Clear blue skies on Monday morning over the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu belied the devastation wreaked over the weekend by Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 storm.
More than 90 percent of the buildings in the island nation have been damaged or destroyed, Vanuatu president Baldwin Lonsdale told the Associated Press Monday. Coincidentally, Lonsdale was speaking from a disaster risk reduction conference in Japan that began this week. He reported six people are confirmed dead and 30 have been hospitalized, with more casualties expected.
Lonsdale blamed climate change for the severity of the storm, and said his country is being threatened by rising sea levels.
“Vanuatu is used to disasters but the indications are that Cyclone Pam has caused unprecedented damages,” he said at the United Nations conference in Sendai, Japan.
Classified as a Small Island State, Vanuatu is “extremely vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change, according to the World Bank. The population is concentrated along the low-lying coastline and port cities, which increases vulnerability to sea-level rise. It is also one of the poorest countries in the South Pacific.
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, the World Bank reports.
According to the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, disasters have had an economic toll of $526 million to Vanuatu over the past 10 years, nearly all caused by cyclones.
“We have been shocked at the size of Cyclone Pam,” New Zealand Red Cross spokesperson Andrew McKie said in a statement. “The priority for people affected in Vanuatu is expected to be shelter, food, water, and first aid.”
Increased temperatures can contribute to stronger storms, scientists say, and rising sea levels can make storm surges more damaging to coastlines. According to the United Nations, climate-related disasters now account for over 80 percent of all disaster events.
“We’re not putting enough emphasis on sea-level rise and how it will make us all more vulnerable to tropical storms regardless of how they are affected by climate change,” Suzana Camargo, a cyclone expert at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has said.
At the conference, Lonsdale pleaded for an international policy framework to address “the drivers of disaster risk such as climate change.”
“This is a major calamity for our country,” he said. “After all the development we have done for the last couple of years and this big cyclone came and just destroyed all the infrastructure the government has built.” Lonsdale said the country loses six percent of its GDP to disasters each year.
Two-thirds of Vanuatu’s population makes its living from farming. Tourism, fishing, and offshore financial services are other economic drivers.