In the wake of Tropical Cyclone Harold, around 2000 women on Malo Island in Vanuatu stepped up to ensure their communities could access clean and accessible water to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic and other health issues.
The pandemic had already seriously impacted women’s livelihoods when TC Harold hit in April 2020, compounding the existing gender inequalities and protection risks. When ActionAid Vanuatu conducted the first local women-led rapid response assessment in May 2020, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), women in Malo identified the lack of available and accessible water as one of their top three priority needs.
The category 5 cyclone had damaged water pipes and disturbed the flow of the island’s water system leaving some parts of the island without access to water. In other areas, available water had been contaminated by debris and run-off and was causing health issues like diarrhoea, skin and upper respiratory infections among children.
Women had to walk long distances to collect water to use for cooking, drinking and bathing, putting their safety at risk and taking time away from their livelihoods. The need for extra water for handwashing to meet COVID-19 health and hygiene protocols put extra pressure on water resources made scarce by the cyclone damage.
“It is so hard for us to stick to these health rules, but we have to because we don’t want to get coronavirus,” said one 60-year-old women in West Malo.
The Government of Vanuatu repaired Malo’s piped water system but many residents without access to it rely on rainwater catchment systems which had been damaged by the cyclone as corrugated iron rooftops had blown away and been replaced by temporary thatching which could not collect rainwater.
Women leaders from the Woman I Toktok Tugeta network, supported by ActionAid Vanuatu and DFAT, stepped up to fill the service gap for these families. With assistance from local partners Field Ready and Sea Mercy, local women distributed more than 300 buckets across Malo island to support families’ water collection needs and ensure the community could access clean and safe water for handwashing, drinking, cooking and bathing.
On World Water Day we celebrate the resilience and recovery efforts of the women of Malo and other islands who led an integrated response to simultaneous emergencies caused by COVID-19 and TC Harold.