When Tropical Cyclone Harold slammed into four Pacific Island nations in early April as a Category 5 storm, it became the first example of the complex crises countries will face with the “collision of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-related disasters,” Refugees International writes, in a case assessment published today.
The timing of the cyclone “allowed us to see the impacts very clearly, but also how they intersect with other systemic problems that may exist, because it’s happening during this global pandemic,” said report co-author Kayly Ober, the organization’s climate displacement program manager. “What this has shown us is we are grossly underprepared for complex emergency crises of any nature.”
Of the four small island states in the path of the storm, Vanuatu and Fiji were hit hardest, Refugees International notes. Vanuatu saw winds up to 183 miles/294 kilometres per hour and lost 80 to 90% of its homes. The cyclone displaced 80,000 people, about 27% of the population, and affected 160,000. In Fiji, 10,000 were displaced.
The storm brought home the reality that “climate impacts are not some future event. People are weathering those impacts today, and that’s leading to displacement,” Ober told The Energy Mix. “We see this uptick in intensity and frequency in the Pacific, and it’s much more tangible there because it’s such an existential threat, coupled with sea level rise.”
And all of that came on top of a global health crisis that had deeply undermined the region’s ability to respond.
With the added layer of complexity, “everything goes out the window,” Ober explained. “With COVID-19, in particular, we see problems around supply chain management, with a lot of disruptions of delivery of services and access to stable supplies for communities that have been displaced, who’ve lost their homes, who don’t have access to food on the ground because their gardens have been destroyed.”
While Pacific Island nations had been “preparing for disasters of this kind, COVID-19 has made it especially difficult for governments to implement swift and impactful relief and recovery efforts,” the report states. The experience shows that “climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction remain essential and urgent imperatives for countries vulnerable to sudden-onset disaster,” and “underscores the centrality of local humanitarian responders and the importance of building local capacity in order to most effectively serve vulnerable communities in the face of disaster.”
The response to the storm was complicated by the closures, curfews, and restrictions on public gatherings the countries had imposed to counter the pandemic. “In the weeks leading up to TC Harold, government officials in all Pacific Island nations asked foreign humanitarian aid workers to leave their countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the report notes. “In calling them back to assist after the storm, governments sought to strike a balance between delivering urgent humanitarian aid and protecting their citizens from COVID-19,” imposing 14- to 28-day quarantines on returning relief workers in countries that lacked the technical skills and staffing to support the cyclone recovery effort.
“There’s quite a small group of people that are expected to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone as well as prepare for COVID-19 work,” Dr. Collin Tuitional, associate dean of the University of Auckland Medical School, told TIME Magazine. “They have a hell of a job on their hands.”
Refugees International paints a picture of food insecurity, disrupted supply chains, and disrupted lives, with frequent delays in the distribution of emergency supplies—particularly in Vanuatu, where a newly-elected government required items in incoming cargoes to be sprayed individually and quarantined for 36 hours. “By comparison, in Fiji, cargo is sprayed with disinfectant but then distributed within a few hours to communities that need it the most,” the report states.
“We’re approximately two weeks behind where we should be in terms of providing effective relief,” Glen Craig of the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council said April 28, despite public health guidance indicating that shipping containers were unlikely to spread the virus.
The story of Cyclone Harold points to the need for governments to boost the ability of national disaster management organizations (NDMOs) to respond to complex, combined crises, and to build up the capacity of the local communities that often see the worst impacts of severe storms Refugees International concludes. “First, it reduces the high costs of reaching outer islands, which perennially drains the already stretched annual budget” available to NDMOs,” the report states. “Most importantly, it extends the reach of humanitarian aid and reduces response times, thus helping to save more lives.”
“Early warnings on their own are not enough,” wrote CARE International researcher Jessica Webb, in an assessment of an earlier cyclone recovery effort. “They must be coupled with training and capacity support that extends down to the last mile,” particularly “at the provincial, area council, community, and household level to ensure that nationally issued early warnings are linked with effective preparatory actions.”
Refugees International also points to the failure by the international community to fund an adequate humanitarian response, partly because so much attention has been diverted to the pandemic. Two months after the storm, “requests for funding for relief and recovery by a number of UN agencies, including the [Food and Agriculture Organization] and UNICEF, have not been fulfilled,” and “it is essential that donors step up”, including Canada.
Pacific Island nations “don’t have the same social safety net as other communities,” Ober said. “So it’s a degree of vulnerability they already have,” from deep issues around poverty and development, to a largely tourism-based economy disrupted by repeat storms.
“It’s really up to the global North to step up and mitigate climate impacts as much as possible, but when it comes to serving these communities, providing humanitarian aid when necessary and talking very seriously about debt relief,” she added. As for the funding mechanisms available under the Paris Agreement, she said it was “almost laughable” when delegates to last year’s UN climate conference in Madrid proposed to pay for climate-related loss and damage through the Green Climate Fund, when the GCF itself is already so severely underfunded.