Localised approach to global challenges: climate change and NCDs in Vanuatu

You know that one time you asked your PhD-student friend what they’re working on and at the end of the conversation you realised you would not be able to explain it to someone else to save yourself?  Perhaps you left the conversation wondering why they’re spending three to four (or five, six or seven!) years studying this one niche thing?  What is the point? Yep I’ve been there.  Sometimes it really is just for lack of a better option or because of some obscure passion.  But often there is a really important point hidden in all that technical-speak.

Communicating research and situating it in the bigger picture, in a way that makes sense to, and resonates with a wider audience is a crucial skill for researchers that is often neglected in lieu of focussing on more academically prestigious journal publications.  Generally, the purpose of research (in my opinion) is, at the very least, to increase an understanding of an issue by answering a burning question (or two), but more importantly to motivate some kind of change – perhaps to affect individual behaviour or, more grandly, to influence policy.  At least that’s what I want to do!

So, here’s why I think my research matters – not just to me, not just for my participants, but as a piece of the puzzle in global change.

Lap lap
ni-Vanuatu woman preparing local laplap

Firstly, my topic: (officially) Impacts of climate change on food and nutrition security and diet-related non-communicable diseases in Vanuatu.  (Try saying that 10 times fast!).

So I’m looking at some ‘wicked’ global problems but at a localised scale.  (You have to start somewhere right!)

Climate change is one of the most important (if not THE most important) global challenge we are facing this century.  Despite the claims of some prominent politicians and leaders (you all know who I’m talking about), the climate science leaves no doubt that climate change is real and that human beings are the most significant driving force[i].  However, it is not just that climate change is happening but it is the rate of change that is unprecedented (and pretty scary).  There are some great youtube videos that explain anthropogenic (caused by human activity) climate change better and more simply than I can, including these two: Climate change (according to a kid) and one by the Conversation.

Some of the effects of climate change we expect to see over the next 10, 20, 50 years include sea level rise, surface and ocean temperature increases, increased rainfall, greater frequency and intensity of extreme events, rising ocean temperature and carbon dioxide levels, amongst other things[ii].   These effects will impact our environment and in turn our society in many (some unforeseeable) ways – but the consensus is they will be, by and large, adverse impacts.

For example, higher sea temperatures mean that our beautiful, life-sustaining coral reefs, that are essential for the health of our underwater ecosystems, will begin to bleach and die.  Oh hang on – that’s happening NOW – all over the world.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR), for example, experienced TWO, back-to-back, massive coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, which saw more than 50% of the reef severely bleached[iii]. These corals are unlikely to be able to recover completely if sea temperatures remain high (or get even warmer) and we continue other reef-damaging practices.  On top of that, Cyclone Debbie, an extreme weather event, resulted in further damage to the GBR, with some areas suffering 97% coral loss[iv]. This is not just a matter of losing beautiful dive and snorkelling sites for future generations (although as a keen scuba diver that makes me very sad), but it disrupts the whole marine ecosystem affecting fish communities and humans that rely on the reefs for food and livelihoods.  Coral bleaching is only one of the many adverse impacts of climate change.

What I find the most disturbing though, is that those of us contributing the most to anthropogenic climate change (with our privileged lifestyles of 24/7 electricity, an average of 1.8 cars per household in Australia[v] and regular plane travel, to name a few things), will not be the first ones to experience the detrimental effects – not by a longshot.  Some developing nations, including small island countries in the Pacific, whose role in global warming is negligible, will experience some of the worse early effects without the resources to adequately manage them.  While there is actually a strong self-serving motive to stop ignoring the problem and start dedicating sufficient resources to it (we will eventually be affected too!), I believe we also have a moral obligation to do something.

If that’s all just a little bit depressing then take a break and watch this.  (I’m not sure if that actually makes things feel better or worse – laughter is always good right?).

But we’re not quite done yet – another critical global challenge is non-communicable diseases (or NCDs).  The four major types of NCDs are cardiovascular disease (eg. heart attacks and strokes), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (eg. Asthma) and diabetes.  An unhealthy diet is a key risk factor for three out of four of these NCD groups.  The metabolic risk factors for these NCDs include hypertension (high blood pressure), overweight and obesity, hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose) and hyperlipidaemia (high levels of fat in the blood) – all of which are affected by our diet. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 70% of all deaths worldwide can be attributed to NCDs[vi].  In Australia, cardiovascular disease alone accounts for around 30% of all deaths[vii].

