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.