This week, on Wednesday 5th December, a tsunami alert was issued in Vanuatu, as an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 hit off the coast of New Caledonia. If the tsunami hit, it would have affected Tafea Province, with most of the impacts being felt on the island of Tanna.
Immediately, women leaders across Tanna activated a preparedness mechanism: Women’s Weather Watch program – ‘Women Wetem Weta’ (WWW), which was established in Vanuatu recently, with the support of ActionAid Australia and FemLINK Fiji. The Women’s Weather Watch is an information communication system that works with a core group of women leaders across Vanuatu, ensuring they have the information they need to help them prepare their communities from an early warning stage. It is a real-time system that utilises bulk SMS to ensure there are clear messages to support women’s agency in times of crises, and to better assist women in communities in Vanuatu to access information that is going to affect their health and livelihoods.
Through the activation of WWW in Vanuatu yesterday, a network of women in Tanna supported by ActionAid Australia – Women I Tok Tok Tugeta – and the Tafea Government coastal authorities were informed within minutes of hearing of the tsunami. Through instant text messaging and word of mouth, the WWW network alerted each other and their communities, informing families to move to higher ground. Communication was maintained with community women through WWW yesterday, until the tsunami warning was lifted.
The Women’s Weather Watch will be officially launched in Vanuatu in early 2019 as a mechanism of the preparedness and protection work of the Women I Tok Tok Tugeta (WITTT) forum that is supported by ActionAid Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). WITTT aims to build the capacity of women leaders to address gendered impacts of climate change and recurrent disasters, and support the safety, security and dignity of women. This includes supporting women to develop communications mechanisms to amplify their voices in calling for greater action by government and the humanitarian sector to address women, peace and security issues in disasters.
“From a feminist media practice, anything that you start is really about being able to share a model that, if it works, it can work for women in their own context… When we founded Women’s Weather Watch with that small group of women [in Fiji], it was because they were rural women in farming communities who needed information about the weather, particularly if it was going to deteriorate. They are not women who are online all the time, they are not women who can even afford to be online all the time. They are not women who are accessing news and information in a way that it should be delivered,” says Sharon Bagwan-Rolls, founder of Women’s Weather Watch in Fiji. “I’m really excited about the potential to collaborate with ActionAid Vanuatu and the WITTT network, to be able to see what the women need.”
The events of yesterday highlighted the necessity of the Women’s Weather Watch, and the powerful impact it can have in keeping women and communities informed of humanitarian crises from an early warning stage.
When a storm, flood or tsunami strikes, women and children are the most affected. Furthermore, humanitarian responses have traditionally left little space for women in affected communities to lead. As a result, women’s rights and needs are rarely prioritised in these responses.
As disasters become more frequent and severe, not just in the Pacific, but around the world, it is more and more critical that we establish and implement alternatives to climate change. Through WITTT, women are leading change in the face of these disasters. If women are prepared for the next disaster, they’ll be able to take charge during an emergency and help protect their children, communities and livelihoods.