Display of kastom dance at a cultural festival on Malekula island

But why Vanuatu?

Aside from the fact that spending an appreciable amount of time in the country resulted in me falling in love with its stunning beaches, turquoise water, diverse landscapes, slow-paced, vibrant and rich culture and lovely people….due to their particular geographical, economic and political-social characteristics, Pacific Island Countries and Territories, including Vanuatu, will be some of the first countries to be severely impacted by climate change.

Vanuatu is considered a Least Developed Country by the OECD and its small population of around 272,000 is spread across 65 islands[viii],[ix]. Approximately 75% of the population live in rural areas relying primarily on subsistence farming and fishing for their food and nutrition security[x].  Vanuatu is ranked the world #1 for natural disaster risk in the WorldRiskIndex which assesses 171 countries’ exposure to natural hazards and their vulnerability[xi]. Additionally, the Pacific is experiencing what has been called an “NCD crisis”, due to increasingly high prevalence rates of these diseases in the region.  Rates of NCDs and NCD risk factors in Vanuatu, while lower than many other Pacific Island Countries, are still significant.  50.9% of the population is overweight and obesity prevalence is 18.8%[xii] compared to global rates of 39% and 13% respectively[xiii].  One study estimates that of premature deaths, 52% for males and 60% for females, result from NCDs, particularly cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer[xiv].  And I could go on.  The burden of NCDs is exacerbated by country’s low-capacity health system and dispersed, rural population, making it particularly challenging to manage.  Additionally, a WHO report found that key stakeholders in Vanuatu identified NCDs as a priority climate change health risk[xv].

How does climate change affect health and, more specifically, NCDs?  Well, that is sort of the point of my research – to get a better idea of the mechanisms so we know where to intervene.  But we already have some theoretical ideas.  Overall, climate change is seen as a “risk multiplier”; exacerbating existing health risks.  Climate change adversely affects health both directly, such heat stroke from rising temperatures or injury from cyclones; and indirectly, such as malnutrition from reduced food and nutrition security or negative mental health impacts[xvi].

A review (not yet published), conducted by myself and colleagues, found four of the main themes around climate change and diet-related NCDs in the Pacific dominated the literature: the adverse effects of climate change on agriculture and fisheries and the consequential impairment in food availability, access and quality; reduced food and nutrition security as a result of climate change-induced migration; and long-term dietary changes following humanitarian disaster response food assistance.  The nexus between climate change, food and nutrition security and diet-related NCDs is still a new area of research, and the impacts are indirect, so there are likely other links not mentioned here.  Also, it is important to remember that the wider socio-economic-political context may exacerbate or mediate the impacts of climate change on food and nutrition security and health.

Local fisherman on Efate island

But really, these are such huge global problems.  What will my small, barely-funded, research project achieve?  Again, it’s important to start somewhere.  There is a lack of research in the Pacific region in general (or research that is well-communicated at least) and the issue of climate change and health is an urgent one.  I aim to add to the evidence base, not only to improve understanding of the issue but to assist in the advocacy of these issues and help to provide a compelling case to drive action.  I intend, by working closely with the Government of Vanuatu, to inform policies and programs in the country that will directly assist local communities with improving their food and nutrition security and health in the face of climate change.  I really hope that I can provide a platform for (some) ni-Vanuatu communities’ stories, concerns and ideas are heard and that their priorities and needs are at the forefront of actions taken to combat these wicked problems in a holistic and locally-acceptable way.

[i] IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

[ii] IPCC, 2014: as above.

[iii] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA): http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/reef-health

[iv] GBRMPA: As above

[v] Australian Bureau of Statistics: http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/036

[vi] World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs355/en/

[vii] World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/nmh/countries/aus_en.pdf

[viii] OECD: http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/documentupload/DAC List of ODA Recipients 2014 final.pdf

[ix] Vanuatu National Statistics Office (VNSO): https://vnso.gov.vu/index.php/mini-census-2016

[x] VNSO: as above

[xi] World Risk Index: http://www.irdrinternational.org/2016/03/01/word-risk-index/

[xii] World Health Organization: http:// http://www.who.int/chp/steps/Vanuatu_STEPS_Report_2013.pdf

[xiii] World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

[xiv] Carter, K., Tovu, V., Langati, J. T., Buttsworth, M., Dingley, L., Calo, A., . . . Taylor, R. (2016). Causes of death in Vanuatu. Population Health Metrics, 14(1), 7. doi:10.1186/s12963-016-0074-4

[xv] McIver L, Kim R, Hales S, Honda Y, Spickett J, Woodward A. Human Health and Climate Change In Pacific Island Countries. World Health Organization. Manila, Philippines; 2015.

