Frustration and hunger mount as eruption continues on Vanuatu’s Ambae

The evacuation of residents on the ash-covered island of Ambae in Vanuatu is finally getting underway, as food supplies dwindle and disease starts to spread.

The layer of ash in William Bice's village is some 20 to 30 centimetres thick. It's smothered plant life, it's weight has collapsed some roofs, and the stream that supplies their water has turned into a thick ash-laden sludge.

"It looks like a desert," he said.

Father Bice, a local Anglican priest, said the village in the north of Ambae lived off the crops it grew, which are now dead, and its only income came from a small stash of kava, which has also been smothered.

His experience is one being lived across Ambae, an island of some 11,000 people about halfway up the Vanuatu archipelago. The volcano at its centre, Manaro Voui, stirred into life in September, forcing the hurried evacuation of the entire island.

It settled little more than a month later, and everybody returned to try and restart their lives. But in March, the volcano stirred once more, again blanketing the island in ash, acid rain and sulphuric fumes.

Once again, the people of Ambae are in need and the government is considering evacuation.

As food supplies dwindle and disease starts to spread, Father Bice said the situation had become desperate.

"I think if we live from now up until next week without any assistance from the government, I think a lot of people will starve and a lot of people will die because of no food," he said.

Disease was also a worry, he said. The village was living off a limited supply of rice supplied by the provincial government, and the only vegetables were those they managed to forage from the ash and dry in the sun before their crops died out.

People were breathing in the ash and fumes, he said, and there was a diarrhoea outbreak in the village.

"At the moment we have an outbreak of flu and sore throat because of the smell of the volcano," he said. Doctors and officials on the island were stretched, he said.

In the northeast of Ambae, the 383 students of St Patrick's College were ordered home last Friday, when the school made the decision to cancel exams.

The school's principal, Kathleen Tahi, said ash had swept into the valley where her school sits, some 19 kilometres from Manaro Voui, and invaded every building, making breathing a battle.

"All the classrooms have been filled with ash," she said. "All the buildings around the college have been filled with ash and students walk around with cloths over their noses and mouths to block the ash from getting in."

"We're really worried."