Thousands of south Pacific islanders at the mercy of an active volcano will be permanently resettled by the end of May, the Vanuatu government has said.
Ambae Island is home to 11,000 people, and for the second time in six months Ambae’s Manaro volcano on top of Mount Lombenben has started rumbling, spewing torrents of ash and gas from its crater and burying vegetable plots and crops, causing breathing and health problems for locals, and threatening their lives and livelihoods.
People living in the north, west and south of the island are worst affected by the ash and began being evacuated on Thursday after a state of emergency was declared on Tuesday.
Ash as deep as 30cm had already settled on many parts of the island, and people were experiencing breathing difficulties, skin reactions and illnesses such as chest infections as they waited to leave.
One Ambae resident, Nadia Kanegai, said islanders were frightened and could not wait to get away.
“The ashfall, like part of west Aambae was covered and it was dark [because] of the smoke and the population there was remaining inside and could not come outside,” she told RNZ Pacific.
“And there was a gas emission as well. So the people are scared.”
A local priest said the situation was “desperate” for locals as food supplies and animal feed were beginning to run out, water was contaminated by ash and disease was spreading among the evacuees, most of whom are subsistence farmers.
Police and some aid agencies are already in place, with the army expected to arrive later this week to orchestrate the mass evacuation which this times looks to be permanent.
“In times like these, it is always the vulnerable sections of our communities being the women, the children and the elderly, that are most affected,” Avio Roberts, national coordinator for the Vanua’aku party, told the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper.
Negotiations are under way between landowners and central government to acquire land for Ambae evacuees on either Maewo or Pentecost – the two closest islands to Ambae, but a safe distance from the volcano, which is one of the most active in the world.
“People’s lives must be our first priority,” said prime minister Charlot Salwai during the October evacuation, in which planes, ships and barges were used in the DIY effort.
Vanuatu is no stranger to natural disasters, and the the south Pacific nation was rated the most at-risk country in the world in a 2016 UN study.
Its 83 islands are stuck in the middle of hurricane alley and they dot the border of the “ring of fire” – a belt around the Pacific prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The Australian government provided AU$3.2m to support early recovery efforts for those affected by the Ambae volcano last year, and is ready to give further assistance, a spokesperson said. The New Zealand government has provided more than NZ$1.5m in assistance, as well as technical support and relief supplies.
A state of emergency has been declared for Vanuatu's Ambae Island as a volcano continues to spill thick heavy ash.
Thousands of residents who call the island home have been warned they may need to evacuate after up to 1cm of ash has fallen in some areas north of the island on Tuesday night.
The situation was described as 'becoming critical in some areas' and national EMT coordinator Dr Basil Leodoro told Vanuatu Daily Post they had 'received reports of houses collapsing due to the weight of the ash.'
Medical assistance teams arrived on the island on Thursday to 'provide medical support...sanitation, surveillance and public health services support to the people of Ambae,' Dr Leodoro said.
'I am confirming that heavy ash fall has caused skin and eye irritations, and exacerbated breathing conditions like asthma,' continued Dr Leodoro.
'We are also working very closely with our disease surveillance teams to monitor reported cases of Mumps, acute gastroenteritis and dengue in all Ambae residents but particularly those at evacuation centres.'
'I am grateful to the Australian government ... for supporting these teams to deploy and provide medical, surgical, mental health, psychosocial support, logistics, water, sanitation, surveillance and public health services support to the people of Ambae,' he said.