Cyclone Pam devastated the island nation of Vanuatu earlier this month, in what many consider to be one of the Pacific’s worst in history. Early reports coming out of the island point to one sector in particular which has been affected by the cyclone: agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that in the outer islands of Vanuatu, about 99% of households rely on agricultural production to meet their consumption and income needs – and even in the capital city of Port Vila, that number remains at 75%. Pam wiped almost all of those crops, livestock and fishing away.
The materials and tools to plant, the boats to fish, the grass to graze, and the roads to transport all need to be rebuilt and regrown. The government and people of Vanuatu are trying to do just this, but resources from the international community will play a huge role. International organizations have certainly stepped up in the wake of the cyclone, but more resources will need to be mobilized to meet immediate needs and facilitate long-term rehabilitation of the agriculture sector.
In a cruel irony, at the same time that Cyclone Pam was tearing through Vanuatu, on another island nation a few thousand miles north (Japan), global leaders gathered for the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Leaders at the conference committed to a framework with targets intended to substantially reduce the number of people killed and affected by disasters, infrastructure and services, and economic losses by 2030.
These pledges may pave the way for future action, which is why it’s really important to better understand who and what is affected most by disasters, and if the resources are being directed where they are needed most.
A report put out by the FAO at the conference presented some striking conclusions; though agriculture bore about a quarter of the $70 billion in damages of disasters from 2003-2013, it received less than 5% of post-disaster humanitarian aid.
These numbers don’t add up. To put this into perspective, about two-thirds of people in sub-Saharan Africa earn their livelihoods from agriculture. Drought is one of the main causes of disaster in this region, representing over $23.5 billion in damages in the past 10 years. This has led to, on average, 9.6 million people requiring humanitarian assistance annually in the Horn of Africa alone. If a quarter of damages from disasters are to agriculture, surely more resources after disasters are needed to secure the short and long-term food security of populations. Building resilience to these known risks is critical for lasting change.
Building resilience means moving beyond addressing emergencies once a cyclone, drought, tsunami or other hazard has created a disaster. It starts with developing the capacity of farmers to cope, by increasing resources to research drought or flood resistant crops, developing innovations in irrigation, creating social safety nets, and internalizing risk in national agriculture strategies.
Here in the U.S. we can call on Congress to continue support to programs like Feed the Future and Food for Peace (food aid), while strengthening and modernizing them so they are most effective. The recent Global Food Security Act (H.R. 1567) is a great example – one of the key points of emphasis in this bill is on building the resilience of chronically vulnerable populations. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and smart investments in aid work the same way.