The private sector on the frontline of the climate crisis: How localization is key to disaster response in Vanuatu

Connecting Business initiative Secretariat • 18 August 2021

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The climate crisis is global, but its impact on lives and livelihoods are felt unequally. Vanuatu is ranked as the country with the highest disaster risk in the world, and its very existence is now threatened by the impact of climate change. Ahead of World Humanitarian Day, which focuses this year on the climate crisis, the Connecting Business initiative (CBi) talked to Glen Craig, the Chairman of the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council. He shared the experience of the CBi Member Network in responding to increased disaster risks in Vanuatu and highlighted the importance of localization in the disaster response.  

Glen, Vanuatu is described as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Why? 

On the UN risk index, we're rated as the number one at-risk country, and that's due to vulnerability to climate change events, extreme weather events. They measure it based on how we can respond to cyclones, typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and how the social fabric of the society can respond to those events. Vanuatu ranks as the most at risk, both from private sector, civil society, government perspective. We've got a lot of work to do to get lower down on the list. 

We often picture climate change in small islands through the threat of sea level rise. Is this accurate? 

Yes, definitely. We’re facing increasing sea levels, increased sea toxicity, and that affects our marine life. Since we're a fishing country, it also affects our livelihoods. But we’re facing other challenges, too. Drought is a big one. With more extreme drought events, our wells are running dry. As a rainfall-driven country, it becomes hard to grow produce, to operate schools, or to have clean medical facilities.  

How do communities and the private sector take action in the face of rising risks? 

What we're trying to do is get in front of disaster risks through education. The VBRC supports adaptation efforts. We’re working with businesses, helping them adapt to climate change and letting farmers, tourists, small business operators, and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMES), know how they can change their business habits to ensure business continuity in the face of rising threats. 

How does the VBRC contribute to adaptation and resilience efforts? 

We've set up a private sector project preparation unit. We’re helping businesses develop technologies or methods to adapt to climate change and its impacts in Vanuatu. We’re supporting them so they can apply for funding through private companies or donor agencies. 

In 2020, Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold caused widespread destruction in the South-West Pacific, in Vanuatu in particular. How was this disaster different from the others that have come before? 

COVID-19! We were the first country in the world that had to respond to a climate-related disaster while we had our borders closed due to the pandemic. That meant that our response was localized: there was no one flying in and we couldn't get any special expertise. We had to respond by working together with the communities, civil society, private sector and the government, because there was no one coming to our assistance outside of the resources that were in the country. 

The Vanuatu Business Resilience Council played a key role. Can you give me a concrete example of how it provided support during the crisis or in the immediate aftermath of TC Harold? 

Globally, we now understand that the private sector is often the first to respond when a climate-related disaster happens. We own shipping companies, telecommunications, banking infrastructure. We are the ones generally first on the scene when things go wrong. With this cyclone, we were literally the first ones to get boots on the ground. After TC Harold, we were checking that the airport and the runway were ok, assessing the damage to housing, to the maritime fleet, checking which infrastructure the utilities companies needed to quickly get back up and running. We were then reporting that back to the capital and mobilizing as fast as we could. We were able to distribute food aid to areas that were originally overlooked by the government due to stretched resources. We chipped in where we could, especially to the South-West coast. We had people up there on the ground that were able to coordinate and provide 35 tons of food and non-food items. We worked in conjunction with private sector and donors, along with charitable organizations.  

What challenges did you come across? 

The VBRC is volunteer based, so access to resources is one of the biggest challenges. Localization in the humanitarian response has been talked about for the last five or six years, but it still hasn't lived up to its opportunities, because of lack of funding. As a private sector organization, we don't have access to funding that perhaps international NGOs would. That’s why it’s important for us to work with recognized organizations like the Connecting Business initiative. Ideally, when a disaster happens, there would immediately be a funding modality to allow us to upscale and assist with the response. We can provide essential equipment, mobilize aircraft assets or warehousing facilities. Up to now this has been done in an uncoordinated way. With our coordination support, we can help improve the response, so it’s faster and better coordinated. It's in everyone's advantage to make sure the private sector is working in this manner. 

How did you manage to coordinate your efforts with the government, the NGO sector, and other actors? 

It was tough this time, because it was the first time that a disaster response was coordinated without international assistance. We were short of resources on the ground. When we reflected afterwards, we agreed that government responders need to work more closely with the private sector and NGOs in-country. That didn't happen as well as it could have, and we learned lessons from this experience. We need to make sure from our side that we're prepared and ready to go assist the government's response, since they are the lead agency. If we're ready, organized and capable, then the country can respond a lot faster, which is all we want at the community level. 

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The Connecting Business initiative (CBi) engages the private sector in disaster preparedness, response and recovery. The initiative aims to be the go-to hub for private sector business networks, strengthening their collaboration with government, UN entities and other actors.  CBi  works directly with 11 private sector networks, which represent more than 4,000 private actors.  

The Vanuatu Business Resilience Council was launched in 2017 to help strengthen the private sector, helping local businesses to participate and engage within the climate change and disaster risk reduction sectors. Read more.