The impact of climate change on Vanuatu

The small island states of the South Pacific have been described as a "global front line" in the struggle of developing countries to adapt to climate change (CCD 2009). However, some of these island states are more vulnerable than others. Whilst climate change clearly poses an acute danger to low-lying atoll nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, whose long-term viability may be threatened (Barnett & Adger 2003), its consequences for larger and more mountainous island countries are less clear. Here I consider the impact of climate change on one such country: the Republic of Vanuatu.



Though a tiny country by global standards, among South Pacific nations Vanuatu is relatively large, comprising a chain of high volcanic islands in the south-western Pacific with a total land area of 12 190 km². The climate is tropical and generally wet, though there are marked seasonal and regional differences in rainfall. Vanuatu's relatively sparse population of 209 920 is composed mainly of indigenous Melanesians, 80% of whom are rural and lead isolated and traditional lives (FAO 2008, NACCC 2008).

Although Vanuatu's GDP is only moderately low, at US$2,385 per capita (ADB 2009), it is classified by the UN as a Least Developed Country due to its high economic vulnerability (NACCC 2008). The country is highly prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions (GFDRR 2009), and like most small island states it has a very narrow economic base (Nurse & Sem 2001). Over 65% of its people rely on subsistence agriculture, while the remainder depend on a few key industries, of which the most valuable is tourism (ADB 2009). Staple foods include yam, taro and banana (Welegtabit 2001), while the main cash crops are coconuts, kava (a narcotic root) and cocoa. Forestry, fishing and the raising of livestock are also important sources of income (VNSO 2007).

Despite its low GDP and poor performance on some indicators of human development (World Bank 2006), one index of human and environmental 'happiness' ranked Vanuatu the top country in the world, in recognition of the fact that its people achieve relatively contented lives with extremely low consumption of resources (NEF 2006). Vanuatu's own climate change adaptation plan states that "'poverty' is not considered an issue for the country" so long as its people can sustain themselves adequately from their land and sea (NACCC 2008). However, poverty does indisputably exist among the country's small but rapidly-growing urban population (Chung & Hill 2002), whose future will depend upon development and economic growth.


Climate change in Vanuatu

Historical climate data for Vanuatu is limited, but there is some evidence of a trend towards warmer and drier conditions over the past half century (FAO 2008). This trend is projected to continue, with the south-western Pacific experiencing a regional temperature rise of 2°C by 2050 and lower average precipitation, a pattern associated with El Niño-type weather conditions, although the impact will vary between islands (IPCC 2008, Nurse & Sem 2001). The intensity of cyclones is also expected to increase (IPCC 2007).

These changes have ecological implications. High water temperatures, combined with ocean acidification due to rising CO2 levels, are likely to cause severe stress to coral reefs in the south-western Pacific (Coles 2008), and mangrove ecosystems are also threatened (Gilman et al 2006). Climate change can also alter disease patterns, and there are fears that warmer conditions may facilitate the spread of malaria and dengue fever in the region (Ebi et al 2006).

Globally, climate change is predicted to raise sea levels by between 18 and 59cm by 2050 (IPCC 2007). Tidal measurements from Vanuatu show a significant sea level rise since 1993, although the data series is too short to draw a firm conclusion about the rate of change (SPSLCMP 2009). As illustrated in Figure 2, on some islands in Vanuatu tectonic uplift may outpace this rise in sea levels, but other locations are vulnerable (NACCC 2008), notably the Torres Islands in the north of the archipelago, where a coastal village was recently forced to relocate onto higher ground due to increasing inundation by the sea (Doyle 2005).

Figure 1: recent historical rates of tectonic uplift estimated for various locations in Vanuatu (Dugas et al 1977, Taylor et al 1985, Neef & Hendy 1988, Taylor et al 1990, Lagabrielle et al 2003, Neef et al 2003), compared with the current estimated rate of global sea level rise (Bindoff et al 2007). Note that these figures are variable and uncertain, and should be taken only as a general illustration of the situation.


The effect on agriculture

With a majority of the country's population living directly off their land, the most crucial question surrounding climate change in Vanuatu is its effect on agriculture. There are concerns that climate change could reduce agricultural yields through heat stress, changes in rainfall and greater pest activity (FAO 2008). Seasonal weather patterns may become more extreme, with lack of water at drier times of year causing stress to crops while intensified rainfall during storms causes waterlogging and soil erosion (IPCC 2008, NACCC 2008). Evidence from elsewhere in the world suggests that yields of coconuts, Vanuatu's most important export crop, increase with rainfall, and would thus be harmed by drier conditions (Fernando et al 2007). Crop yields may benefit from higher levels of atmospheric CO2, but global studies suggest that in general this effect will not be sufficient to offset the decrease in yields brought about by climatic stress (Long et al 2006). However, there has been a lack of specific research into how Vanuatu's main crops - particularly tuberous staples such as yam and taro (Miglietta et al 2000) - respond to alterations in climate and CO2 levels.

