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After eruption on Ambae, UNICEF is helping build new lives

In 2017 the Manaro volcano, on Vanuatu’s Ambae Island, started to erupt. Within days, the island’s residents were evacuated.

In 2017 the Manaro volcano, on Vanuatu’s Ambae Island, started to erupt. Within days, the island’s residents were evacuated. Although most had returned by February 2018, when the volcano erupted for a second time the entire island, including its 36 schools, were covered in ash.  The Vanuatu Government decide a permanent evacuation was the only solution.

By September, the entire 11,000-strong population had been relocated to neighbouring Maewo and Espiritu Santo Islands. And with them came the challenge of integration within existing communities.

Some of the tents that Ambae families are still living in on Maewo

Joanne is the Principal of Ambae’s Mbulu Junior Secondary School, and for the last year she has continued to run the school in specially equipped UNICEF tents on the grounds of Gambule Secondary School on Maewo.

The school is part of UNICEF’s Vanuatu Wash in Schools Project on three islands (Ambae, Maewo and Pentecost) in the Penama Province - a five year partnership project between UNICEF and the Government of Vanuatu. This is funded by the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and generous New Zealand donors including New Zealand company Grochem. The short term results will include improved water and sanitation facilities, such as handwashing stations, improved school water supply and toilets as well as increased support for adolescent girls and children with a disability.

Staff meeting some of the children at Abanga school on Maewo

Although she has been able to continue her students’ education, Joanne is particularly concerned about the effect of these disruptions on their upcoming exams.

She showed us around the tents where the students were studying for exams. The students have had to move tents because of the flooding and winds. Sometimes their books have been destroyed.

“Things are crumbling for them so I have to make some decisions for them,” she says.

Because children also sleep within the tents, Joanne has organised for bunk beds to be built so the beds off the ground so kids don’t get cold or wet from the regular rain and flooding. And the communities on Maewo have built tables and chairs for the children to make their time in the tent classrooms more comfortable.

“We have been here one year. At the start they were coming and protesting ‘why are we here’, even the teachers. I said ‘It is nature. At least we are alive’. Now the complaining is not so much.”

Another Principal said feelings of homesickness are common among both children and adults at her school.

That school has children from nine different schools in Ambae, meaning teachers didn’t know where they were in the syllabus. A further complication is that the teachers themselves were from different schools - and different languages as Vanuatu has both English and French-speaking schools. During the first week they told stories, let the children swim in sea and play sports. In the second week, the tents came so, by week three, there was something of a return to normality, but it has been challenging.

One major problem is the lack of permanent shelter. Most families have just a tarpaulin for shelter, so when it rains heavily it gets very wet.

UNICEF NZ Programmes Coordinator Hamish Lindsay inspecting a temporary classroom

Heavy rainfall is an issue on some islands in Vanuatu - flooding tents, ruining possessions, affecting sanitation systems - especially during the cyclone season, when things could get worse.

Ten schools on Maewo Island were used as evacuation centres when the people of Ambae first arrived. Because of the huge influx of people, school toilets are overflowing when it rains because they are full from people using them during the transition period.

To improve that situation, UNICEF is working hard to improve awareness and install new infrastructure in communities across all three islands, working in partnership with National and Provincial government staff.

Remote schools in outer islands sometimes miss out. The UNICEF team visited Abanga School - the most remote school in Maewo, only accessible only by boat. They distributed WASH in Schools kits and ran a demonstration emphasising the importance of hand-washing, particularly after using the toilet and before eating. Each class received soap and buckets with a tap for their classrooms, which the children were happy to receive, and learn about the importance of washing hands.

Despite the ongoing challenges, many children are finding enjoyment in their new homes. They enjoy the rivers and water. They feel the sea is better. They like being by the main road and the short walk to school. And they enjoy the support that their schools are getting from UNICEF. But, they still miss Ambae.

Children at Abanga School showing off their handwashing skills

The Ambae relocation remains an ongoing and challenging situation. UNICEF is working not just with the remote communities of Penama province, but also a displaced population with increased needs. With additional emergency response funding from MFAT, and New Zealand donors, we have provided school tents and supplies. Stability at school is vital for the future of those vulnerable children affected by the Ambae volcano. And host communities on Maewo need support as their current infrastructure stretches to accommodate new residents.

UNICEF NZ Programme Coordinator Hamish Lindsay about to load just a few of the supplies onto the boat

With your ongoing support, UNICEF will continue to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn and flourish and the stability that they deserve.