Late last week, a Category 5 tropical cyclone ripped through the island nation of Vanuatu, killing at least 24 people and displacing 3,300 more. In statement to the Associated Press, Vanuatu’s president Baldwin Lonsdale said that 90 percent of the island’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged by the storm.
But it wasn’t just buildings that were left in ruins by Cyclone Pam: Vanuatu’s staple root crops — as well as crucial banana and fruiting trees — also suffered irreversible damage, severely limiting the island’s ability to feed itself in the coming weeks and months.
“Our agricultural experts estimate that Vanuatu’s people will run out of food in less than one week from today,” David Tosul, Vanuatu’s minister of agriculture, said in a statement issued March 18. “Our Government must start distributions immediately.”
Local emergency food stores exist, Tosul continued, but will only last for eight days, and local suppliers won’t receive more food shipments until April.
In addition to threatening the nation’s food security, the destruction of Vanuatu’s crops jeopardizes residents’ livelihoods, as two-thirds of the islands’ residents make their living from farming.
— Sam Bolitho (@SamBolitho) March 18, 2015
Speaking at a U.N. disaster risk reduction conference Monday, Lonsdale blamed climate change for the cyclone, and called for increased focus on resilience planning.
Each year, according to Lonsdale, Vanuatu loses 6 percent of its GDP to disasters — and tropical storms like cyclones could become stronger and more frequent in the coming years. According to the World Bank, the frequency and occurrence of Category 4 and 5 storms in the Pacific region more than doubled over the period from 1975–1989 to 1990–2004
That’s bad news for farmers in Vanuatu and other developing countries, especially in light of a new U.N. report, released at the same conference at which Lonsdale spoke, that looked at the economic impact of natural disasters in the agricultural sector of developing countries. According to the report, conducted by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture absorbs 22 percent of economic impact when natural disasters hit developing nations.
When looked at from a climate perspective — disasters that are explicitly linked to climate change, like droughts and tropical storms — that number jumps to 25 percent. For droughts specifically, agriculture absorbs on average 84 percent of the impact. Previous assessments estimated that developing countries’ agriculture absorbed just 13 percent of economic damages.
Between 2003 and 2013, the report found, 67 developing nations were hit with at least one medium to large-scale natural disaster, which caused a total of $70 billion in agricultural production loses. When a developing nation is hit by a natural disaster, crops suffer the most, accounting for 47 percent of total damages and loses (some $13 billion between 2003 and 2013). The next most affected sub-sector was livestock, which accounts for 36 percent of damages and loses (around $11 billion).
According to the Guardian, around 2.5 small-scale farmers depend on agriculture to survive; these farmers are also responsible for producing 50 percent of the world’s food.
“We know we need to increase global food security by 60 percent … Bearing in mind that around 50 percent of global food production is produced by these 2.5 billion smallholders, we have a huge challenge ahead of us, and an increasing number of disasters affecting these people,” Dominique Burgeon, FAO’s resilience coordinator, told the Guardian.
Echoing Lonsdale, the report ended by calling for an increased focus on disaster risk reduction measures. Highlighting places like Tanzania — which explicitly includes risk reduction planning as part of its national agriculture development plan — the report proposed that other country’s adopt measures to include risk reduction in their national plans.
“Agricultural growth and productivity depends on food production systems that are resilient against production failure due to shocks and climate variability,” the report warned. “This requires a strong emphasis on sector–specific disaster risk reduction measures … as well as on a more sustainable use and management of vital resources such as land, water, soil nutrients and genetic resources.”
If you’d like to donate to support relief efforts in Vanuatu, visit the Red Cross Cyclone Pam 2015 Appeal.