuatu Government are forcing the people of Ambae to remain on Maewo. They just want them to consider the situation at home and decide carefully. They want them to fully establish their second home so that they know where to go in future crisis,” former Maewo resident Jason says.

But some Ambaeans are keen to board boats and see what is left of their homes. We arrive at the first abandoned village as a handful of people jump from our ute, a dog fanatically wagging its tail runs to our vehicle expecting to see its master. It sniffs around and then retires back from where it came.

‘Their hearts are here’

Ex-Ambae resident and Vanuatu Fisheries Officer Malcolm Linawavc Tambe says there will be many challenges faced by residents as they return to the island. “Ambae residents should be prepared to face potential food and water shortages, destroyed crops and closed roads on their return.”

The situation looks dire on the island and yet every day, more Ambaeans return home.

At the village of Sari Lohu in the northern part of Ambae, Chief Titus Karack is currently the only person to return to the blackened village. His family is still on Maewo awaiting news to see if it is safe to return home. The traditional gardens have been destroyed, water supplies have been discoloured and are unsuitable to drink.

“There were rocks landing on my roof, the sun was blocked by thick ash. My family thought they would die.” – Chief Titus Karack. Photo: Paul Jones

The local school roof has caved in under the weight of tonnes of ash made wet from recent rains, landslides have cut off roads and the local football field is now buried under half a metre of volcanic ash.

Chief Titus tells of the days leading up the evacuation. “There were rocks landing on my roof, the sun was blocked by thick ash. My family thought they would die.” As the volcanic conditions worsened the people from his village become desperate for food supplies. It was then that Chief Titus said it was time to leave.

“You have to understand, yes, the volcano is dangerous, but this is my home. I think the main reason that many families are coming home is because their things are here, and their animals are here, even their hearts are here on Ambae,” he says.

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