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Earthquake in Vanuatu highlights importance of telecommunications reform

Aleta Moriarty's picture
Everyone was on their phone—ringing loved ones, ringing offices, ringing those that mattered—to get reassurance that people are okay, to check on damage, to ring for advice on the threat of a tsunami.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Port Vila, Vanuatu after the Pacific Islands Forum. I was in the main town moseying about taking photos.

There was a tremor. Then another. Then the ground started shaking violently. Cars were being shifted on the road. There was crashing sounds from inside the shops as all the stock was flung off the shelves. People were running out of buildings in every direction. I wasn’t sure where to go as there were buildings and cars everywhere and I did not want to wind-up under either. I looked a guy in the eye to try and capture some kind of reassurance but there was none to be had. Everyone was terrified. Several men at least twice my size came up to me telling me they were scared and they did not know what to do.

There was a mass exodus from the central business district as people climbed a hill near town, getting on higher ground in case of a tsunami. Local authorities issued an official tsunami warning and hundreds of people starting running up the hill. This was the biggest earthquake that Vanuatu had ever experienced—7.5 on the richter scale (some say 7.3). A few cars trying to get out of the city crashed into each other.

Hundreds were crammed on the hill as the ground continued to rumble underneath us. Anxiety and fear prevailed. Fear for their homes, fear for their businesses, fear for their families, fear for their friends. I was terrified. There was an overwhelming uncertainty of what comes next: was that the start or the end?

Everyone was on their phone: ringing their loved ones, ringing their offices, ringing those that mattered. The World Bank had worked with the Government of Vanuatu for some time in the area of telecommunications reform, with AusAid support. The phrase telecommunications reform does not do the reality justice: this support helped make phones and calls accessible and affordable to most of the population. At this moment in time, I alongside everyone else on that hill was a beneficiary of such support, and we were so grateful. We could make the calls we urgently needed to make. To reassure people that we were okay. To get reassurance from people they were okay. To check on damage. To ring for advice on the threat of a tsunami. This wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

I huddled up with a Ni-Van couple, who were as petrified as I was. The ground was still shaking. We sat locked in a little ball under my quite conspicuous leopard print umbrella listening to the radio as people rang in to discuss damage, injuries and give advice. We sat there for hours, well after the authorities had told us we could come down from the hills, well after the others had left, well after the sun had gone down.