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Adaptation to the Climate Crisis: Opportunities for Food and Nutrition Security and Health in a Pacific Small Island State

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  • 1 School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  • | 2 School of Public Health, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  • | 3 Pacific Consulting Limited, Port Vila, Vanuatu
  • | 4 Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
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Abstract

Climate change, malnutrition, and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are three of the most significant health challenges of this century, and they share fundamental underlying drivers. Pacific Island countries (PICs) are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, which is likely to affect food and nutrition security (FNS) directly and indirectly, and many countries have existing high NCD burdens. This paper surveys the climate change adaptation (CCA) landscape in one PIC, Vanuatu. It explores the extent to which FNS and diet-related NCDs are considered and addressed within CCA initiatives. A comprehensive review of the literature related to CCA, FNS, and NCDs in Vanuatu was combined with 32 semistructured interviews with key experts and stakeholders. This study found that some promising groundwork has been laid for tackling the effects of climate change on FNS in policy and governance, agriculture, coastal management, and nutrition. However, several opportunities for strengthening CCA were identified: targeting urban populations; complementary integration of disaster risk reduction and CCA; incorporating local knowledge; applying a systems-based framing of NCDs as climate-sensitive health risks; and emphasizing human-centered, community-led CCA. Vanuatu will continue to be affected by accelerating climate change. A strong foundation for CCA presents clear opportunities for further development. As food and nutrition insecurity and diet-related NCD risk factors are increasingly exacerbated by climate change, alongside other socioeconomic drivers, it is crucial to find new and innovative ways to increase transformational resilience and adaptive capacity that also improve nutrition and health outcomes.

© 2020 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Ms. Amy Savage, aj.savage@hdr.qut.edu.au

Abstract

Climate change, malnutrition, and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are three of the most significant health challenges of this century, and they share fundamental underlying drivers. Pacific Island countries (PICs) are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, which is likely to affect food and nutrition security (FNS) directly and indirectly, and many countries have existing high NCD burdens. This paper surveys the climate change adaptation (CCA) landscape in one PIC, Vanuatu. It explores the extent to which FNS and diet-related NCDs are considered and addressed within CCA initiatives. A comprehensive review of the literature related to CCA, FNS, and NCDs in Vanuatu was combined with 32 semistructured interviews with key experts and stakeholders. This study found that some promising groundwork has been laid for tackling the effects of climate change on FNS in policy and governance, agriculture, coastal management, and nutrition. However, several opportunities for strengthening CCA were identified: targeting urban populations; complementary integration of disaster risk reduction and CCA; incorporating local knowledge; applying a systems-based framing of NCDs as climate-sensitive health risks; and emphasizing human-centered, community-led CCA. Vanuatu will continue to be affected by accelerating climate change. A strong foundation for CCA presents clear opportunities for further development. As food and nutrition insecurity and diet-related NCD risk factors are increasingly exacerbated by climate change, alongside other socioeconomic drivers, it is crucial to find new and innovative ways to increase transformational resilience and adaptive capacity that also improve nutrition and health outcomes.

© 2020 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Ms. Amy Savage, aj.savage@hdr.qut.edu.au

1. Introduction

Climate change, malnutrition, and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are three of the most significant health challenges of this century, and they share fundamental underlying drivers (Costello et al. 2009; Swinburn et al. 2019). The effects of climate change on food and nutrition security (FNS) are also likely to drive malnutrition and exacerbate the burden of diet-related NCDs (Friel et al. 2011; McMichael 2013). There is an increasing cognizance of the links between climate change and NCDs and the need for an integrated approach to tackle these two challenges.

Vanuatu, a Pacific Island country (PIC), is at the forefront of the impacts of climate change and has a high NCD burden (Roberts et al. 2013; Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazard Department et al. 2015). Climate change is expected to adversely affect FNS in PICs in a myriad of direct and indirect ways, such as negative impacts on agriculture and fisheries productivity, increased migration, the provision of low-quality humanitarian food assistance, impaired livelihoods, volatile and rising food prices, and food system instability, among others (Asch et al. 2018; Barnett 2011; Bell et al. 2016; Campbell 2015; Campbell and Warrick 2014; Savage et al. 2020a; Taylor et al. 2016). These effects are likely to exacerbate the current shift away from diverse, minimally processed diets, to a lower-quality diet high in fat, sugar, and salt and increasing prevalence of diet-related NCDs such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and some cancers (Dain and Hadley 2012; Bell and Taylor 2015; Savage et al. 2020b; Taylor et al. 2016).

Vanuatu, a least developed country (LDC), is an archipelago of over 80 islands, 65 of which are inhabited, and is already experiencing adverse impacts of climate change. Observed climate changes in Vanuatu include increasing average, maximum, and minimum temperatures; sea level rise; and ocean acidification (Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazard Department et al. 2015). Projected future changes include further increases in sea and air temperatures with more extremely hot days; changes in weather patterns, including greater frequency of intense rainfall; less frequent but more severe cyclones; accelerating sea level rise; and further ocean acidification (Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazard Department et al. 2015). These changes lead to increased flooding and droughts; salinization of groundwater; coral bleaching; changing fish migrations; storm damage to reefs, crops, homes, and other infrastructure; and uncertain seasons—all of which are likely to undermine FNS (Asch et al. 2018; Bell et al. 2018; Nurse et al. 2014; Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazard Department et al. 2015; Savage et al. 2020a). Vanuatu is also ranked globally as the most at-risk nation for natural hazards, highlighting its underlying environmental vulnerability and challenges for adaptation (Day et al. 2019).

