Planning ahead to reduce feast and famine after natural disasters

Tanna Island locals replanting crops, only days after Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. AAP/Dave Hunt

Since Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu almost 100 days ago, food has been scarce for many rural people in Vanuatu.

Those in the worst-affected areas have been living on food gleaned from damaged gardens and coconuts, as well as imported rice and other foods distributed by the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office. Many non-government organisations, including Oxfam, Save the Children, Uniting World and others, have also been involved in cyclone recovery.

Port Vila’s fresh food market, where yams were still selling for twice their usual price earlier this month. Mike Constable, CC BY-NC-ND

By early June, faster-maturing food crops, particularly green leafy vegetables, were being sold in larger quantities again in the Port Vila fresh food market.

However, the slower-growing staple food crops – including yam, taro, banana and sweet potato – were still in limited supply, with prices higher than before Cyclone Pam.

Fortunately, rural people across Vanuatu have greater security of food supply than they did in the past.

Here we examine the issues of food security in Vanuatu since Cyclone Pam, as well as patterns of food shortages that have emerged from other recent Pacific emergencies. By learning from these past emergencies, the region’s most vulnerable communities could be better positioned for the future with both pre- and post-disaster planning.

Recurring food gluts and shortages

A number of phases for food supply can typically be distinguished following a major natural disturbance, such as a cyclone or a flood. This pattern has largely been observed in post-Cyclone Pam Vanuatu.

At first, there is a glut of food when crops are damaged, but the tuberous roots or fruit are still edible. This phase can last for several weeks. Then relief may be provided, for some people at least, by government or non-government agencies.

Banana trees blown over on Ipota, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam. Flicker/EC/ECHO, CC BY-NC-ND

In many developing countries, food relief is typically patchy, the timing is not always appropriate and the supply does not last as long as the food shortage. Commonly, a critical gap occurs between the end of relief supplies and the start of harvests from new plantings following the disaster.

Finally, subsistence food production is resumed. This starts with fast-maturing green vegetables, maize (also known as corn) and sweet potato, and then slower-maturing crops, such as taro, yam and banana.

Following an extreme natural event that disrupts food supply, it is common for government officers or outsiders to assess the food supply situation.

Over the decades, we have observed that the impact of more spectacular events, such as landslides, local floods, mild drought or frosts, tends to be overestimated in those assessments.

In contrast, the impact of other, less visible events is ignored or underestimated. In particular, these events include inadequate planting rates that result in food shortages, or excessively high rainfall that leads to good top growth in some root crops but reduced tuber yield.

Improving food security in rural Vanuatu

The locations most vulnerable to cyclones in Vanuatu are low-lying islands near the path of a cyclone, particularly those that are remote or distant from urban centres, with small populations and poor communications. Islands such as Emau, Tongoa, Tongariki, Mataso and Aniwa appear to have suffered disproportionately from Cyclone Pam.

The islands of Vanuatu. Wikimedia Commons/Burmesedays, Eric Gaba, ru Wikipedia user Переход Артур, CC BY-SA

Three out of four people in rural Vanuatu live in rural settlements, a situation similar to that of other countries in the Southwest Pacific. Villagers grow most of their own food, with 70-85% of energy foods coming from their subsistence food gardens. The most important energy foods for rural Vanuatu are taro, banana, yam, cassava and “Fiji” (Xanthosoma) taro.

In the past when garden food was scarce, for whatever reason, people ate coconuts, “wild yam”, breadfruit (stored in pits in the northern islands), fish and various edible green leaves. In many communities, dependence on some of these traditional coping mechanisms appears to have been reduced or lost altogether in recent decades. For example, fewer people now store breadfruit after harvest and not so many people manage “wild” yams.

Despite this, rural people across much of the Pacific have greater food security than they did in the past. This improved security comes firstly from crops introduced by Europeans and other Pacific Island people over the past 200 years, including cassava, “Fiji” taro, sweet potato, maize, African yam, pumpkin and a number of types of green vegetable. Some of the newly adopted food crops are more tolerant of extreme conditions, particularly cassava, while others mature within a few months when planted after a disaster, particularly maize and sweet potato.

The other major factor in increased food security is the availability of cash, which can be used to purchase imported food, particularly rice, or locally grown foods when subsistence food supplies are scarce.

Learning from past disasters to help in future

A number of lessons can be gleaned from subsistence food shortages elsewhere in the Asia Pacific area.

Food intended for rural villagers may not be moved far beyond the capital city or provincial capital; even when it does get moved to rural areas, distribution is commonly very uneven and does not always reach those in greatest need.

Planting material is often distributed with the best of intentions, but is sometimes not appropriate to local conditions, such as crops with low nutritional value like cucumber or cabbage. The most appropriate planting material to distribute following a disruption to rural food supplies is that of fast-growing crops of high nutritional value, particularly maize and sweet potato.

In 1997, Papua New Guinea experienced a major El Nino-related drought with accompanying frosts, the most severe of these events in 130 years of recorded history. This resulted in over 40% of rural villagers being short of subsistence food and a significant increase in the death rate in a number of locations.

The common element in those locations was that people had very limited access to cash income to purchase alternative foods; there was no road access; and people had limited capacity to influence authorities to provide aid, because of isolation and lack of formal education.

It is not possible to predict the impact of any natural catastrophe with complete confidence. Nevertheless there are some recurring patterns. The most vulnerable communities live in remote locations, with poor road, river or sea access to urban centres; and the populations at these locations are typically small, with few educated members in positions of power.

Rising sea levels and more extreme climatic events associated with climate change, including more frequent drought, excessive rainfall events and stronger cyclones, are very likely to challenge food supply in our region in coming decades. These threats can be reduced by improving the capacity of authorities to identify the most vulnerable communities, improving communications, ensuring appropriate and timely responses, and maintaining or building on traditional coping strategies.

This article was co-written with Mike Constable, a long-time aid and development worker who has recently been in Vanuatu as part of Uniting World‘s relief effort. He has previously worked for AusAID.