15 March 2023
Vanuatu Twin Cyclones Underscore Pacific’s Vulnerability to Climate Risks
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
story highlights

Pacific SIDS face average annual losses from multiple hazards totaling USD 1.1 billion in the current global warming scenario.

Vanuatu is projected to lose a staggering 20% of GDP annually due to disasters.

Among the needed transformative actions are early warning systems and transformative adaptation solutions, with the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent serving as the pathway.

By Sanjay Srivastava and Sudip Ranjan Basu

Two destructive Category 4 tropical cyclones, Judy and Kevin, and an earthquake of 6.5 magnitude impacted over 80% of Vanuatu’s population from 1-3 March 2023. To address this emergency situation, the UN, along with Pacific member States, have deployed personnel on the ground to coordinate humanitarian assistance and prepare post-disaster damage assessment.

Sitting in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” Vanuatu experiences frequent volcanic and seismic activity. And along with the other Pacific small island developing States (SIDS), Vanuatu faces existential threats due to rising sea level, ocean acidification, and the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters and is on the front line of the climate crisis.

The twin cyclones and an earthquake in just 48 hours remind the world that seismic and climate risks are converging and intensifying, and no community feels this stronger than those of the Blue Pacific Continent.

On macro-economic impact, in fact, Pacific SIDS face average annual losses from multiple hazards totaling USD 1.1 billion in the current global warming scenario. This figure is set to increase to USD 1.3 billion under moderate and to USD 1.4 billion under worst-case climate warming scenarios. As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), Vanuatu, Tonga, and Palau are projected to face the highest losses, with Vanuatu projected to lose a staggering 20% of GDP annually due to disasters.

Intensifying and expanding climate crisis

In ESCAP’s recent report, the analysis shows that at 1.5 to 2°C warming, there are likely intensifying annual wind speeds of tropical cyclones and that the risk of tropical cyclones is expected to expand and include newer areas beyond the historical tracks. Vanuatu, in particular, will experience higher risk of tropical cyclones both in terms of intensification as well as geographic expansion of the riskscape.  

As cyclone hazards are intensifying and deviating from their traditional tracks, their greater complexity results in deeper uncertainties in the ability to predict. Our Blue Pacific Continent is not sufficiently prepared.

Formulating transformative actions

As the climate changes, the riskscape is transforming. These disaster risks compound and cascade to amplify the great hardship experienced by the Pacific SIDS in terms of population and critical infrastructure exposure. The argument for transformative action to mitigate and adapt to intensifying and expanding disaster risks in the Blue Pacific Continent has never been more compelling.

First, early warning for all is an imperative, and it needs to capture compounding risks. The UN Secretary-General highlighted that every person on the planet is to be covered by early warning systems by 2027. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) sets the increase in availability of and access to multi‑hazard early warning systems as a distinct target, Target G, to be achieved by 2030. As per the latest Sendai Framework reporting of Target G, large gaps remain for many Pacific SIDS.

Relative to other countries in the subregion, Vanuatu’s Target G scores are high, reporting substantial to comprehensive coverage of multi-hazard early warning systems across all indicators. The World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre in Nadi, Fiji, has been providing early warnings in the face of power outages and surmounting uncertainties – as a result, there have been no reported fatalities.

Second, transformative adaptation solutions are needed. To minimize and prevent systemic and cascading risk, we need to make new infrastructure and water resource management more resilient. Improving dryland crop production and using Nature-based Solutions (NbS) such as increasing mangroves protection are also priority adaptation solutions.

It is estimated that 1.5% of the subregion’s GDP is needed for adaptation investment in Pacific SIDS – three times less than the average losses projected. These adaptation investments must be risk-informed and strategically directed towards policy actions that yield high cost-benefits. Where there are multi-hazard risk hotspots across the region, risk-informed policy and transformative actions should capitalize on inter-sectoral synergies and co-benefits.

Third, the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent provides a clear pathway. With the adoption of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent in July 2022, Pacific SIDS developed a clear pathway to synergize regional priorities with accelerated implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the SAMOA Pathway.

Next generation risk analytics, advances in climate science, geo-spatial modeling, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning must be at the heart of people-centered and evidence-based decision making. The Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific is an ideal platform to take forward some of the policy decisions.

Strengthening subregional and regional cooperation platform

Tropical cyclones, often transboundary in nature, require an architecture of regional co-operation mechanisms to effectively manage the shared risks. In this instance, local capacities and regional support mechanisms should be commended. To further strengthen this work, the lesson from Vanuatu’s back-to-back cyclones and earthquake is to have effective, impact-based, and risk-informed early warning systems that can capture the complexity and dynamisms of a compounding risk.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) developed the Asia-Pacific Risk and Resilience Portal with the goal of creating a user-friendly one-stop platform for policymakers to access a vast array of scientific information and decision support tools to promote risk-informed policy decisions.

The Vanuatu incidents also underscore the need for conducting a rapid post-disaster needs assessment that can support the formulation of a long-term recovery strategy and plan for its reconstruction by applying a standardized approach with innovative methodology and framework.

The overlapping and transboundary nature of risks experienced by countries of the Blue Pacific Continent cannot be addressed without solidarity and collective action towards strengthening the regional cooperation platform.

* * *

Sanjay Srivastava is Chief, Disaster Risk Reduction, ESCAP. Sudip Ranjan Basu is Deputy Head, ESCAP Subregional Office for the Pacific.

related posts