Young Cyclone Pam Survivor Calls On Australians To Act Against Climate Change


A young Ni-Vanuatu environmental activist who was forced into an evacuation centre during Cyclone Pam has urged Australia to understand the harsh realities of climate change on island nations like his own, and move to end its reliance on fossil fuels.

He has also called for the Abbott government to help his country adapt and respond, as bodies like the independent Climate Council warn of the huge economic cost of coastal flooding to small island nations.

Isso Nihmei was one of several young climate change warriors from around the Pacific, including Aboriginal youth in Australia, who took to the water in canoes and traditional dress to block access to the Newcastle Coal Port during a day of protest last year. He is part of the international 350 movement.

The blockade was designed to highlight the expansion of the fossil fuel industry in Australia and how it will affect small Pacific nations, those literally on the frontline of climate change.

Cyclone Pam, which caused massive devastation across Vanuatu last month, resulted in food and water shortages, the demolition of the majority of homes, and the destruction of infrastructure. It has only made the cries from the next generation of Ni-Vanuatu more urgent.

Isso Nihmei, standing in canoe… he's pleading with Australians to start acting on climate change.

Last month, the Climate Council produced a report which stated the “damage caused by Cyclone Pam through widespread flooding was exacerbated by climate change”.

There has been past research showing Vanuatu and other Pacific nations can expect less frequent but more intense tropical Cyclones like Pam, which was the worst in the history of the Pacific. The Climate Council has said that the majority of climate change related impacts on these nations will be from intensifying storm surges, and the resulting flooding will have a huge economic cost. 

Mr Nihmei, from Fatuna, a small island near Tanna, which suffered the brunt of Cyclone Pam, was forced to move his family into an evacuation centre in Port Vila as the category five system approached.

“I thought our house would be blown up, but after the cyclone our house wasn’t damaged. Only the water was going inside. The roofing was still there,” he told New Matilda from Port Vila.

“I tried to get in touch with my family (on Fatuna) and I found out they were ok. But after talking to my uncle after the Cyclone, he said my dad had lost his house.”

Mr Nihmei says that the people of Vanuatu had become accustomed to Cyclones, but that he had never before seen anything like the devastating force of Cyclone Pam.

“It really was a shock to most people, me as well. We know it’s a category five but people didn’t have any experience of that.

“It was really huge for the people of Port Vila. People didn’t know that most of the houses would be damaged and destroyed. People were really frustrated… most people lost their homes, and are now homeless, trying to rebuild for themselves.

“We’ve had cyclones for years but more like category 3. This was really huge.”

While Australia was one of the first countries to respond to the humanitarian disaster following Cyclone Pam, Mr Nihmei says Australia also needs to understand the consequences of its reliance on fossil fuels.

“Australia was really helpful to our own government, supporting us with aid.

“But the thing we want the Australian government to understand is that this is the reality. We also need the Australian people to support us in terms of helping people to adapt to climate change, and also reducing the amount of carbon emissions.

“(This includes) stopping the fossil fuel industries, but the (Australian) government is expanding this. That’s the reason we went to Australia last year, for a friendly protest.”

The Abbott government ended support for Vanuatu’s climate change adaption efforts in last year’s May budget, after the Gillard government originally promised $2 million over three years.

Mr Nehmei says it is unfair for the country with one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world to be suffering the direct consequences of climate change, some of that obviously caused by Australia, with one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world.

“We are the people who will contribute the least amount of carbon emissions, and yet we are on the frontline of climate change.

“Australia should not be expanding its own fossil fuel industries. They should be supporting and helping Pacific Island countries, especially Vanuatu as a neighbouring country to enforce our message,” Mr Nehmei says.

“We think Australia should be the best country to support our message that climate change is real and to start acting.

“From my own perspective, this is our future. We are talking about survival.

“As a young person, this is my future, and my children’s future. This is our time as young people to fight for our human rights.”

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.