Vanuatu is experiencing an increasing reliance on imported foods, most prominently in urban areas, while approximately 75% of the population reside in rural areas and continue subsistence farming and fishing (Government of Vanuatu 2017; Martyn et al. 2015; Savage et al. 2020b). Vanuatu faces the double burden of malnutrition, whereby undernutrition exists simultaneously with overweight and obesity, and a high NCD burden (FAO et al. 2018; Haddad et al. 2015; Martyn et al. 2015). The country reports a high stunting prevalence for children under age 5 of 28.5%, which is higher in rural areas (32%) than in urban areas (19%), and an adult obesity prevalence of 23.5% as compared with global estimates of 21.9% stunting and 13.2% adult obesity [FAO et al. 2018; Government of Vanuatu and Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2014; United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 2017, 2019]. The age-standardized prevalence of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are 15.05% and 28.6% in Vanuatu and 5.95% and 31.1% globally (Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network 2018; Mills et al. 2016; Roberts et al. 2013). NCDs, such as CVD, diabetes, cancer, and liver disease, are the leading cause of death in adults in Vanuatu (Carter et al. 2016; Roberts et al. 2013).

The recognition of the interlinkages between climate change and NCDs is critical for effective and synergistic responses (Swinburn et al. 2019; Savage et al. 2020a). Climate change adaptation (CCA) occurs across spatial and time scales, and, importantly, is context specific (Adger et al. 2005). CCA that goes beyond addressing the geophysical aspects of vulnerability and technocratic interventions to a systematic approach integrating climate change into development planning and programming, including in the health sector, offers broader and significant benefits to populations [Buggy and McNamara 2016; Forsyth 2013; Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) 2016]. Maladaptation, unintended negative externalities that inadvertently increase climate change vulnerability, is a risk for CCA that fails to account for the multiple drivers of vulnerability (Magnan et al. 2016).

A comprehensive overview of responses to FNS/NCD challenges in Vanuatu within the context of climate change, to our knowledge, does not exist. This study aims to fill this gap and present a synthesis of CCA for FNS and NCDs in Vanuatu. We first survey the CCA landscape in Vanuatu and explore the extent to which FNS and diet-related NCDs are considered within CCA initiatives. We then discuss opportunities for strengthening CCA for FNS/NCDs. This paper provides an overview relevant for policy makers, development practitioners, public health professionals, and other decision-makers in Vanuatu. The opportunities offer insights that may be applicable within the wider Pacific region.

2. Methods

a. Literature search

An initial comprehensive search of electronic databases was performed in December 2016 to identify peer-reviewed articles, original research and scholarly reports related to CCA and FNS and NCDs in Vanuatu. A search of PubMed, Web of Science, SCOPUS, Global Health Library, Science Direct, ProQuest, and EMBASE was conducted using combinations and variations of the keywords “climate change,” “global warming,” “health,” “nutrition,” “non-communicable diseases,” “food and nutrition security,” “Vanuatu,” “coping strategy,” “adaptation strategy,” “resilience,” “policy,” “vulnerability,” and “intervention” with restrictions to English language papers. The search elicited 631 results, of which 572 were excluded after a title and abstract review, and 47 following a full-text review, by two authors (A. Savage and L. Schubert); 12 studies were included. Eligibility criteria included those specific to Vanuatu, pertaining to CCA practice and coping strategies, and related to FNS/NCDs. Additionally, a hand search of reference lists and a thorough search of the gray literature—which included Google/Google Scholar, the websites of United Nations agencies, donor agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Government of Vanuatu—was undertaken. Further literature was identified through database notifications and ongoing research, including papers published after the initial search. A total of 47 articles and reports were included: 26 peer reviewed and 21 gray literature.

b. Data collection

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 32 key experts and stakeholders between April 2018 and May 2019 to explore further the themes identified in the literature review. Interviews were conducted as part of a larger project investigating the impacts of climate change on FNS and diet-related NCDs in Vanuatu. Ethics approval was obtained from the University of Queensland (2017001510) and Queensland University of Technology Human Research Ethics Committees (1900000071). Informed written consent was obtained from all participants. Purposive snowball sampling was used to recruit participants with experience and knowledge in the areas of climate change, nutrition, food security, and health (Luborsky and Rubinstein 1995). Participants from a range of organizations were interviewed: multilateral agencies (7), bilateral donors (2), the Government of Vanuatu (8), independent consultants (4), universities (1), and NGOs (10) (see Table 1). Eight nationalities were represented, including 16 (50%) ni-Vanuatu (of Vanuatu) participants.

Table 1.

Interview participants.

Table 1.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted to reduce interviewer bias, put participants at ease, tailor the conversation for each participant, and allow for the emergence of unanticipated data. The majority of participants did not have in-depth knowledge of the nexus of climate change, FNS, and diet-related NCDs but rather possessed expertise and experience in aspects of the topic areas. Sectoral expertise of participants was broadly categorized: climate change (17), health (15), and others, including migration, development, and agriculture (3).1 To encourage frankness, participant identities remain confidential. Interviews were conducted in English, recorded, and transcribed professionally or by the interviewer (A. Savage). Quotes from the interviews are used throughout the paper, referenced with a P and a unique number for each participant.

c. Data analysis

Data were analyzed using reflexive thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006). The initial stages involved data familiarization and coding of literature (n = 32) and interviews by the lead author using NVivo 12 software (QSR International 2018). The analysis was not grounded in a predetermined theoretical framework but employed inductive development of themes, allowing the identification of unexpected patterns, and reducing bias (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Key themes were identified and further grouped and reorganized, using simple node trees in NVivo, as analysis progressed. A subset of interviews was independently analyzed by author C. Huber to strengthen the establishment of themes and for further reflection on individual biases. The authors regularly discussed the themes throughout the analysis process and contributed to their development and refinement. The final analysis was agreed upon by all authors. Papers included in later stages (n = 15) were analyzed using the themes developed in the earlier stages of analysis.

d. Limitations

This paper provides an overview of CCA in Vanuatu, with a contextual lens adding depth to the analysis, drawn from interviews of key informants. Literature evaluating the effectiveness and outcomes of programs was scarce in the public sphere, and the majority was gray literature that typically addressed outputs rather than impact. This is likely partially due to the inherent difficulties and extended timeframes necessary in evaluating CCA impacts and a general reluctance of development organizations to share information. Furthermore, much of the gray literature is likely to be positively biased as it is usually self-reported by the implementing/funding organization (Klöck and Nunn 2019; Piggott-McKellar et al. 2019). However, several positive examples of information sharing were identified, including a successful collaboration in an NGO consortium (Webb et al. 2015), a publication openly discussing issues with elite capture encountered in one project (Buggy and McNamara 2016), and the overall openness of interviewees.

