As the category five cyclone Pam devastated the tiny and poor South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu this weekend, its president was thousands of miles away in Japan, speaking at a conference on disaster risk reduction. Even before Pam struck, the looming risks to countries like Vanuatu—including rising seas that make its low-lying islands vulnerable to powerful storms—were painfully apparent.
“This conference is about disaster risk reduction. What is happening in Vanuatu is the reality,” president Baldwin Lonsdale told the AP. “Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu.”
Tallying the storm’s toll has been a slow process, in part because of the extreme remoteness of the outlying Vanuatuan islands and the fact that communications have been severely disrupted by the storm. Only a handful of deaths have been confirmed, but as links with remote areas are re-established, those numbers are certain to rise. Lonsdale said that than 90% of homes in the capital of Port Vila have been destroyed or damaged. As Quartz has reported, a British risk-analytics firm recently ranked Port Vila as the world’s most at-risk city for natural disasters.
The storm hit low-lying islands in the South Pacific even as delegates discussed such risks at the UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan.
“It’s hugely ironic that this storm should hit Vanuatu while we are all here. If we truly care for those people, we have to respond,” said Rachel Kyte, a vice president at the World Bank and a special envoy for climate change, in an interview with Agence France Press. “I worry that a sense of urgency and a sense of shared ambition is not at the right level… It is indisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying.”