The Australia Assists Team Responds to the Ambae Volcano Emergency

Since 2017, the high levels of volcanic activity on the island of Ambae, Vanuatu, have contributed to significant ash fall, gas emissions, acid rain, and the looming threat of a full volcanic eruption. In September 2017, the Government of Vanuatu declared a State of Emergency which led to the first evacuation and repatriation of the people of Ambae. In April 2018, the Government of Vanuatu declared another State of Emergency, which necessitated the second evacuation of Ambae’s population in August for the safety of the island’s communities. Since this time, Australia Assists deployees have been providing assistance through the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and UN Women. 

Through the Australia Assists program, Disaster Management Specialist Brian has been deployed into the NDMO in Port Vila since March 2018, just before the State of Emergency was declared. Upon arrival, Brian was tasked with developing the evacuation plan for 8500 people on Ambae to new locations, including nearby islands of Santo and Maewo. Brian has also been instrumental in establishing the operational and reporting structure, cluster strategies, and financial plans, to ensure the evacuation occurred as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible.

“To evacuate 8,500 people off the island in a very, very short timeframe and with no injuries is really an achievement that I am quite proud of,” says Brian.

Australia Assists deployees Jeff, Natalie and Brian examine photos from a landslide of ash from the Ambae volcano. Photo credit: Ian Parish, RedR Australia.

Brian’s efforts have been supported by the arrival of three additional Australia Assists deployees since June, with the State of Emergency extending in early July. Together, the four deployees have been working closely to support the NDMO manage the response, including the Second Home policy supported by the Vanuatu Government. The Second Home policy was conceived in agreement with the community of nearby Maewo island, who agreed to host more than 2,000 Ambaen evacuees on Maewo on a more permanent basis.

“On Maewo existing communities agreed to host Ambaen communities with a view to completing a customary reunion between tribes and families in the long term,” says Brian. “These people will either permanently resettle on Maewo, or will look to establishing a second home on Maewo that once they return to Ambae can be used a place of safe shelter during any future volcanic eruptions.”

Food distributions underway on Maewo, with the NDMO providing rice in 18kg and 25kg bags to families. Photo credit: Ian Parish, RedR Australia.

To support the execution of the Second Home policy, Australia Assists deployee and Resettlement Coordinator Jeff is working hard to facilitate the logistics and negotiations needed to assist the evacuees to resettle on Maewo. For Jeff, the Second Home policy provides an innovative solution to a common humanitarian response challenge, particularly in Vanuatu as the most disaster-prone country in the world.

“I do think it’s a really innovative concept, the idea of creating a second home,” says Jeff. “People do have a strong connection to land, and this means that in the future people don’t necessarily have to permanently move from their customary or traditional home sites. But given the ongoing nature of the volcanic activity, it’s really important to create a safe haven that people can go to if there is an emergency.”

Australia Assists deployee Mark attends a Cluster meeting at the Emergency Operations Centre on Maewo. Photo credit: Ian Parish, RedR Australia.

With evacuations now complete, Jeff has developed a Maewo Response and Recovery Plan alongside his NDMO colleagues and the Clusters, which is now underway.

“It includes short, medium, and long-term projects to support not just shelter, but things like food security and livelihoods, WASH, the whole spectrum of things that you need to create a safe environment. I’m simply here to help facilitate with that as much as I can,” says Jeff.  

Helping to inform the Response and Recovery Plan is Information Management Specialist Natalie, who has been a critical member of the NDMO team during the emergency, taking a lead role in the collection and management of data about the crisis to help inform the decision making process as efficiently as possible. With a strong technical background in information technology and information management, Natalie has ensured that the complex data collection, analysis, and synthesis activities have been turned into useable information at every phase of the response.

Natalie and Jeff discuss information coming through from Maewo in the Emergency Operations Centre in Port Vila. Photo credit: Ian Parish, RedR Australia.

“It’s all about people, ultimately,” says Natalie. “Even though my deployment is extremely technical, it’s so important for my role to engage with people, whether that be the evacuees or the people who are working on the response and recovery. I’m working to collect data from the field, gather it, collate it, and turn it into useable information, so that it is useful to people who need to make decisions in a timely way.” 

