Akhum’s house had been totally destroyed. During the cyclone, she and her family took shelter in a stronger house nearby.


When I finally made it to Vanuatu’s Ambrym Island after a week of cancelled flights and patchy phone connections, the memories of five years ago came rushing back.

Ambrym and the country’s other northern islands were hit by Cyclone Harold on 6 April this year. Just five years earlier, Cyclone Pam had torn through the southern islands – including the capital of Port Vila, where I live.

Cyclone Pam was by far the strongest storm in my lifetime, and I hoped I would never see anything like it again.

But climate change is making these terrifying events more and more common. A year later I was deployed to Fiji following Cyclone Winston, and now my own country is going through it all again.

Cyclones Pam, Winston and Harold were all Category 5 cyclones, the strongest there is. They lifted roofs off homes and flattened crops, leaving thousands of people homeless and unsure where their next meal would come from.

When I visited Ambrym Island as part of my work with the aid agency CARE, I met Akhum, the wife of a village chief.

Her house had been totally destroyed. In the midst of the cyclone, she and her family had to take shelter in a stronger house nearby. Luckily they were all safe, but Akhum is now worried about their supply of food, and what will happen if one of her grandchildren gets sick.

My husband, meanwhile, had been at his family’s village on the island of Espiritu Santo. When phone lines were restored and we finally managed to talk, he told me less than a third of the village’s 120 houses were left standing.

It’s not just Vanuatu that has been affected by this latest powerful storm. Cyclone Harold also made landfall in the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga.

It’s the 15th Category 5 cyclone in the South Pacific since 2000. That is an almost fourfold increase on the 20 years prior, when there were only four such cyclones.

All of this highlights a great injustice: Pacific nations produce only a tiny fraction of global emissions, but the Pacific and it’s people are on the frontlines of climate change.

Cyclones are getting stronger and more frequent, rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of low-lying islands, and warmer oceans and coral bleaching mean less income for fisherpeople.

Countries with high per-capita emissions have the power – not to mention the responsibility – to mitigate these changes. But so far, meaningful steps towards emissions reduction have been few and far between. Many governments are making only small changes as they continue with business as usual.

But “business as usual” is no more.

Entire economies may need to be reshaped in order to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. This is a rare opportunity to build back better – to make the post-Covid world a post-carbon world.

The aid agency I work for, CARE, is calling on governments to use economic stimulus packages to support the transition to a zero-carbon future, not to bail out the fossil fuel industry.

It’s a call that echoes decades of climate activism by Pacific peoples who have witnessed firsthand the damage that carbon emissions are doing to our islands, oceans and way of life.

With help from the government of Vanuatu, Australian aid, and organisations like CARE, people in Vanuatu have become practiced at preparing for and recovering from disasters. Each time, we build back better.

But the devastation I’ve witnessed is not something any nation should have to go through every five years.

So my plea to the leaders of polluting countries is this: in your moment of economic crisis, please, build back better. For all our sakes.

Julia Marango is resilience manager for CARE International in Vanuatu. Read more about Cyclone Harold and CARE’s Global Emergency Fund here.