At present Vanuatu's agricultural potential is under-utilised, with productivity low and only a third of cultivable land in use (ADB 2007, NACCC 2008). It might therefore be hoped that the introduction of more modern farming methods and the bringing of additional land under cultivation could offset any decrease in yields brought about by climate change. However, intensification and modernisation of agriculture brings risks of its own, exacerbating environmental problems such as soil degradation and deforestation, and undermining traditional methods of coping with natural hazards such as the preserving of fruit and maintaining of plots of cyclone-resistant root vegetables alongside other crops (Welegtabit 2007). Rapid population growth is another concern (FAO 2008), and could negate any enhancement of food security brought about by improvements in agriculture.


The effect on fisheries

Fishing is important to the nutrition and self-reliance of many rural islanders (FAO 2008), with a subsistence fishery harvest estimated at 2,400 tonnes in 2000. In addition, foreign fishing vessels operating under license in Vanuatu's 680 000 km² exclusive economic zone caught $9.23 million worth of tuna in 2005, although Vanuatu currently receives only a very small share of this value (ADB 2007).

The effects of climate change on ocean circulation patterns and coastal ecosystems are likely to have an impact on fishery harvests. Catches of tuna are expected to increase in the western Pacific and decrease further east as a result of climate change, benefiting Vanuatu at the expense of other countries (World Bank 2000). However, climate change may have a negative effect on small-scale coastal fisheries through degradation of reef and mangrove ecosystems (Nurse & Sem 2001). There is also evidence that warmer water temperatures increase the risk of ciguatera poisoning (Hales et al 2001), which is a major health hazard for those consuming reef fish in Vanuatu.


The effect on tourism

Climate change has potential consequences for tourism, which is Vanuatu's most valuable export industry (ADB 2009). Over 75% of visitors to Vanuatu originate from Australia and New Zealand (VNSO n.d.), and warmer winters in countries such as these, together with perceptions of increased risk from tropical diseases and natural disasters, may deter tourists from visiting the country (Barnett 2008). Intensified storms and rising sea levels could also inflict costly damage upon coastal tourist infrastructure (WTO 2007).

The desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions will create pressure in developed countries to reduce long-distance air travel, perhaps through greater taxation (Nurse & Sem 2001, WTO 2007). This could harm Vanuatu's tourist industry: data from Australia show that tourists will substitute domestic for foreign holidays if the price of international travel is increased (Hamal 1996). However, efforts to reduce the distance flown by tourists could also benefit Vanuatu, which is closer to Australia and New Zealand than many comparable destinations (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Travel distances from Australia and New Zealand to Vanuatu and other popular tropical island destinations. (Data from and



It would be extremely incautious - and not in the interests of many of those who report on the issue - to say that Vanuatu is not vulnerable to climate change. Risks do exist, especially in the agricultural sector, in which there is an urgent need for more research. Particular localities within Vanuatu that are low-lying or water-stressed may be impacted severely. However, with its substantial and relatively under-utilised natural resources, including large areas of high and fertile land, it can at the very least be said that Vanuatu is much better placed to deal with the threat than the neighbouring island countries with which it is often categorised. Some recent evaluations of the state of Vanuatu (e.g. ADB 2009, SPC 2008) do even not mention climate change. Vanuatu also has a long experience of coping with natural hazards: villages in the country have been successfully relocated following past disasters such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis (Campbell et al 2005).

The major cause for concern in Vanuatu is that the country's poor level of development and narrow economic base will impair its ability to adapt even to relatively minor climate impacts. It is notable that most of the climate change adaptation measures recommended for Vanuatu by its government and UN agencies (FAO 2008, NACCC 2008) - which include further development of agriculture and other industries, improving governance, widening access to rural services, and addressing population growth - are general prescriptions for development rather than specific responses to climate-related hazards. Climate change presents Vanuatu with an opportunity to seek greater foreign assistance in dealing with these long-standing problems. Under the UNFCCC's National Adaptation Plans of Action framework, Least Developing Countries have drawn up lists of climate change adaptation projects for consideration by potential donors, with Vanuatu requesting $6 million towards general development of agriculture, water management, forestry, marine resources and tourism (UNFCCC n.d.). Potential also exists for Vanuatu to seek investment under the Clean Development Mechanism established by the Kyoto Protocol (Weaver et al 2007). If Vanuatu can capitalise on international concerns over climate change and its effect on small island developing states, the country may find climate change as much an opportunity as a threat.



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This was originally written as an essay for MSc Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh

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