The sample size for interviews was relatively small but typical in qualitative research that aspires to “thick data” rather than participant quantity (Luborsky and Rubinstein 1995). The potential for selection bias is inherent in this study type mainly due to challenges in participant recruitment; however, the purposive sampling method promoted selection of high-quality and relevant respondents. Interviewer bias was reduced with the semistructured technique, allowing the varied expertise of participants to guide the discussion.

Last, the paper aimed to provide a broad overview of the CCA landscape related to FNS and NCDs in Vanuatu and, as such, a more in-depth analysis of several complex issues that are touched upon was outside the scope of this paper.

3. Results and discussion

This section first presents a survey of the CCA landscape in Vanuatu as it relates to FNS and NCDs and then describes critical opportunities for strengthening CCA for FNS and NCDs.

We categorized CCA activities related to FNS and CNDs into four thematic areas: policy and governance, agriculture, coastal management, and nutrition (see Fig. 1). While it was not possible to identify all CCA initiatives that are being or have been implemented in Vanuatu, we explore some prominent examples under each of these four categories.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Summary of climate change adaptation for FNS and/or NCDs in Vanuatu.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 12, 4; 10.1175/WCAS-D-19-0090.1

a. Climate change adaptation for FNS and NCDs

1) Policy and governance

“The purpose is to help people, actual people in their lives, to have a better life and the only way to do that at scale is to influence government” (P19).

Climate change governance in Vanuatu is mainly driven at the national level, with subnational provincial authorities, and community-level governance, following the direction of the national government (Fig. 2). A strong commitment and clear agenda at the national level have been shown to be influential in CCA implementation at subnational levels (Amundsen et al. 2010). Vanuatu was the first PIC to establish a dedicated Ministry of Climate Change,2 under which there is a newly created Department of Climate Change (Government of Vanuatu 2016a,b). A National Advisory Board on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction (NAB), established in 2012, serves as a technical advisory body to ensure climate initiatives, including projects from myriad development partners, align with national policy and avoid duplication of efforts (Government of Vanuatu 2018). The leadership and political will of the government in the area of climate change were praised by several participants (P5, P24, P26), and the NAB particularly, was seen as a valuable governance mechanism (Sterrett 2015) (P2, P5, P12, P16, P24, P29).

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Climate change governance structure (Savage et al. 2020c).

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 12, 4; 10.1175/WCAS-D-19-0090.1

Climate change has been mainstreamed into a range of national and sectoral policies and plans, albeit to varying degrees (Government of Vanuatu 2015). The overarching policy framework for the country, the National Sustainable Development Plan (NSDP), explicitly aims to enhance climate change resilience, FNS, and reduce NCDs; however, these issues largely remain siloed (Government of Vanuatu 2016c). One participant recognized the lack of integration:

We learned a lot of mistakes from the previous national plan . . . so we’re trying to make adjustments so that there will be a lot of integration and coordination with sectors in many areas of cross-cutting issues like food, gender and all the other issues (P32).

CCA in Vanuatu is also characterized by strong participation from civil society, in particular, faith-based organizations and NGOs, which is likely to enhance CCA effectiveness (Hügel and Davies 2020). The Yumi Stap Redi Long Klaemet Jenis (YSRLKJ; “we are ready for climate change”) program, implemented between 2012 and 2015, arguably the most prominent CCA program in Vanuatu, was the most often mentioned by participants (Webb et al. 2015). The program was set up as a consortium of six local and international organizations, with a specific focus on institutional strengthening and established beneficial structures that continue to contribute to CCA efforts (Maclellan 2015; Sterrett 2015). A program evaluation found that the consortium design, and the shared goals and understandings of resilience, promoted a coordinated approach to CCA, improved information sharing and reduced duplication (Sterrett 2015; Webb et al. 2015).

A network of civil society actors, Vanuatu Climate Action Network (VCAN), set up as part of the YSRLKJ program, was often highlighted as playing a pivotal role in CCA work and advocacy (Ensor 2015; Sterrett 2015; Webb et al. 2015) (P13, P17, P24, P29). The program established community disaster and climate change committees and promoted greater participation of women in community forums and leadership roles (Sterrett 2015; Webb et al. 2017). While it is difficult to evaluate the direct impact of these activities on increased resilience, evidence shows that communities were better prepared for Tropical Cyclone (TC) Pam (2015) as a result of YSRLKJ (Ensor 2016; Sterrett 2015; Webb et al. 2017). However, some of the collaboration between the government and communities has deteriorated without continued external funding (Sterrett 2015). The committees mentioned above have also been criticized as externally imposed structures that do not adequately account for local institutions, politics, and power differentials, highlighting the importance of contextualization and attention to local structures (McDonnell 2020).

Participants indicated that a significant challenge for the operationalization of policies, plans, and programs was human and financial resource constraints (P2, P4, P14, P16, P19, P24, P25, P27, P28, P31, P32). An evaluation of projects funded by the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) found that government employees in Vanuatu had limited knowledge about climate change and, as such, may not prioritize CCA in their work (Sovacool et al. 2017). Funding was described as a barrier to CCA implementation, including difficulties in applying for financing from the major climate change funding bodies, perverse incentives, reliance on external funding, and extensive resources required to manage funds (Barnett and Campbell 2010; P4, P5, P14, P17, P19, P23). There is no gold standard for CCA planning globally. However, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recommends countries develop a cross-sectoral National Adaptation Plan (NAP) to ensure a strategic, coherent, and long-term approach to adaptation, and Vanuatu has not yet developed a NAP (UNFCCC 2012) (P29, P30).