Natalie’s information and information management skills are providing major support to Jeff, and also to Field Project Manager Mark, who is living on Maewo itself to ensure that the lines of communication, information, and action between the NDMO in Port Vila, and the Emergency Operations Centre on Maewo, are clear. Three times a week, Mark coordinates the Cluster meeting on Maewo to bring all the actors together and ensure the Response and Recovery Plan is progressing.

“A lot of what I am working on is looking at the broader scope of operations,” says Mark. “I’ve brought strong project management skills to Maewo, so I’m looking at what needs to be done and breaking it down into smaller tasks, and looking at the resources, materials, and timeframes to achieve that.”

Australia Assists deployee Mark with Philip, Provincial Liaison and Coordination Officer for the NDMO outside the EOC in Maewo. Photo credit: Ian Parish, RedR Australia.

Mark also works closely alongside the population of Maewo, to ensure that activities are meeting their expectations, and that evacuees are being looked after. With many activities underway, including the establishment of a Food Basket farm to feed the evacuees and ongoing distributions of rice, good coordination is key.

“A lot of international NGOs are working here, and we are partnering with them and coordinating some of their skill sets and practices into what we as the NDMO are doing, so that we can respond to the needs of the population more effectively,” says Mark.

Mark speaks with Ambae evacuee and Red Cross volunteer Maurice, in the Food Basket farm for evacuees on Maewo. Photo credit: Ian Parish, RedR Australia.

Back in Port Vila, and working frequently alongside the NDMO and her fellow RedR Australia deployees, is Gender and Protection Adviser Nimarta Khuman, deployed to support the Vanuatu Government’s Department of Women’s Affairs through UN Women in August. Working with the Department and Gender and Protection Cluster partners in Port Vila, Maewo and Santo through the evacuation and resettlement, Nim’s role has been to support Cluster Coordination including strategy, localisation and mainstreaming gender and protection issues through every part of the response. From ensuring that the needs of children and the elderly are considered, to working on initiatives to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, to safeguarding that people with a disability are represented and able to access assistive devices and rehabilitation, Nim, with her gender and protection counterparts, is working tirelessly to advocate for community centred approaches and for gender and protection concerns to be addressed across sectors and budgets.

Australia Assists deployee Nim works with the DWA assessment team to identify gender and protection needs amongst Ambae evacuees and host communities in Santo, Vanuatu. Photo credit: Nim Khuman, UN Women.

“Protection is really important in times of disaster, to ensure that any assistance is delivered to people with respect and dignity,” says Nim. “Whether we’re working across health, WASH, food insecurity, or shelter, we need to make sure that gender and protection issues have been mainstreamed and integrated across the response.”

One example is in the WASH infrastructure, where toilet and bathing facilities available during and after the evacuation may lack lighting, privacy, are overcrowded, don’t have facilities for menstrual hygiene management or are inaccessible for people living with a disability.  There are also issues such as psycho social trauma, lack of finance and shelter being overcrowded, leading to risks of gender based and family violence.  The Cluster has been successful in disseminating information on the rights of evacuees in displacement and referral pathways for gender-based violence and child protection to affected communities. Funds have been secured through the Cluster for programming including women’s recovery, child friendly spaces, peacebuilding and support for people living with disabilities.

“These are some of the issues that we are working on within gender and protection, but also in other agencies to make sure that the response is inclusive, and the most vulnerable access assistance across all parts of Vanuatu,” says Nim.  

Nim with Department of Women’s Affairs Gender Officer Gloria, examining sites and shelter of Ambae evacuees in Santo, Vanuatu. Photo credit: Nim Khuman, UN Women.

With the State of Emergency now ended, a National Recovery Plan is now being developed for people who have been displaced to islands across Vanuatu and those who are planning to return to Ambae to rebuild. With Brian, Jeff, Mark, and Nim scheduled to continue their deployments into 2019, the team remains optimistic about the next steps in the response. “From working through the process of land issues and negotiations when I arrived, to now be on the cusp of seeing permanent results for people on the ground, that’s a fantastic achievement – so watch this space!” laughs Jeff.