Vanuatu sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”. Picture: Google Maps
Vanuatu sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”. Picture: Google Maps

Paradise cut off from the world

A MASSIVE humanitarian crisis is unfolding on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean after a volcanic eruption sent thick ash bucketing down on everything in sight.

Thousands of people in Ambae, a tiny, idyllic island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, have been ordered to evacuate after a volcano at the centre of the island began to spew out thick ash - which has rained down on villages and blacked out the sun.

The volcano has been erupting in bursts since September, but a new UNICEF report this week revealed the situation was becoming increasingly dire for island inhabitants after a surge in volcanic activity.

Local media reports that all roads to the west of the island are cut and massive mud flows have washed away many roads.

It means the entire west side of the island is accessible only by sea or air, forcing volcano experts examining the terrifying situation to trek for hours to find villages filled with desperate residents who clamour for basic supplies.

They say there is widespread damage and massive disruption to the local population. Health authorities have warned of an increased risk of respiratory illnesses because of the thick ash and they are trying to hand gas masks to as many of the island's residents as possible.

"Volcanic activity recently escalated, with the volcano spewing thick volcanic ash that blanketed almost the entire island," the UNICEF report states.

"On 25 July 2018, the ash was so thick that it completely blocked the midday sun, and ash fall was recorded on the neighbouring islands of Maewo and Pentecost."

The island was temporarily evacuated last year when the Manaro volcano began erupting but since March authorities have been ramping up efforts to get locals to relocate permanently.

The recent escalation in activity has forced authorities to step up the alert level and Government of Vanuatu's Council of Ministers (COM) has reinstated a State of Emergency on Ambae - forcing an immediate and compulsory evacuation of all people in Ambae to nearby Maewo island.

"This latest ash fall was the worst on Ambae Island since the increase in volcanic activity began in September 2017 and further damaged houses and vegetation particularly on southern portions of the Island where ash fall accumulations were highest," the UNICEF report states. "More than 1000 evacuees had assembled at ten in-island evacuation sites, as of the end of the reporting period, with food and water cited as priority needs."

There are fears the volcanic ash, including sand, gravel and boulders could cause flash flooding of creeks and streams. The risk of landslides is also expected to increase during heavy rainfall.

The island was once home to around 11,600 people, and many of them have found shelter in neighbouring islands, with most heading to Vanuatu's large, North Island of Espiritu Santo.

The government believes around 1100 people have moved from Ambae to Santo and around 2000 families remain on the cut-off island. UNICEF says there are 5220 children who need help because of the dire situation.

One of the residents, Lillian Garae, told AAP it had been hard to sleep because of the volcano's noise and that the ash was aggravating asthma in some young children.

"We cannot see some of the people working because of all the dust," she said.

Ms Garae, 39, said she had lived on Ambae all her life and would now consider a permanent move, despite leaving behind the life she knows.

She said the ash cloud was affecting some surrounding islands as well, so relocating to one of them may not be much better.

"I want to leave but I don't know where I'm going to live, so I will stay on Ambae," Ms Garae said.

Vanuatu sits on the Pacific's "Ring of Fire," the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanoes are common. France, New Zealand and Australia have provided aid and financial help for previous evacuations.


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