2) Agriculture

Agriculture was the prominent lens through which FNS CCA initiatives in Vanuatu were developed. CCA activities mentioned by participants and in the literature included climate-resilient crops (Lebot 2013; Richmond and Sovacool 2012) (P2, P7, P16, P17, P21, P23, P25, P26), climate-resilient backyard and school gardens (McNamara 2013; Sterrett 2015) (P5, P7, P8, P22, P23, P25, P28), and food preservation methods (P2, P5, P6, P14, P19, P21, P26).

McNamara (2013) describes a “successful” food security project in which communities used local agriculture knowledge, along with external input, to build demonstration climate-resilient gardens with diverse crops and farming techniques. Additionally, NGOs in the YSRLK program implemented a range of agriculture-related activities, including backyard and school gardens, crop diversification, and integrated food production systems (Sterrett 2015). Some activities, particularly the backyard gardens and crop diversification, were ongoing after the end of the program; however, the contribution of these activities to enhancing resilience is unclear. One participant expressed concern for the potential maladaptive effects of fish farming, an activity implemented in some communities: “one of the frightening things is Tilapia is one of the fish that . . . reproduce easily and grow very fast. And they are very bad for the environment. They can destroy the environment” (P13).

A solar food dryer developed by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), and used by several organizations in Vanuatu, was commonly mentioned (Maclellan 2015) (P5, P19, P21, P23). The technology aimed to improve food security through generating food surpluses in preparation for climate extremes and provide an additional income source for community members from the sale of preserved food. An evaluation of the program was not found; however, participants noted that many dryers are unused and in disrepair, and they are unlikely to contribute to long-term climate change resilience on their own (P19, P23). However, they were still seen positively as “an input to a longer process” (P19) and in elevating the perceived significance of traditional food preservation techniques (P26). In one community, as participants lost interest in a solar drying initiative, one female community member purchased the dryer and used it to launch a successful personal business operation (Westoby et al. 2019).

Ongoing efforts by the Ministry of Agriculture to assist food security efforts through backyard gardens and household poultry farms were found to significantly exacerbate water security issues. This unintended externality is particularly important in the context of drought. As a result, these programs extended their scope to building long-term resilience to climate extremes and seasonal climate variability (Huber 2016).

The integration of traditional seasonal calendars and early warning systems with scientific climate data has also been a focus of CCA work in Vanuatu, aiming to assist farmers in adjusting planting and harvesting seasons in line with changing weather patterns. For example, the Government of Vanuatu has been working with partners since 2013 in documenting traditional knowledge on climate forecasting and integrating it with meteorological data (Government of Vanuatu 2012). One interviewee described the importance of traditional forecasting: “because our ancestors have been . . . connecting with nature for so many years, and they really know the nature, and they understand how to work with nature” (P13).

However, no evidence was found to suggest that these integrated forecasts have been operationalized at the community level.

3) Coastal management

Coastal management in Vanuatu goes beyond CCA to address the impacts of overfishing, ill-planned development, and the effects of weather events (Amos et al. 2014; Johannes 2002). A long-running initiative, the Adaptation to Climate Change in the Coastal Zone in Vanuatu (VCAP), promoted an integrated approach to increase resilience through infrastructure, improved livelihoods, and food production in coastal communities [Sovacool et al. 2017; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2018]. This includes “climate proofing” of public conveyance infrastructure, including transport routes, and addressing coastal erosion and sea level rise—all of which are likely to contribute to improved food security (UNDP 2014).

Fish aggregating devices (FADs), used to attract pelagic fish, such as tuna, to counterbalance the diminishing supply of coastal fish, have been extensively implemented in communities in Vanuatu and promoted as an effective adaptation initiative (Amos et al. 2014; Bell et al. 2015a; Bell et al. 2018). FADs can contribute to improved FNS through increased access to pelagic fish for communities without access to motorized boats as ocean warming and acidification reduce reef fish availability (Bell et al. 2015b). For example, FAD technology has been adapted in Vanuatu for shallower waters reachable by canoe and using local materials (Garae 2015; Vanuatu Coastal Adaptation Project 2016). Community ownership was noted as a crucial element to successful implementation, and FAD committees and management fees have been established to address the costs of long-term maintenance or damage (Bell et al. 2015b; Amos et al. 2014). However, projections suggest that climate change will alter the migration patterns of some pelagic fish, such as skipjack tuna, away from Vanuatu, potentially undermining the long-term sustainability of FADs as a CCA and FNS strategy (Bell et al. 2013; Porter et al. 2014).

4) Nutrition

CCA programs directly targeting nutrition were limited. As part of YSRLKJ, nutrition education and awareness activities were conducted, and a program evaluation found community members had improved knowledge of healthy diets and increased diversity in school and community meals (Ensor 2016; Sterrett 2015). Determining the direct impacts of these activities on climate change resilience is difficult; however, sustained dietary diversity would contribute to improved nutrition status, NCD prevention, and increased resilience, when combined with other actions. The Urban Nutrition Program, implemented by local NGO Wan Smol Bag, responded to FNS issues following TC Pam, by providing free, nutritious meals to vulnerable urban populations affected by the cyclone and the ensuing El Niño–induced drought (Wan SmolBag Theatre 2016). The initiative was, however, primarily a disaster response program and did not attempt to increase long-term climate change resilience.

5) Gaps and challenges

Overall, comprehensive information about past and current CCA activities in Vanuatu, and particularly evaluation of the impact on resilience and adaptive capacity, was scarce. The lack of impact evaluation is common in the CCA literature due to difficulties in measurement, inherent future uncertainties, the absence of agreed-upon metrics for CCA, scarcity of longitudinal data, the confounding factors influencing resilience and adaptative capacity, and the potential for maladaptation (Klöck and Nunn 2019; Adger et al. 2005). A review of community-based CCA projects in the Pacific found the overall impact on reducing the effects of climate change to be low (McNamara 2013).

