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Why water is precious after Cyclone Pam

In a church with no roof, the people of Feneonge village have gathered to learn about safe water.

Friday June 12, 2015

Vanuatu water
Water, both for drinking and for growing food, has become scarce on Emae Island. Photo: IFRC/Rebecca Webb

Three months ago, Cyclone Pam battered this coastal community on Emae Island with fierce winds and rain. Pastor Mansale has covered his damaged church with tarpaulins but there's a greater problem to hand.  

"I live right next to the coast so there was tidal surge that from the sea that flooded my garden and I lost all my crops", the pastor says. "The wind carried the water from the sea into the water tank and the salt water also contaminated the tidal spring well."  

Across Vanuatu, the cyclone destroyed an estimated 68% of rainwater harvesting catchments and left 70% of wells contaminated. This has greatly affected people's access to safe drinking water.  

In the three months afterwards, Red Cross reached 30,000 people across Vanuatu with emergency relief assistance: from tarpaulins and toolkits for shelter to drinking water and essentials like soap, kitchen sets or sleeping mats.  

The focus is now on restoring what was damaged or lost, and helping communities become more resilient.  

On Emae Island, Vanuatu Red Cross is providing seven new water tanks and will work with communities to build new rainwater catchments and secure guttering to collect water from rooftops when it rains.  

It is a massive effort, complicated by the remote locations of cyclone-affected communities. Fishing boats, the common means of transport between the islands, are unable to carry heavy cargo such as water tanks, so heavier boats must be chartered.

Feneonge Village has started saving what water they can. "We stockpile water now in plastic cans, ready for the hot season" said Pastor Mansale.  

Preparing for emergencies is a common occurrence for the villagers. In the days before Cyclone Pam the community disaster committee made sure everyone knew when, and where, to evacuate. Pastor Mansale had heeded these warnings and had boarded up the windows of his house and packed up his families' belongings when the storm finally arrived.  

"The cyclone hit us about 3pm in the afternoon when we were at home with the children. The water came up two meters high. By about 5pm the weather was so bad that we knew we had to leave our home and go to the school," he said.  

Early warning systems, evacuation procedures, stronger homes and safer water supplies all help to make communities like Feneonge more resilient to future cyclones. Hygiene and hand washing, to prevent the spread of disease, is the final part of the puzzle.  

Red Cross volunteer Newman Netef is in the church today to hold a health and hygiene promotion session. He's one of many community health volunteers in villages across the country.  

"If people really understand what I say, they will go back to their community and then people can have good, long, healthy lives," he says.  

Your donation to Red Cross disaster relief and recovery work helps us to respond wherever we're needed.

Original story and photos: IFRC/Rebecca Webb