[xvi] McIver L, Kim R, Hales S, Honda Y, Spickett J, Woodward A. Human Health and Climate Change In Pacific Island Countries. World Health Organization. Manila, Philippines; 2015.


#islandlife – turtles, a manta ray, sustainability (and no sun)

I haven’t blogged in awhile….for many reasons (too busy, tired, avoidance) but the last four days have reinvigorated my passion for what I’m doing (and why I’m doing it).

I just spent an internet-free four days on Lady Elliot Island learning about climate change and environmental sustainability (and a whole lotta play thrown in) with a bunch of high-calibre, fascinating people, as part of the Global Change Scholars Program.  While the weather was pretty dismal, the location and the company more than made up for it!

Lady Elliot is a small coral cay that sits on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.  It has its own (grass) airstrip and is home to an eco-resort committed to environmental sustainability.  Until the late 1800s it was covered with bird poo (guano), the mining of which (yes apparently you can mine bird poo) resulted in extensive damage to the island and a complete loss of vegetation.   You wouldn’t even know if you saw it now!

Revegetation, initiated by past lease-owners (the island is leased by the Commonwealth Government), was systematically and extensively advanced when the island management was taken over by the current ‘custodian’, Peter Gash.  We were lucky enough to not only have our flight piloted by Peter but we also heard first-hand about the trials and tribulations of bringing the resort to the level of environmental sustainability that has been achieved.


We were given a fascinating tour of the resort by a staff member (who was obviously very passionate about his work).  The hybrid power system supplying the entire resort (with up to 150 guests and staff and the main amenities you expect from a low-key resort) is predominantly run on solar energy.  There is no naturally-occurring fresh water on the island so all water for the kitchen, showers, hand basins and for drinking is seawater that goes through a desalinisation process.  All food has to brought over from the mainland, some waste is processed on location and used on the runway (if I remember correctly) and some of it has to be periodically taken off the island – so waste minimisation is emphasised.   The entire set-up was impressive and the innovative solutions to overcoming the unique challenges presented by this setting were inspiring.  However, Peter was very honest about the need to balance the achieving sustainability and protecting the reef and the island with the financial reality of the business.  His somewhat unconventional business approach centring on trust, relationships and the sharing of knowledge (rather than keeping ‘trade secrets’ close to your chest) was refreshing.

The benefits of the revegetation for the natural world was obvious with the abundant and huge variety of nesting seabirds.  (There was a moment though, where two of us, somewhat lost in the winding paths in the middle of the island, surrounded by birds were sure this was a perfect setting for a horror movie – a la Hitchcock).  Lady Elliot Island is also located in a highly protected area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the diving and snorkelling was spectacular.  I swam with a plethora of turtles (including witnessing a particularly intimate moment between two of them :p), a huge manta ray, some sharks, octopi, cuttlefish, a massive cowtail stingray, a bunch of beautiful fish and coral and I could go on….


But even more fun than the ocean activities (pretty hard to beat…) was developing bonds with the other GCSP participants.  Like all good team bonding our relationships were built through loads of laughter, some embarrassing incidents, card games, stories and, of course, wine. While there was a lot of fun, hilarity and ‘non-academic’ conversation I was struck by the level of engaging conversation I had with all the scholars and I learned something new from everyone that I spoke with.  These conversations also gave us a chance to talk candidly about our work and I gained some awesome fieldwork ideas to incorporate into my research.  Relationships make the world go round….if I’ve learned anything in my career so far it’s that who you know is just as important as what you know.

This experience, on this unique, beautiful island, reinforced for me where my research fits within the wider climate change picture.  The magnitude of the issue is clear and the many different facets of climate change were highlighted.  It also made clear how easy it is to become ‘siloed’ in our focus and thinking. It’s useful to recognise that we need people working on all these aspects of climate change (eg. Reef and marine conservation, health, water security, food security etc) but it’s also useful to see the big picture, how all these pieces fit together and how we can do a better job of addressing the issue with inter-disciplinary collaboration in order to exploit synergies in our work and minimise or avoid duplication of efforts.

Now please excuse me while I go do some yoga or HIIT to try and make up for 4 days of second breakfasts and multiple dessert helpings – #nobuffetcontrol

#phdlife #climatechangeisreal