The Pacific

Agriculture almost wiped out in Vanuatu by cyclone Pam

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Cyclone Pam wiped out whole crops as it tore through Vanuatu's farmland
Cyclone Pam wiped out whole crops as it tore through Vanuatu's farmland

Related tags: Agriculture

Strong winds, heavy rains and floods in the wake of severe tropical cyclone Pam have caused extensive damage to agriculture across Vanuatu, including its main food and export crops, livestock and fisheries infrastructure, the Food and Agriculture Office of the United Nations has warned.

Vanuatu’s government’s initial assessments have found that the majority of fruit trees were stripped and chickens and pigs killed. Almost the entire banana crop was destroyed, while coconuts and all of the inland cabbage plants and leafy vegetables were hit. Root crops, which are an important local food source, were uprooted and flooded in most areas.

In addition to the destruction of crops, existing food and seed stocks were also destroyed by the cyclone, eliminating a vital source of food and income for families and increasing the needs for imports. The initial assessments also indicate destruction of fishing boats and gear.

With most of the household stocks and garden production lost, farmers risk being without locally produced food by the end of March until at least mid-June, when the first harvest from replanted fast-growing food crops could be available provided replanting starts immediately.

In urban areas, imported rice and wheat are the main staples, but rural areas rely heavily on locally produced crops grown year-round and are expected to be affected most.

Director-general José Graziano da Silva said the FAO was working with the government of Vanuatu to “help rebuild people’s lives and livelihoods, particularly in rural areas​.”

Supporting Vanuatu after the disastrous cyclone begins with emergency agricultural assistance that FAO will provide together with the government of Vanuatu and other partners, but can only end when full recovery is achieved and Vanuatu has increased its resilience to extreme weather events that are bound to occur again​,” Da Silva said.

Agriculture key to livelihoods

Assessing the full scale of damage and needs on Vanuatu’s 80-plus islands remains a challenge due to lack of functional communications and limited access following the destruction caused by cyclone Pam.

Around 99% of households on the outer islands are dependent on agricultural production to meet their consumption and income needs, while even in the capital of Port Vila, around 75% of households consume their own produce.

Livestock production represents another significant contribution to GDP, with exports to Japan and other Pacific Island countries.

This underlines the fundamental importance of agriculture and fisheries to the livelihoods of communities and the impact Pam will have on the food security of the affected population​,” said the FAO’s regional chief, Gavin Wall.

We know that Vanuatu communities have long-standing traditional coping mechanisms to address immediate food needs and resume their agricultural production. FAO must ensure its interventions support their work and address the long-term rehabilitation of the agriculture sector​.”

Urgent need to replant

As an immediate intervention, urgent international assistance is needed for seeds, farming equipment and technical expertise to help the disaster-struck Pacific Island nation rebuild.

The government of Vanuatu has called for international support to help the agriculture sector get back on its feet.  

Meanwhile, the department of agriculture and rural development is urging farmers to use the materials that are available to begin replanting immediately to ensure food security for future months.

Farmers must act quickly to save planting materials and start planting anywhere they can, said the department, which recommended initially using materials that would otherwise rot quickly, like kumala vines and banana suckers, followed by the less perishable materials like manioc.

In addition to emergency planting of new crops, all communities must immediately begin preserving or storing any available foods using traditional or modern methods like drying, salting, slow cooking meat, and burying root crops in the sand.

Pam hit Vanuatu while UN experts were meeting in Japan to discuss disaster risk reduction measures. In a report published at the meeting the FAO said that agriculture bears the brunt of natural disasters. 

Over a 10-year period from 2003 to 2013, the agriculture sector suffered some US$70bn in damages to crops and livestock—some 22% of the damage inflicted by natural hazards such as drought, floods storms or tsunamis.

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