We found that a coherent and systematic approach to addressing the effects of climate change on FNS and NCDs was not evident. Similarly, a systematic review of CCA in Small Island Developing States concluded that “most documented adaptation in SIDS is reactive and may be classified as coping rather than as adaptation” (Klöck and Nunn 2019, p. 209). However, groundwork at the national level, including political will, extensive stakeholder involvement, and robust institutional arrangements, is evident in Vanuatu and likely to contribute positively to CCA (Amundsen et al. 2010; Klöck and Nunn 2019). Although Vanuatu has made strides in the strategic oversight of climate change governance, the operationalization of high-level policies and strategies remains inconsistent and fraught with challenges, and the national adaptation agenda has yet to be formalized (Savage et al. 2020c).

Furthermore, CCA programming in Vanuatu has been predominantly characterized by discrete, donor-driven projects, with a focus on visible, short-term outcomes rather than a systematic approach to long-term adaptation to climate change. However, there was a notable exception: the YSRLKJ program (Ensor 2015; Government of Vanuatu 2015; Maclellan 2015). Nunn et al. also found that of four PICs, Vanuatu had the most substantial disconnect between community CCA governance decision-making and national policy (Nunn et al. 2014).

Resource constraints, including financial and human, were also found to be a fundamental barrier to CCA, which is common in developing countries (Klöck and Nunn 2019; Piggott-McKellar et al. 2019; Sovacool et al. 2017). Challenges in access to funding, for example, were commonly cited (Klöck and Nunn 2019; Piggott-McKellar et al. 2019); however, it is also argued that continued external financing for CCA is unsustainable and insufficient for the scale of adaptation required (Nunn and Kumar 2019). Finally, the emphasis on agriculture, fisheries, and disaster response for FNS adaptation is a narrow approach that overlooks the range of other drivers of food and nutrition insecurity, including socioeconomic factors, the food environment, and other food system activities (Ericksen 2008; Ingram 2011).

b. Opportunities to strengthen CCA for FNS and NCDs

Several critical opportunities for enhancing CCA for FNS and NCDs were identified in the literature and by participants, including targeting urban populations, integration of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and CCA, incorporation of local knowledge, a systems framing of NCDs as climate-sensitive health risks, and emphasizing human-centered and community-led CCA (Table 2).

Table 2.

Opportunities for strengthening CCA for FNS.

Table 2.

1) Urban populations

Urban areas, including informal settlements, have distinctive FNS and climate change vulnerabilities and represent approximately 32% of the national populace (including peri-urban communities) (Trundle et al. 2019). This population was largely overlooked in the CCA planning and initiatives included in our study (Rey et al. 2017; Trundle 2017). Similarly, Trundle (2017, p. 44) found that

climate change had not been previously understood to be “an urban issue,” and as such the infrastructure and social disadvantage in these areas does not feature strongly in Vanuatu’s climate resilient development programmes and policies.

Concerning urban nutrition vulnerability, one participant explained:

Urban areas have generally been long ignored . . . but, I would argue that there is really unique vulnerabilities in urban areas that mean they need particular, not necessarily more, but particular attention (P14).

Although food purchases as a coping strategy in times of shortage can increase resilience, urban populations in Vanuatu face existing FNS challenges that undermine resilience (Government of Vanuatu and Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2014; James 2018; Martyn et al. 2015; Rey et al. 2017). Results from the most recent Household Income and Expenditure Survey in Vanuatu found that urban households are less likely than rural households “to satisfy the nutrition thresholds associated with an adequate diet,” and a higher proportion of urban households consume less than 50% of the recommended daily intake of iron and vitamin A (Martyn et al. 2015). The survey found that “urban and wage-earning households shift their food consumption patterns from local root and tree crops (cooking bananas, taro, manioc, and kumala) and leafy greens (island cabbage) towards rice and (particularly tinned) meat products” (Martyn et al. 2015, p. 71).

A lack of land in urban areas, particularly in informal settlements, undermines FNS provided by subsistence farming; promotes greater participation in, and dependence on, the cash economy for food access; and limits the ability to apply technical agriculture-based CCA strategies (James 2018; Trundle et al. 2019). A recent study found a lack of land to be the most significant barrier to the inclusion of locally grown foods in the diet of urban households in Vanuatu (James 2018). Participants often explained that locally grown foods are more expensive than imported foods—a reality that leaves cash- and land-poor urban populations even more vulnerable (P3, P9, P10, P14, P21, P22, P25, P30, P32). Dependence on the cash economy and purchased food renders urban populations particularly sensitive to food price shocks that follow extreme weather events and the steady increases in food prices expected with climate change (Feeny et al. 2013; James 2018; Magee et al. 2016; Myers et al. 2017; Taylor et al. 2016) (P3, P11, P12, P21). Seven months after TC Pam, it was reported that urban access to locally grown foods was low due to limited land access, slow recovery of gardens, and continued high prices of fruit and vegetables (Wan Smolbag Theatre 2016). Weakened social and ecosystem-based safety nets often experienced by urban migrants can also impair their resilience and ability to cope with both sudden and slow-onset climate impacts (Connell 2013; McCubbin et al. 2015; Rey et al. 2017; Trundle 2017). One participant explained, “You don’t have any of your traditional resources; you don’t have your gardens, your social safety net is gone” (P5).

Urban areas are increasingly recognized as a setting with context-specific challenges for CCA, and this could be enhanced by also considering their particular FNS and health situation. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report has a specific chapter on urban environments, and the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific highlights the need “to pay special attention to the resilience of urban spaces” (SPC 2016, p. 29; Revi et al. 2014; Rey et al. 2017). Trundle et al. (2019) highlight opportunities to build on endogenous resilience in urban areas such as informal practices, institutions, and structures that may slip under the radar of, or be undermined by, formal CCA approaches and governance. Urban CCA planning should consider the distinctive vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and drivers of food insecurity of urban populations to ensure these communities are not left behind.

