Climate catastrophe in the South Pacific

Cyclone Pam has caused devastation on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Struggling with the legacies of British and French colonialism and current forms of neo-colonialism, the people of Vanuatu are now faced with the consequences of catastrophic climate change, writes Nick Evans.

Cyclone Pam approaches Vanuatu capital of Port Vila on 13 March. Source: Harrison Tran via flickr (cc)

Cyclone Pam approaches Vanuatu capital of Port Vila on 13 March. Source: Harrison Tran via flickr (cc)

“We see the level of sea rise … The cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected,” said Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale at a UN conference in Japan. “This year we have more than in any year … Yes, climate change is contributing to this.”

According to the Unicef report, at least 6 people known to have been killed and 20 injured so far in the capital Port Vila, but there is no morgue capacity. On the island of Efate, where Port Vila is located, 90% of the infrastructure has been destroyed. The water supply has only been restored in some areas, and it is not clear whether it is safe to drink. The main hospital in Port Vila is short on medical staff, and its kitchen is largely unusable.

Meanwhile the Category 5 Cyclone Pam has caused destruction on other Pacific Islands: in Tuvalu 45% of the population have been evacuated, crops have been ruined and livestock killed, health centres destroyed in the northern islands. Tuvalu is waiting for air drops from Australia and New Zealand.

The islands of the South Pacific are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. The airlifts from the New Zealand and Australian military are currently providing a life-line. However, the extreme inequality of power between the island states and their neighbours, and the experience of recent history suggests we may see the injustice of a climate catastrophe made elsewhere compounded by the ravages of disaster capitalism and neo-colonialism.

The experience of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean was followed by what Naomi Klein described as a “second tsunami” in her book The Shock Doctrine, where militarised gentrification followed the original wave of destruction from the sea. Institutions such as the World Bank backed the Maldives government as it relocated entire populations of multiple islands under its “Safe Island Program”, making way for the development of tourism on the now depopulated beaches.

Vanuatu was under a joint British and French colonial administration until 1980, leaving a legacy of tensions between Anglophone and Francophone populations fostered by competition between the two administrations. Its people are now faced with neo-colonialism in the form of aggressive free trade agreements designed to pry open the economies of the Pacific Islands for Australian, New Zealand and global capital. Vanuatu is due to host the latest set of so called PACER Plus talks later this year.

Australian regional imperialism in the South Pacific comes backed up with military force: in 2003, in the context of the “War on Terror”, Australian troops were sent to the Solomon Islands, and have continued their occupation ever since. This is shaped by the wider context of the Australian ruling class’s concerns about growing Chinese influence in what they see as their own “backyard”, and by their efforts to position Australia as a key US ally in its “Asian pivot”.

The people of the South Pacific islands are painfully dependent on international aid at this moment. The reason is an unfolding climate catastrophe caused by imperial powers that will now present themselves as the islanders’ saviours. What is needed is reparations, not aid.

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