In a climate-changing world, Pacific island states have been forced to displace vulnerable communities to new locations, to ensure their safety and livelihoods. When displacing people and communities, social protection strategies must involve resilience building to break the otherwise inescapable poverty trap.
Building resilience and disaster prevention
Building and ensuring resilience in a world of rapidly changing climate is not always possible, although it is crucial for surviving. The dictionary definition of “resilience” refers to the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Resilience, in connection with disasters, is an individual or a society’s capacity to prevent a natural hazard to become a disaster. Thus, by building resilience, a society is able to absorb shocks and minimise damages and lives lost in the face of a crisis.
Approximately 600 million people (around 10% of the entire population of the planet) currently live within 100 km of the coast, only elevated less than 100 m above the current sea level, placing them at extreme risk of future disasters, as exposure to both sudden and slow-onset disasters are predicted to increase (Johnson and Krishnamurthy, 2010).
Pacific vulnerability and population relocation
Globally, the impacts of climate change have reached an unprecedented and dystopian level: Previously assumed unlimited natural resources, such as clean drinking water and unpolluted air, have become scarce. Growing crops and breeding livestock is proving increasingly challenging in climate change “hotspots” across the globe. Food insecurity is increasing and populations can no longer count on traditional and inherited homes, farms, and livelihoods to ensure their survival (UNHCR, webpage).
Numerous Small Island Developing States (SIDS) located in the Pacific region are considered some of the most disaster-prone and vulnerable states in the world (INFORM, 2018), which has forced the governments to relocate communities in an attempt to ensure their survival.
The residents of Vunidogoloa island, belonging to the Fiji Islands, was the first community to be relocated in the SIDS, under a new climate change programme, initiated by the Fijian government. More than 30 communities have been marked as potential communities to relocate in the future. Likewise, the former Kiribati president, Anote Tong, bought land from the Fiji government, to ensure the future of the Kiribati people in light of rising sea levels.
These new displacement patterns combined with increasing competition over depleted natural resources can spark conflict between communities and exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities. Accordingly, following displacement and relocation, especially in instances where people are moved across international borders, resettlement support is required (UNHCR, webpage).
The National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster-Induced Displacement
In 2018, the Government developed a National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster-Induced Displacement. The government deemed it necessary to relocate inhabitants from some of the outer islands, mostly due to increasing volcanic activity. In 2018, 11,000 Ambae Island inhabitants were mandatorily evacuated and displaced, primarily to Maewo, Santo, and Efate Islands. On Maewo, the Second Home Programme was implemented, which aims to resettle displaced people on new land.
Vanuatu, located in the middle of a disaster-prone area called “the Pacific Ring of Fire” (the World Bank, 2015), is defined as one of the most at-risk countries to natural disasters (INFORM, 2018). It is vulnerable to both geo-physical hazards (earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and volcanic eruptions) as well as hydro-meteorological hazards (tropical cyclones, floods, and droughts).
Within the National Policy, the government of Vanuatu states that relocation, and, in the worst case scenario displacement, should and must be a last resort. “Displacement – temporary or permanent – is a major impact of disasters, exposing people to many risks as they are obliged to leave their homes in search of safety and secure livelihoods” (Vanuatu National Policy, 2018, page 7).
This recognition accounts for the need to expand and implement social protection strategies as a resilience building and disaster mitigation strategy for displaced communities (Vanuatu National Policy).
Social protection for climate change adaptation in Vanuatu
The government in Vanuatu, in strong collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), developed an innovative displacement “option” for some of the most at risk and vulnerable outer islands, and especially the islands threatened by volcanic eruption. Like the Second Home Programme, it voluntarily relocated communities to secondary locations, temporarily or permanently, where housing and other necessary facilities are provided (Vanuatu Government, 2018).
The National Policy emphasises the need for social protection initiatives for “enabling full social and economic recovery” (Vanuatu Government, 2018, p. 18), either if the people return to their place of origin, a new location, or another location if wanted. This includes the development of sustainable livelihoods to ensure income for households to reduce the risk of poverty.
The relocation strategy is unique as a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategy, as it is equally an adaption strategy and social protection initiative. By ensuring relocated communities have rights to land, it protects them against exclusion and unemployment. Therefore, people are not “imposed” upon another community, by securing rights to un-proclaimed land with other owners. They are also given due time to prepare their “second home” for a future life.
Adaptive social protection for climate change resilience
Social protection is essential to support communities displacement by environmental and climate risks and shocks. It allows these vulnerable people to meet their basic needs and prevent them from falling into poverty. By integrating resilience building into the social protection approach, people are not only resilient to environmental shocks, but the livelihood and integration challenges incurred in relocation (Johnson and Krishnamurthy, 2010).
Stern (2008) notes that in cases of displacement and relocation caused by climate change, social protection systems must be adaptive, focusing on developing more climate-resilient livelihoods. This requires actively targeting the people who are most vulnerable and then increasing their adaptive capacities. This can involve social service provision, transfers, pension schemes, public works programmes, livelihood diversification, weather-indexed crop insurance, or social insurance (Davies, Oswald and Mitchell, 2009).
The Pacific islands are considered some of the most vulnerable to natural hazards. The Second Home Programme and Vanuatu’s DRR strategy includes adaptive social protection components for vulnerable targeted communities. The strategy can be replicated by other island nations with vulnerable communities to protect them from the impacts of climate change.
INFORM (2018). Inform Global Risk Index, Results 2018. Accessible:
International Organisation for Migration (IOM) (2016). Effects of Climate Change on Human Mobility in the Pacific and possible Impact on Canada. Australia. Accessible:
Connell, Jessie and Coelho, Sabira (2018). Planned Relocation in Asia and the Pacific. International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Accessible:
United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) (webpage). Climate Change and Disaster Displacement. Accessible:
The World Bank (2015). Country Note Vanuatu. In association with GFDRR, SPC, the Japanese Government. Accessible:
Vanuatu Government (2018). Vanuatu: National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster-Induced Displacement. Developed with funding and aid from the International Organisation for Migrants (IOM). Accessible:
Stern, N. (2008). Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change London. London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Accessible:
Davis, Mark, Oswald, Katy and Mitchell, Tom (2008). Climate Change Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction and Social Protection. Centre for Social Protection, Climate Change and Development Centre. Accessible: