‘Their hearts are here’: islanders return to volcanic home

Story and photos by Paul Jones

AT the village of Sari Lohu in the northern part of Ambae, a small volcanic island in Vanuatu, Chief Titus Karack is the only person to return to this blackened community.

Vanuatu comprises more than 80 islands and is located on the earthquake-prone ‘ring of fire’ in the centre of the Pacific cyclone belt. The nation has to deal with volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, storm surges and coastal flooding on a regular basis. It’s considered to be one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural hazards.

It is something that the people of Ambae know all too well. Ambae Island is home to 11,000 people and the treacherous volcano, Manaro Voui.

The volcano has plagued residents for decades and in March last year started spewing torrents of ash, toxic gas and rocks from its crater.

The debris caused breathing and health problems, buried vegetable plots and crops under a thick blanket of black ash, and produced thick, ash-laden landslides.

By July, the national government had declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of the entire island’s population to neighbouring islands of Santo and Maewo with no idea of when they could return.

Chief Titus is one of the few to return to the island. His family is still on the neighbouring island of Maewo awaiting news to see if it is safe to return. The traditional gardens have been destroyed, water supplies have been discoloured and are unsuitable to drink.

The school roof has caved in under the weight of tonnes of ash made wet from recent rains, landslides have cut off roads and the football field is buried under half a metre of volcanic ash.

“Over the past year the people of Ambae have been forced to leave not once, but twice, after the Manaro volcano rumbled to life,” says Jason Raubani, coastal fisheries and aquaculture management and policy specialist of Pacific Community (SPC), who grew up in Naone village on Maewo. “Much of Ambae is now under a thick blanket of ash that has contaminated the water supplies, and caused landslides.”

Fast forward to today and clusters of small, tarpaulin-covered villages have popped up all over the long, thin island of Maewo. Hundreds of Ambaean families have left behind their homes, livelihoods and assets. Communities have been fractured and ties to the land suspended; the displaced now live in temporary shelters constructed with a mixture of traditional and modern materials.

Evacuees living in a makeshift house at Kaiwo village, North Maewo.
Evacuees living in a makeshift house at Kaiwo village, North Maewo.

“Our lives have been put on hold until it’s safe to go home,” says Lee Moses, a 62-year-old Ambaean community leader and chaplin. Moses has been living on Maewo since the government ordered the evacuation.

He believes if Maewo is to become a legitimate second home for some of Ambae’s people in the long term, then a safe and sustainable life must be attainable for the evacuees. Genuine support for rebuilding livelihoods and community are required. Not only a safe home but one that includes a sense of community and provides a nurturing environment for their children and elderly. “There have been resettlement issues, but conditions here are vastly better than on Ambae, where ash is everywhere.”

The people of Maewo have welcomed the new arrivals. According to local custom Ambae’s surrounding islands are part of a family – Santo being the mother, Maewo the father and Ambae the son.

Provincial Maewo Chief Albert Weiss says there is good co-operation between host communities and evacuees. “It is a good thing to take in the people of Ambae. It is safe here and there are no volcanoes.”

Provincial Maewo Chief Albert Weiss with his daughter and grandchild.
Provincial Maewo Chief Albert Weiss with his daughter and grandchild.

Chief Albert explains that most villages on Maewo have given space to evacuees to build temporary shelters, and the people provide them with local crops and vegetables.

Countries including Australia have also provided aid and financial help for evacuees.

The Australian government has provided $5.5 million to support the government of Vanuatu for logistics, provision of health and education services, and emerging infrastructure needs on Santo and Maewo, with a focus on the needs of women, children and people with disabilities.

The University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) has been working with the Vanuatu Fisheries Department since 2014 to support coastal fisheries development through collaborative research, and have also responded to help the people of Ambae rebuild a future.

Dr Dirk Steenbergen, a research fellow at ANCORS, has been working with the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries on community-based fisheries management.

“Almost overnight, the population on the island of Maewo doubled, putting pressure on natural resources on land and at sea. We are working with Vanuatu fisheries officers to increase fishing capacity of the Ambae evacuees so as to ensure they have access to fish for food,” says Dr Steenbergen, who leads the initiative in Vanuatu.

“After a natural disaster, the role of fish becomes really important. Agriculture is severely affected so people turn to the sea,” Dr Steenbergen says.

Australian researchers work with their local counterparts to assess what fish is available in the area, and both educate and equip locals to fish in a sustainable manner.

“Our work in Vanuatu is part of a larger project supported by Australian government funding across Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.”

Farmers who may have little knowledge of the sea are given training and advice on how to fish safely, and are also provided with equipment as part of the project. Fishing involves reef fish and pelagic, or ocean, fish, done at a subsistence level to feed local families.

Although the state of emergency was lifted on November 27, the Vanuatuan government have encouraged evacuees not to rush home. “It’s not that the Vanuatu government are forcing the people of Ambae to remain on Maewo. They just want them to consider the situation at home and decide carefully. They want them to fully establish their second home so that they know where to go in future crisis,” former Maewo resident Jason says.

But some Ambaeans are keen to board boats and see what is left of their homes.

On a recent trip to the island, we arrive at the first abandoned village as a handful of people jump from our ute. A dog frantically wagging its tail runs to our vehicle expecting to see its master. It sniffs around and then retires back from where it came.

Former Ambae resident and Vanuatu Fisheries Officer Malcolm Dubee says there will be many challenges faced by residents as they return to the island. “Ambae residents should be prepared to face potential food and water shortages, destroyed crops and closed roads on their return.”

The situation looks dire on the island and yet every day, more Ambaeans return home.

Chief Titus tells of the days leading up the evacuation. “There were rocks landing on my roof, the sun was blocked by thick ash. My family thought they would die.”

As the volcanic eruption worsened the people from his village become desperate for food supplies. It was then that Chief Titus said it was time to leave.

“You have to understand, yes, the volcano is dangerous, but this is my home. I think the main reason that many families are coming home is because their things are here, and their animals are here, even their hearts are here on Ambae,” he says.

Paul Jones travelled to Ambae with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security and the University of Wollongong.