Brigitte Laboukly
Manager, National Heritage Registry, Vanuatu Cultural Centre
Akatsuki Takahashi
Programme Specialist for Culture, UNESCO Office for the Pacific States

From 10 to 14 March 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam (TC Pam) struck Vanuatu, an island country in the Pacific composed of more than 80 islands with a population of around 270,000 people and with some 100 languages. The category 5 cyclone caused widespread damage across the country. TC Pam’s eye passed close to Efate Island in Sefa Province, where the capital Port Vila is located, with winds around 250km/hr and gusts peaking at 320km/hr. The President of Vanuatu, Father Baldwin Lonsdale, who was attending the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, returned to the country immediately, before the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) was concluded. The Sendai Framework includes the importance of Disaster Risk Reduction strategy of cultural heritage to contribute to strengthening communities’ resilience and nurture a culture of prevention.1

The Flash Appeal by UNOCHA issued on 26 March 2015 reported that 166,000 people were affected by TC Pam, that 75,000 were in need of shelter, and that 110,000 were without access to safe drinking water. In early April 2015, the government of Vanuatu undertook a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) in cooperation with the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank (WB). The objectives of the PDNA were to:

  • assess TC Pam’s socio-economic effect and quantify the damage and loss in critical sectors of the economy,
  • identify priority needs for critical sectors of the economy with a particular focus on resilient recovery and reconstruction activities with indicative costs where possible,
  • identify potential financing gaps and needs, and
  • review current disaster risk management capacity and propose a strategy with measures to reduce risks and make all recovery disaster resilient.

The Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC), through the National Disaster Management Office, formally requested that UN and WB include the assessment of the culture sector in PDNA and requested that UNESCO assist VCC with assessing the cultural facilities and significant tangible and intangible heritage in the country.

Effect of the Cyclone on Intangible Cultural Heritage in Vanuatu

PDNA team for the culture sector led by VCC was composed of VCC staff and international experts from International Council of Monument s and Sites, Australian National University, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and UNESCO in Apia. From 8 to 21 April 2015, following the existing guidelines,2 the team visited selected cultural facilities, historic buildings and churches, and archaeological sites to assess damage to physical structures and loss in revenue caused by the interruption of activities. Daily briefings were held at the Prime Minister’s Office to share information in respective survey work to avoid duplications among the different sectors. It was through this process that the senior officials of the Vanuatu government, UN, and WB came to understand the definition of cultural heritage and the scope of the culture sector assessment.

The PDNA of the culture sector highlighted the traditional knowledge system of the nakamal, a traditional community structure used for decision making, governance, teaching and dispute resolution. Also known as gamalfarea, and fare, every village had a nakamal, and the Malvatumauri Chief Nakamal in Port Vila is a significant iconic living heritage where the Council of Traditional Chiefs meet s to discuss matters related to the Vanuatu community.3 This nakamal sustained serious damage by TC Pam. However, its lightweight materials and flexible framing allowed the main structure to survive. Many of these nakamals, such as the Nakamal on Tikilasoa, Nguna Island, provided refuge and saved the lives of many people in outer islands. “Kastom Haus,” a compilation of traditional knowledge and building techniques for custom houses in Vanuatu that was carried out under the VCC’s Field Workers Programme in 2005, provided an invaluable baseline data for the PDNA team’s assessment survey.

The VCC, a custodian of national collections of archives, libraries, and artefacts, provides a place to demonstrate Vanuatu sand drawing, an element on the UNESCO Representative List, for visitors, students and communities. The VCC also manages a database of different sand drawing designs found across the northern part of the country. Although the VCC managed to resume its activities one month after the cyclone, the limited timeframe for the PDNA and the lack of detailed data on sand drawing practitioners did not allow an accurate assessment on the sand drawing practices for the PDNA report.


The PDNA of the culture sector concluded that an estimated USD 1.4 million is required to reconstruct the cultural sector, including restoring the affected nakamals, archives, libraries, art centers, historical buildings, and churches as well as Chief Roi Mata’s Domain, a World Heritage Site that was badly affected by TC Pam. The PDNA report identified several short-term emergency measures and mid-term recovery priorities for safeguarding cultural heritage. This included inventorying ICH related to nakamals and building capacity to restore the structures and transmit these skills. Vanuatu, as State Party to the ICH Convention, made an emergency assistance request to the ICH Fund established by the ICH Convention to implement the recommendations in the PDNA report. In June 2015, UNESCO approved the request to support the emergency conservations of the chief’s nakamal and the documentation of this process.

The PDNA following the cyclone highlighted the traditional knowledge system that contributes to the people’s resilience and their ability to deal with natural disasters. The experience of the PDNA also shows the importance of preparing and maintaining a comprehensive ICH inventory before disaster strikes and the need to raise awareness among stakeholders about the culture sector importance to a nations’ sustainable development.