Changing cities in hazardous climates: Mixed messaging – Port Vila and Tropical Cyclone Pam

Alexei Trundle
RMIT University, Australia

More than a month after Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated the eastern, central and southern islands of the Vanuatu archipelago roughly two-thirds of the Pacific island nation’s 278,000 citizens continue to be directly affected. Over 110,000 ni-Vanuatu in are need of clean drinking water and an estimated 180,000 are reliant on food aid (as a result of 90% of the country’s agriculture and subsistence crops being destroyed).

The Category 5 storm was one of the strongest ever recorded in the South Pacific, peaking with maximum sustained winds of approximately 270 kph (167 mph) and a central ‘eye’ pressure of less than 896 hPa. However, unlike the wildfires that destroyed over 2000 houses and killed 173 people in nearby Australia in 2009, or the 2003 European heatwave that contributed to between 30,000-70,000 premature deaths across 17 countries, the interactions between anthropogenic climate change and Pam’s destructive impacts are hard to quantify, communicate, and act upon. Nowhere is this complexity and its community-level disconnect with established climate adaptation planning approaches more evident than in the city of Port Vila, where rapid urban change, a history of exposure to natural hazards and climatic variability, and a complex interface between traditional subsistence livelihoods, foreign aid and the global cash economy, all collide.

Figure 1: Interactive map of Cyclone Pam’s track and damage estimates (link to UNOSAT)
Figure 1: Interactive map of Cyclone Pam’s track and damage estimates (link to UNOSAT)

Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, has recently been rated the world’s most exposed city to natural disasters. Despite this notorious title, it continues to attract inward migration from rural areas of Vanuatu at a rapid rate, in large part due to economic opportunities and access to education and healthcare services. Although the central ‘municipal’ area’s population growth over the last two decades – albeit at a globally high annual growth rate of 5% – the greater urban area (shown shaded in Figure 1) grew at an annual average rate of 10.7% between 1999 and the last census in 2009, continuing a trend of the capital’s population doubling every decade since independence in 1980.

Figure 1: Urbanization, as demonstrated by changing density, across Greater Port Vila - 1999-2009
Figure 2: Urbanization, as demonstrated by changing density, across Greater Port Vila – 1999-2009

Entrenched poverty, land tenure issues, and limited access to services and utilities characterise Port Vila’s rapidly-growing peri-urban fringe (see Figure 3). Based on 2012 surveys by the Vanuatu National Housing Corporation, an estimated 17% of the greater urban area’s inhabitants reside in informal settlements (2009 census figures exclude households with rental tenure arrangements, preventing more accurate analysis). Only 49% of households have either plumbed or water-sealed sanitation facilities, while 14% of households lack any form of access to piped drinking water (either through private, shared or village facilities). According to the 2010 Vanuatu Household Income and Expenditure Survey, 1 in 7 households in Port Vila fall below the Basic Needs Poverty Line, with a quarter of the city’s households dependent on ecosystem-derived goods such as fish, handicrafts and cash-crops for income.

Figure 3: A permanent housing strucutre in the Blacksands informal settlement area (L) and the single communal sanitation facility (showers, toilets, and potable water access) shared by the hundreds of residents in Seaside Paama.

The ability – and motivation – to plan for and adapt to future climate changes using conventional climate adaptation planning approaches in Port Vila is therefore significantly less than in more stable, established, or affluent urban contexts. Firstly, there is arguably more certainty in the projected changes to annual average temperatures and sea level rise by 2030 (which vary little between Representative Concentration Pathway scenarios until the mid-21st century) than the non-climate urban typology upon which such climate information must be overlayed; by which time Port Vila will potentially have had to absorb an additional one-and-a-half times its current day population. This disconnects climate projections from urban realities and futures, which form the basis of implementation and action.

Secondly, immediate developmental needs – framed in terms of current day livability, livelihoods and municipal governance and infrastructure – are self-evident, irrespective of the additional lens of projected climatic changes. This ‘urban deficit’ takes immediate political and social precedence over adaptation-driven actions, regardless of whether they might be maladaptive in the longer-term. For instance, although some of the communities within the Blacksands informal settlement area (shown in Figure 2 above) may be required to retreat over the latter half of this century due to coastal erosion, recurring storm surge impacts and saline intrusion, the imperative to address basic human rights such as access to water and safe housing are more pressing and tangible priorities for the communities and individuals involved.

