Rebuilding a safer and stronger Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

But other buildings made from those same materials were relatively unaffected. This shows that buildings are more than the sum of their material parts: the way they have been put together is also crucial.

Finding a safe and appropriate reconstruction approach for Vanuatu will be complicated by a range of factors. These include limited funds, the dispersed geography of the archipelago, limited import regulations for building materials, the decimation of local building material supplies, and the necessity for immediate shelter, which has led to dwellings being quickly rebuilt from salvaged materials.

There are, however, a few basic strategies that could be employed that would lead to a safer built environment in Vanuatu, without having to drastically change the way people live. These solutions include improved building regulations, grassroots education programs aimed at strengthening existing dwellings, the continuation of constructing buildings from local materials, and the establishment of disaster evacuation centers in all communities.

The Republic of Vanuatu Building Act of 2013, which is an act to provide for a national building code, was passed last year. But to date no building code exists, and new buildings in Vanuatu are not required to be built to any kind of standard.

A new building code will be an important instrument to ensure that housing and public and commercial buildings are constructed to an appropriate standard. However, applying a building code to the majority of dwellings across Vanuatu will be problematic given the difficulty in regulation and the costs associated with building to a prescribed standard.

The new building code will need to ensure that it considers a diverse range of construction types, including traditional construction methods, and that it is accessible to the majority of people in Vanuatu.

An effective way to strengthen existing dwellings would be through programs that focus on repairing and reinforcing dwellings made from both imported and local materials. This would need to be educative and provide real examples of how a few simple strategies can prevent major cyclone damage.

It will also be important to ensure that people are able to continue to build with local materials using traditional techniques.

Local materials are generally more accessible and affordable for those living on remote islands and the skills required to build with them are passed down from generation to generation. These building skills are also an important part of kastom (culture) and are a significant part of local cultural identity.

Life-saving meeting places
One of the most important considerations will be the establishment of disaster evacuation centers in each community. These structures might include existing churches, school buildings or community halls that with adequate reinforcing will be able to withstand cyclonic winds.

There are also several traditional nakamals (meeting places) that have been designed as cyclone shelters. The repair of these nakamals, as well as the ability of master builders to pass on their building skills, will be an essential part of disaster risk management for remote villages.

The damage caused by Cyclone Pam has drawn attention to the need for improved construction practices in Vanuatu. But while the strength of buildings and their ability to withstand cyclones are very important, so too are the strength and resilience of the people of Vanuatu, who have been living with the annual cyclone season for generations.

The reconstruction of Vanuatu needs a diverse approach that is not solely reliant on quickly prefabricated or engineered solutions, and which keeps people at the heart of the rebuilding process.

Wendy Christie is architect with Philip Leeson Architects and Ph.D. student at Australian National University; Brigitte Laboukly is manager, National Heritage Registry at Vanuatu Cultural Centre. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).