2) Tension and complementarity of CCA and DRR

Vanuatu’s high exposure to natural hazards has meant that disaster management is a prominent concern (Day et al. 2019). Internationally and locally, there is increasing recognition that climate change and disaster risk are inextricably linked and that development activities in all sectors, including public health, affect underlying resilience and vulnerability (Banwell et al. 2018; Begum et al. 2014; Webb et al. 2015). Vanuatu has been proactive in the integration of DRR and CCA, and the mainstreaming of these in development processes, including in the National Sustainable Development Plan, the Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction (CCDRR) policy, and institutional arrangements, such as the NAB. At the local level, natural disasters and climate change were rarely differentiated, and when it comes to risk management, it makes little practical sense to do so (Walshe et al. 2017; Warrick 2011) (P16, P19, P24, P28, P29, P30).

However, participants noted that the integration, or sometimes conflation, of DRR and CCA in such a disaster-prone country has also meant that long-term climate change was often neglected (P5, P28, P29). Longer-term planning has been undermined by the regularity of natural disasters the country has faced in recent years. For example, the Risk and Resilience Unit (RRU) was established to mainstream climate and disaster risk into all functions of the Ministry of Agriculture and provide long-term strategic risk planning (P1, P3, P5, P23). However, one participant explained that it has been more reactive than proactive “because we’ve had so many events, they [RRU] just get swamped in dealing with one disaster after the other” (P5).

Additionally, many participants expressed concern that the provision of food assistance in disaster response corrodes traditional strategies to protect FNS in the face of extreme weather events and contributes to the shift away from traditional diets (Campbell 1990; Jackson et al. 2017; Warrick 2009, 2011) (P1, P2, P5, P23, P31, P32). The typical food assistance package in Vanuatu consisted of white rice, tinned fish, and packaged noodles (P2, P3, P8, P31, P32). The broader literature also shows that food assistance has contributed to a changing diet and has undermined traditional food systems and long-term FNS in PICs (Campbell 2015; Jackson 2020; Seiden et al. 2012; Wentworth 2019).

Nevertheless, food assistance is often necessary to alleviate acute postdisaster food insecurity (Ensor 2016; Warrick 2011) (P13). Participants indicated that the Government of Vanuatu had recognized the need to improve the nutritional value of food assistance. Efforts to provide local food were met with several challenges, such as storage, transportation, and changing tastes and preferences (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 2017) (P2, P3, P5, P8, P9, P23).

While DRR is necessarily prominent in Vanuatu, there is a need to enhance efforts toward an integrated approach that includes proactive, strategic CCA that considers long-term FNS goals alongside DRR.

3) Local knowledge and kastom

Local knowledge, which encompasses “traditional knowledge,” can be described as the “knowledge, skills and practices that are embedded in local cultural knowledge, belief and value systems and that are passed from generation to generation” (Warrick 2011, p. 7). There is extensive literature documenting the significance of local knowledge for climate change resilience and adaptive capacity (Granderson 2017; Lebel 2013; Nunn et al. 2014; Nunn and Kumar 2019). In this study, local knowledge was emphasized for its potential to make significant contributions to CCA in Vanuatu (Davies 2015; Fletcher et al. 2013; Granderson 2017; McNamara 2013; Nalau et al. 2018), as underscored by an interviewee: “We’re very lucky in that we’ve got incredible adaptive capacity at the local level . . . in traditional knowledge and innovation” (P5).

Local knowledge is closely intertwined with kastom in Vanuatu. Kastom has been described as “aspects of our culture and society that can be demonstrated to have their origins in the pre-European-contact era” (Regenvanu and Vanuatu Cultural Centre 2005, p. 38) or simply “traditional practices and habits” (Davies 2016, p. 45). Local knowledge, embedded in aspects of culture such as proactivity, community self-reliance, and preparing for the future, contributes to resilience and adaptive capacity (Granderson 2017; Warrick 2011). Local knowledge is also vital for effective climate change communication as it can transform information into something that makes sense locally when framed within local cultural worldviews (Granderson 2017; McNaught et al. 2014; Walshe et al. 2017) (P13, P17). However, as described by an interviewee, climate change communication is complex:

There’s just so many challenges in terms of even communicating climate change and merging community perspectives of the world with a scientific perspective of the world, and the two are very, very different places in terms of understanding and values. So merging those worlds is interesting and not always easy (P17).

Vanuatu has a long history of managing climate extremes, and the breadth and depth of traditional strategies to cope with these events have been part of the narrative in reframing the view of Pacific communities as inherently resilient and characterized by existing adaptive capacity (Nunn et al. 2014; Nunn and Kumar 2019). A variety of local practices related to FNS that can contribute to CCA were recognized in the data, including seasonal calendars for planting and harvesting, early warning signs for extreme weather events, famine foods, food storage and preservation methods, crop diversification, agricultural techniques for improved productivity and pest management, community sharing and intra- and interisland trading, coastal management practices, and community relocation (Allen 2015; Campbell 1990; Davies 2015; Ensor 2016; Fletcher et al. 2013; Granderson 2017; Jackson et al. 2017; Magee et al. 2016; McNamara and Prasad 2014; Nalau et al. 2018; Warrick 2009, 2011) (P1, P2, P3, P5, P6, P10, P13, P19, P21, P25, P26).

There is uncertainty regarding the limits of traditional knowledge as it is challenged by irreversible, and the magnitude of, climate changes (Granderson 2017, 2018; Nunn et al. 2014; Walshe et al. 2017). For example, participants often highlighted the unpredictability of weather patterns impairing the reliability of traditional seasonal calendars (Davies 2015; Granderson 2017, 2018; Live and Learn Environmental Education 2010; Walshe et al. 2017) (P2, P13, P19, P26, P27, P29). The integration of traditional climate forecasting and western science is promoted as one way to address this challenge (Chambers et al. 2019; Pennesi et al. 2012; Plotz et al. 2017). Magee et al. (2016) use Vanuatu as a case study for a conceptual framework for the integration of traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge.

However, one participant expressed concerns at the lack of innovation of communities on the islands of Ambae and Tanna in adapting their agricultural techniques to the not-infrequent volcano ashfall and the implications for adaptive capacity: “if you’re subjected to a constant stressor like that, and you’re not adapting, then how do you adapt for something that you can’t see?” (P12).

