Vanuatu to permanently evacuate volcanic island

Entire communities living under the shadow of a smouldering volcano on an island in Vanuatu will be permanently relocated to another island from next week, the nation's government has decided.

Most villagers on the northern island of Ambae had only recently returned home. The 11,000 people on the island were forced to leave last September when the Manaro volcano erupted.

The latest evacuation is not compulsory but the government said it wants those who left to stay away for good and resettle elsewhere.

The Council of Ministers has approved 4 permanent settlements on the nearby island of Maewo, which it will lease from landowners.

The government will organize and pay for the evacuation beginning June 1 and finishing July 30.

However only those who choose to relocate to Maewo will receive the assistance and people who move to other islands will do so at their own expense.

"Food support will be provided to the displaced population of Ambae on Maewo for a maximum of six months before withdrawing its support," a government statement said.

"(By then) food crops which have been planted on day one of evacuation (will be) ready for harvest.

On Maewo, chief Jonah Toaganase told the Daily Post newspaper that his community was ready to look after more than 3,000 people until the 4 permanent settlements are established and gardens planted.

About 1,000 have already moved to the main island of Espiritu Santo and the capital Port Vila.

However, Ambae is unlikely to be abandoned completely – just the areas which suffered the heaviest ashfall, with homes blanketed and crops choked.

"Most of the ashfall is affecting communities in the south and west, so they are the ones most likely to relocate," an Ambae community organiser in Port Vila, Henry Vira, told AFP.

Vanuatu's Red Cross has pre-positioned some aid on Maewo and a New Zealand Air Force Hercules brought in more supplies last week.

China and Australia have also donated funds to help the evacuation.

Vanuatu, with a population of about 280,000 spread over 65 inhabited islands, is regarded as one of the world's most disaster-prone countries.

It sits on the so-called "Pacific Rim of Fire", making it vulnerable to strong earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, while powerful cyclones also regularly lash the islands. –