Thirdly, short-term climate trends that often trigger or drive political and social will for climate action are not sending noticeable – or in some cases measureable – local signals. Total annual rainfall fluctuates from as little as 800mm to up to as much as 4000mm, with seasonal patterns heavily affected by the El Niño Southern Oscillation and not showing statistically significant trends over the last three decades (see Figure 4). Temperature trends over the last half-century are relatively moderate, with mean daily temperatures having increased by 0.1°C, showing no discernible trend in extreme daily air temperatures. Unlike other low-lying parts of Vanuatu (or the more high profile coral atoll Pacific island nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu), sea level rise also presents a relatively small direct threat to the urban land area, which is located at the intersection of alluvial plains, rugged volcanic topography and areas of coral uplift.

Figure 4: Port Vila Rainfall (L) and Temperature (R) Long-term trends (data sourced from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

When overlaid on top of these considerations, the immense destructive force of Cyclone Pam presents a significant communicative and logistical challenge as the city and its communities recover from severe damage to 73% of the city’s buildings, disruption of food supply networks, and the loss of 11 lives, particularly as recovery is in part driven by development funds and organisations discursively or explicitly framed by climate adaptation. Global Climate Model projections show considerable disagreement in changes to the frequency and intensity of cyclones that form in the South Pacific region, due to: the relatively small scale of Tropical Cyclone systems; the complex oceanic and atmospheric variables that contribute to their formation and intensity; uncertainty in changes to regional climate and ocean systems; and a lack of statistically significant trends in historical records. As a result there is medium confidence that by the end of the 21st century there are likely to be slightly less cyclones at a global scale (6-35%), while those that do occur are projected to have moderately more intense maximum mean wind speeds (2-11%) and generate between 3-37% more localized rainfall over the same period. It is therefore unlikely that – despite Pam’s severity – a direct causal link will be able to be drawn between the event itself and anthropogenic climate change.

This is not to say that climate impacts will not be or are not already being felt in Port Vila; other variables such as ocean acidification and coral bleaching are likely to severely impact local livelihoods in the medium term and are already damaging local fisheries , while the risk of drought and reduced rainfall has the potential to threaten the city’s overstretched aquifer-based drinking water supply. Sea level rise over the last half century also played a minor role in increasing exposure to Pam’s cyclonic storm surge in low lying areas in and around the city.

However, it is clear that existing assessment, planning and response frameworks – driven by climate projections and individual hazard-specific assessments – are disconnected from the day-to-day lives and knowledge systems of the urban communities to which they are being applied.

It is perhaps not surprising that  development practitioners in growing urban centers such as Port Vila that are driving a shift from Climate Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction towards the emergent frame of Climate Resilient Development. Resilience is itself a contested theory, having been applied in the fields of ecology, engineering, psychology, economics and security since the 1970s. However, Climate Resilience is nonetheless proving to be more conceptually consistent with community-level experiences of current day natural hazards and a changing urban form, and therefore presents an opportunity to develop frameworks and mechanisms that better address the uncertainty, vulnerability, and need for transitionary change in cities such as Port Vila.

The people of Vanuatu have over centuries developed extensive customary (kastom) systems and techniques for coping with their high level of exposure to natural hazards such as Tropical Cyclone Pam. However, the urbanisation process has brought these traditional systems into conflict with Western forms of infrastructure, governance and knowledge, as well as the global consequences of these imported consumption-driven behaviour patterns (both negative and positive), ranging from climate change to an increasing interconnectivity of resources and rapidly evolving technologies.

Whether ‘Climate Resilient Development’ will provide a strong foundation for planning rapidly growing and developing cities in the face of current and future shocks and stressors is yet to be seen. However the emergence of the concept, as well as frameworks and mechanisms for assessing and improving the resilience of the cities in which it is applied, presents an opportunity to reconnect climate science and adaptation efforts with the cities and communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.


Acknowledgments: This blog post reflects on research funded by the UN Habitat Cities and Climate Change Initiative, conducted by Alexei Trundle and Professor Darryn McEvoy from RMIT University. The input of the Vanuatu National Advisory Board on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction, Port Vila Municipal Government, Shefa Provincial Government, numerous governmental and non-government agencies and organisations, and the community of Port Vila is gratefully acknowledged. Figures and photographs are the authors own unless otherwise stated.

Alexei Trundle is a researcher at the RMIT University Climate Change Adaptation Program in Melbourne, Australia

Header Image: Port Vila, Vanuatu.  Credit: Alexei Trundle


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