Vanuatu plans to permanently evacuate entire volcanic island
Some residents are unwilling to leave, officials say, because of their strong cultural associations with the island
The Pacific nation of Vanuatu is preparing to permanently evacuate the entire population of one of its islands as thick ash spewing from a volcano kills crops, dirties water supplies and fouls the air.
The 10,000 or so people who remain on Ambae island have mixed feelings about the plans. Some who are badly affected by the ash are eager to leave while others are resisting losing their land and culture.
The island was temporarily evacuated last September when the eruption cycle began. This time, authorities are planning a permanent move.
Government spokesman Hilaire Bule said on Thursday that he expects the Council of Ministers to approve a relocation plan by next week. Bule said the islanders would be offered residence on two neighbouring islands.
“It’s not an easy decision,” Bule said.
He said there were many details to work through, including providing schools and facilities to the displaced residents and negotiating land and new homes for them.
Many people have close family and spiritual ties to the islands where they’ll be moved, Maewo and Pentecost, Bule said. Traditional religion even has it that the islands are part of a family – Pentecost being the mother, Maewo the father and Ambae the son.
Most people on Ambae live a subsistence lifestyle by farming and fishing. Already hundreds of people have moved to temporary shelters on parts of the island that are not so affected by the ash.
Ambae is about 400 sq km (154 square miles) and is one of about 65 inhabited islands in Vanuatu, which is home to 280,000 people.
Vanuatu sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”, the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanoes are common.
Brad Scott, a New Zealand vulcanologist with GNS Science who has been seconded to help Vanuatu authorities, said more than one-quarter of Ambae has been severely affected, with many traditional thatch roofs collapsing under the weight of the thick ash.
He said traditional gardens have been buried and killed in some places and water supplies have been discoloured and the water tastes strange. He said there is a lot of fine-grained ash, which can affect people’s breathing and respiratory functioning.
Other countries including France, New Zealand and Australia provided aid and financial help for the earlier evacuation. Australia on Thursday announced it was providing A$300,000 (US$226,000) to help the island’s permanent evacuation, with a focus on the needs of women, children and people with disabilities.
Despite the problems, he said, many people want to stay.
“There has been significant pushback in the community,” Scott said. “Some people, suffering from significant ash fall, would love to be anywhere else on the planet. Others have strong cultural associations.”
Scott said the Manaro volcano on Ambae island had a large eruption about 400 years ago and has had several smaller eruptions over the past 100 years. There have been three phases in the current eruption, with the most recent phase, which started in March, producing the most ash.
He said the volcano has actually quietened down over the past two weeks, although there is no way of predicting if and when the next explosive phase would begin.
Asked whether there was a chance that the residents might be able to one day move back to the island, Bule, the government spokesman, said that was not a question for him.
“We don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask the volcano.”