Event: Cyclone Pam, 2015

In 2015, the Port of Port Vila was hit by Tropical Cyclone Pam. It was the second-most intense tropical cyclone in the South Pacific Ocean in terms of sustained winds, and is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu’s history.

Causes and impact

Cyclone Pam was the main factor disrupting Port Vila. Poor infrastructure and construction standards amplified the disruption, which lasted over two weeks.

Damages to transportation infrastructure were estimated at $0.3 billion. Communication across the archipelago was crippled. Only one cellular tower in Port Vila remained operational, and 60 inhabited islands were cut-off from the outside world. Some 90 per cent of the buildings in Vanuatu were affected, and hospitals, schools and the water supply were either compromised or destroyed. A combination of large flood flows and debris accumulation caused wash-outs and extensive damage to bridges, approach roads, piers, abutments, riverbanks and service connections. The debris accumulation at bridges, coupled with water pressure from floodwaters, disconnected bridges from approach roads, and washed out many major bridge components. Damage to airports, wharves and jetties in the affected areas was minimal. Transportation was disrupted for weeks because of fallen trees and damage to connecting roads. Cruise liners, international cargo ships, and domestic vessels and ferries resumed sailing one day after the cyclone.

Response and mitigation measures

An emergency plan was implemented by the National Disaster Management Office in Vanuatu, with the support of international organizations. Port Vila served as the logistical hub for relief efforts.

The government conducted a rapid post-disaster needs assessment. Transport, recovery and reconstruction needs have been estimated at $34 million (Government of Vanuatu, 2020). It was recognized that the sector would require short- to long-term efforts and resources for its reconstruction and to ensure more disaster-resilient infrastructure. Short-term (up to 12 months) needs included measures to: (i) resume delivering transport services in the affected areas until the reconstruction or replacement of damaged structures; (ii) restoration works to provide access and connectivity to road users; (iii) de-silting blocked drains; and (iv) provision of remedial measures or blocking water from entering landslide areas. The government undertook much of this work, but engineering and equipment assistance was made available by Australian and New Zealand Defense Forces who were instrumental in opening access to the outer islands. Medium to long-term needs (up to 48 months) measures included rehabilitation, reconstruction, or upgrading of transport infrastructure and roads works. The reconstruction promoted engineering designs that included disaster-resilient and climate-proof elements (for seismic activity, cyclones, and floods). Financing from the Asian Development Bank (financing grant agreement signed in 2016) started the implementation process, which involved reconstructing damaged road infrastructure and climate and disaster-proofing them (Asian Development Bank, 2017).

With a view to the longer term, the Government of Vanuatu, in conjunction with the Ports Authority, embarked upon a $100 million project to build a new international container terminal and wharf, which provided additional freight capacity and separated international cargo vessels from cruise ships. The project was completed in 2018 (Fletcher, 2018). The government has also called for special insurance schemes adapted to SIDS-climate change-led risks (SPC, 2015).

Lessons learned and good practice22

  • Promote regional collaboration to improve the port’s adaptive capacity. For example, the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade-funded Pacific iCLIM project have worked with the Governments of Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu to identify regional and national-level barriers to climate change data and information management in the Pacific.
  • Elaborate risk assessment and risk management planning to minimizing risks.
  • Set up regional partnerships to jointly face common challenges and provide early warning systems, especially through shared technology investments.
  • Elaborate methodological assessment and guides that help identify the most likely natural hazards and map these against the most vulnerable assets and priority areas requiring mitigation measures.
  • Invest in preventive measures, ensure community preparedness and rapid response, enable infrastructure reconstruction and building-up local capacity and knowledge.
  • Build local resilience and reduce dependency on external agencies as part of a long-term exit strategy (Ensor J., 2016).





22 This section also draws upon Brown, R.A. et al (2015).