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Why it’s critical we get the aid response to Vanuatu right

By Martin Thomas, chief executive, Habitat for Humanity Australia

It is hard to imagine what it must be like living amid the devastation that has been wrought on Vanuatu in the wake of one of the most powerful cyclones to hit the Pacific region in modern history.

Already a poor country, the island’s infrastructure has been decimated. In the capital Port Vila it is estimated that up to 80 percent of all buildings have been damaged or destroyed.

And of course with communications cut there are still grave fears for communities along the string of islands that make up this small Pacific nation.

Experience from other disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines almost 18 months ago – shows it could take more than two years to rehouse those families that have lost everything.

Today the immediate priority is essentially a search and rescue task. To find the survivors of this destructive cyclone and to ensure they have the very basics of survival; medical aid, food, water and shelter.

In situations like this the task is often hampered by the remoteness of communities, the destruction of essential infrastructure and also by poor weather conditions. But it is essentially a life and death race to reach survivors.

Yet very quickly the next phase of the disaster response must be triggered. It is the effort to prevent a ‘second wave of deaths’ through the spread of disease created by contaminated water and a lack of adequate sanitation.

Early reports are that some water services have been restored in Port Vila, but there are tens of thousands of people who will be without clean drinking water. Getting water to those in need is critical as well as getting some basic sanitation supplies to help prevent disease.

In these early phases of a disaster such as this Habitat for Humanity provides emergency shelter kits that include tarpaulins, tools to erect a basic shelter or to do basic repairs, sanitation kits, water containers and decontamination tablets.

If the aid effort fails in this critical phase of the response there is a very real prospect that more people can die in the aftermath of this cyclone than have died in the storm itself.

One of the miracles of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, which killed an estimated 230,000 people, was that the rapid aid response prevented a second wave of deaths from disease.

Finding temporary shelter for families that have lost their homes is, of course, essential. In Vanuatu, Habitat for Humanity is playing a leading role in helping coordinate the shelter response from the various aid agencies involved in the response.

In the first days or weeks of a response, often the only shelter available is a tent or a makeshift ‘home’ pulled together from the debris of destroyed buildings.

To some extent the initial phases of a disaster response, although extremely challenging, are more straight forward than the medium and longer term task of helping communities put their lives back together.

For one thing in the early phases of a disaster response the world’s media provide a compelling spotlight on the critical need and this helps agencies to raise the funds to pay for materials, staff and logistics.

But as time drags on the media attention and the funding it generates end – often in a matter of a week or two.

The reality is that with the extent of the devastation across Vanuatu it may take two years or more for the reconstruction effort to be completed, if not longer.

The experience of the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, which tore apart communities in highly populated areas such as Tacloban City, shows recovery can be a long slow process.

Almost 18 months after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines on 8 November 2013, an estimated 25,000 people are still living in transitional sites, evacuation centres and tent settlements. Worse, it is estimated that 95,000 families are living in emergency or makeshift shelters that are deemed ‘unsafe’; some remain in areas prone to flooding.

It is critical we get the aid response to Vanuatu right.

Aid agencies are often criticised for competing for donations in Australia in the aftermath of such disasters but on the ground there is a commitment among the most reputable agencies to work together.

Those agencies that will focus on the shelter needs in Vanuatu, such as Habitat for Humanity, face an incredible challenge.

There is now a ‘golden moment’ to get the recovery response right and to generate enough funding to be able to provide adequate aid and assistance to the tens of thousands of people in Vanuatu who have lost everything.

The Australian Government should be praised for its initial commitment of $5 million in emergency aid. But more will be required.

At a time when Australia’s aid budget is being drastically cut, Vanuatu, one of our closest neighbours will be vulnerable and in need for a long time yet. Added to this is the increasing severity and frequency of storms that are likely to hit the Pacific region.

The disaster that has flattened Vanuatu is a test of Australia, as the major power in the region, to respond. Unfortunately it is likely to be one of a number of such tests in a region vulnerable to such disasters. The generosity of Australia’s government and its people will be tested.

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