Some aspects of tradition and culture have been highlighted as a hindrance to adaptive capacity, such as the fear of unfamiliar and new technologies, the common understanding of climate change as “God’s will,” and local decision-making processes (Granderson 2017, 2018; Magee et al. 2016; Nunn et al. 2014; Warrick 2011) (P24, P28). Religion as a barrier to the uptake of CCA activities has been explored widely in the Pacific region (Nunn et al. 2014; Piggott-McKellar et al. 2019; Weir et al. 2017). Accordingly, CCA efforts informed by a strong understanding of kastom and culture, including local structures and norms, are likely to be more effective. For example, there is ongoing work in Vanuatu incorporating the “theology of disaster risk management” (P27, P28), explained by a participant thus: “In Vanuatu, we believe in two things and that’s bible and kastom . . . It [is] better to try to integrate all of them together” (P27).

Many participants mentioned the erosion of kastom with modernization; and the loss of traditional knowledge as an effect of broader cultural changes (Davies 2015; Granderson 2017; Warrick 2009, 2011) (P1, P2, P5, P21, P23, P26, P31). For example, as one participant explained, the transition to a Western-style education system was seen as a barrier to intergenerational sharing of traditional knowledge (Campbell 2006; Davies 2015; Granderson 2017; Warrick 2011) (P2, P5, P21): “since this Western education, people tend to focus on formal education and forgetting about these traditional ways of education” (P21).

Despite concerns for the loss of traditional knowledge, it was also found that the inherent adaptability and flexibility of kastom offers opportunities for CCA (P5, P17, P19, P21, P23, P26) (Davies 2015; Fletcher et al. 2013; Wentworth 2016). For example, Wentworth (2016) found that traditional feasting practices have been adapted and utilized to improve the food security of vulnerable children in a culturally acceptable way. An interviewee also noted the flexibility of kastom: “[it] is adaptable as well. It’s tweaked around the edges constantly in all sorts of ways” (P17).

However, we must consider the embeddedness of local knowledge within institutions that reinforce power structures that entrench existing inequitable social power relations, elite capture, and worsen the vulnerability of some population groups (Buggy and McNamara 2016; Ensor 2016; Fletcher et al. 2013; Granderson 2017; Ziervogel et al. 2017) (P5, P18, P19). A study of the distribution of relief supplies following TC Pam found that a lack of consideration of embedded local institutions and politics resulted in an unequal distribution of assistance and incited disputes (McDonnell 2020).

Effective utilization of local knowledge in CCA, in the context of community-led initiatives, can, however, promote local agency and resilience, and improve FNS and health in the face of climate change. As Ensor (2016) states:

The overall point is that kastom—and indigenous or traditional knowledge generally—provides communities with a source of inspiration for alternative visions of the future, and can empower collective action in the pursuit of those visions. Without this, transformation risks becoming an exercise in moving from one externally defined development trajectory to another (p. 40).

This study did not, however, find any clear examples of meaningful integration of local knowledge in CCA initiatives—a similar finding to Nalau et al. (2018). Significant potential exists for improved use of local knowledge for effective CCA.

4) NCDs and a systems-based approach

In Vanuatu, both NCDs and climate change are seen as two of the most significant challenges facing the country; however, the consideration of NCDs in CCA in Vanuatu was not identified in any initiatives in the literature or interviews. There was limited awareness of the links between climate change and NCDs or potential integrated CCA options. There is a strong impetus for jointly addressing climate change, FNS, malnutrition, and NCDs at a global level (Swinburn et al. 2019), regionally (SPC 2018), and at a national level (McIver et al. 2015). Some links between climate change and NCDs, such as lower crop productivity and unpredictable seasons leading to increased reliance on imported foods, and the effects of increased temperature on hypertension were mentioned by participants (P4, P10, P11, P23).

Participants more commonly discussed broader socioeconomic drivers of NCD prevalence, including urbanization, cultural changes, inadequate knowledge and education, increased dependence on the cash economy; changing land uses; the local food environment; and a general shift away from locally grown food to imported food (P1, P2, P3, P4, P8, P10, P12, P13, P15, P16, P17, P23, P32). For example, participants noted that as more people, particularly women, enter the formal workforce, there is less time to spend tending gardens and preparing nutritious food (P12, P14, P19, P24, P25). The role of increased participation in the cash economy was a common theme in interviews: “I wouldn’t agree that climate change is the biggest threat [to FNS]. Climate change would be second. Firstly is the increase in economic activity” (P1).

Participants were concerned about the use of land for cash crops such as copra or kava, a livelihood strategy actively promoted by the Government of Vanuatu (P2, P12, P24), as it absorbs resources otherwise devoted to the cultivation of food crops (Allen 2015; Granderson 2017; Lebot 2013) (P1, P2, P31).

Resilience and adaptive capacity building for FNS and NCDs must necessarily consider climate change, along with socioeconomic drivers of food insecurity. One participant described the usefulness of a systems-based approach:

You need to have [a] healthy school, you need to involve education, agriculture, you need to think about civil planning, roads...for NCDs and climate change, it really needs to be a system-wide approach (P4).

We argue that the application of a systems-based framing that recognizes the interrelations between climate change, FNS, and NCDs and highlights their position within a complex and dynamic system with numerous subsystems would enhance the comprehensiveness of CCA for FNS and NCDs. Such an approach facilitates the identification of synergies, intervention points, feedback loops, and potential unexpected externalities (Ericksen 2008; Ingram 2011). Some prominent models include the Global Environmental Change and Food Systems Model, which considers the impacts of global environmental drivers, including climate change, and socioeconomic drivers on the food system and food security, taking into account environmental and socioeconomic feedbacks (Ericksen 2008; Ingram 2011); and the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, which outlines the links between shocks and trends, such as climate change, on community assets, livelihood strategies, and livelihood outcomes, such as FNS or health outcomes (Slater and Yeudall 2015).

5) Human-centered and community-led CCA

A theme found in the interview data was the emphasis on the “humanness” of climate change impacts; the direct effect of climate change on the lives of real people—their health, livelihoods, and well-being (P16, P17, P19, P22, P26). One participant expressed this as follows:

Something that it’s really important for people to understand: . . . climate change is not just affecting our environment, but it’s going to . . . have a really big impact for human being itself, especially for us in the Pacific, us in Vanuatu (P26).

CCA is inherently a people-centered endeavor with an overall objective of improving the well-being of communities and individuals in the face of significant threats; however, this is often obscured in traditional CCA, particularly technocratic approaches. The humanness of climate change should be prominent in CCA planning, including an emphasis on community and individual aspirations. One interviewee described their frustration at the general focus of CCA: “it’s like, to me, resiliency is survival. Where’s the talk about thriving? Population thriving, and children thriving, and meeting their full potential?” (P12).

For a meaningful pursuit of well-being, we argue that the term needs to be understood within the local worldview. Granderson (2018, p. 11) found that “conflicting values and worldviews . . . lead actors to prioritize dissimilar risks and adaptation strategies.” A reframing of CCA planning is required, which emphasizes community-led adaptation that is “wholly ‘led’ by local people and local institutions and . . . [built] on traditional knowledge and coping mechanisms” (Westoby et al. 2019, p. 6; Nalau et al. 2018; Nunn and Kumar 2019). The necessity for CCA to be context specific and grounded in local realities was prominent in the literature, and it is also fundamental for ensuring that local aspirations of well-being are met (Ensor 2016; Granderson 2018; Walshe et al. 2017; Webb et al. 2015; Westoby et al. 2019). This is particularly relevant for FNS because food-related practices are strongly tied to culture, tradition, and well-being; food can evoke emotions and feelings, such as anxiety and joy; and food forms a part of individual, community, and national identities (Noack and Pouw 2015; Swift and Tischler 2010). The social purposes of food are evident in Vanuatu, where it is linked to cultural celebrations, rituals, and ceremonies (Allen 2015; Wentworth 2016).

However, the drive toward “community led” CCA risks placing the onus of “self-reliance” on those that have neither the power nor the resources to adapt adequately and further entrenching existing structures, beliefs, and norms that perpetuate inequitable and discriminatory power differentials (Ensor 2016). The framing of “community-led adaptation” must include space for the transformation of local structures that supports the rights and well-being potential and recognizes the different barriers to adaptation for women; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender plus (LGBT+) community; people living with a disability; and other often-excluded populations (Buggy and McNamara 2016; Ensor 2016; Fletcher et al. 2013; Granderson 2017).

4. Conclusions

This exploration of CCA relating to FNS and NCDs in Vanuatu found that CCA initiatives were implemented in four main areas: policy and governance, agriculture, coastal management, and nutrition. Promising groundwork has been laid for tackling climate change in Vanuatu, such as national governance arrangements, strong political will, and active stakeholder participation; however, resource constraints were an identified barrier to CCA. Additionally, a coherent and systematic approach to addressing and measuring the effects of climate change on FNS and NCDs was not evident. The NAB and the YSRLKJ program, among other initiatives, are positive steps toward a cohesive approach to addressing CCA; however, long-term benefits to adaptation will require strong commitment and follow-through on these initiatives.

The study also identified five opportunities for strengthening CCA for FNS and NCDs in Vanuatu, each of which merits further, more in-depth, research. First, the unique FNS vulnerabilities of urban populations, and the implications for resilience and adaptive capacity, need to be further considered in CCA planning. Second, while the integration of DRR and CCA in Vanuatu was well progressed, management of the trade-off between reactive disaster response and tackling long-term climate change could be enhanced. Third, local knowledge presents opportunities for genuine advancements in resilience and adaptive capacity. Fourth, Vanuatu is facing an increasing NCD burden, and the links between climate change, FNS, and NCDs were not well understood. A systems-based framing of CCA, FNS, and NCDs would promote a comprehensive understanding of the complex interactions between climate change and drivers of FNS and NCDs and facilitate a coherent, synergistic response. Finally, a human-centered, community-led approach to CCA is advocated for ensuring the ultimate goal of CCA, enhanced human well-being, is emphasized.

Overall, the importance of context-specific CCA was highlighted frequently throughout the study, from the consideration of local governance structures to the pitfalls of maladaptation to the use of the local knowledge. Despite this, the lessons drawn from this review are likely applicable to other countries, particularly in the Pacific region, to varying degrees depending on the local context. Vanuatu will continue to be affected by accelerating climate change, and a strong foundation for CCA presents clear development opportunities. Furthermore, as food and nutrition insecurity and diet-related NCDs are increasingly exacerbated by climate change, alongside other socioeconomic drivers, it is now crucial to find new and innovative ways to increase transformational resilience and adaptive capacity that also improve nutrition and health outcomes.

Acknowledgments

We express our gratitude to the participants of this study for providing their time and insights. We thank the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, National Advisory Board on Climate Change and Disaster Risk reduction, and Henline Mala at the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta for their support and assistance during this research project. We also thank Danielle Gallegos for her valuable guidance in the development of this paper and all of the participants for generously providing their time and sharing their knowledge and expertise.

This paper was developed as part of the Ph.D. thesis of the principal author, and she received a scholarship under the Australian Government Research Training Program scheme. No other funding was received. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Author Savage, as part of a Ph.D. at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia, provided the principal contribution with the conception design, literature search, screening of titles and abstracts, full-text screening, data collection, interview transcription, coding, data analysis, and preparation of the paper. Author Schubert contributed to the conception and design, performed the title and abstract screening, and provided paper critique and revisions. Author Huber contributed to the preparation of sections of the paper and analyzed a subset of the interviews. Author Hall contributed to the conception and design and provided paper critique and revisions. Authors Bambrick and Bellotti provided paper critique and revisions. All authors approved the final submitted paper.

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1

Three participants had expertise in both climate change and health.

2

The complete title is Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Energy, Environment and Disaster Management.

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