Thousands of south Pacific islanders are to be permanently resettled after an active volcano began spewing torrents of ash and gas from its crater.
The government of Vanuatu is to evacuate all 13,000 people from Ambae after declaring a state of emergency this week.
It is the second time in six months the volcanic island’s entire population has been evacuated as the rumbling Mount Monaro spews out constant ashfall and sulphuric fumes.
Some parts of the island have been blanketed in ash 30cm deep, burying crops and causing health problems for locals.
Residents have begun suffering breathing difficulties and skin reactions, and face food and water shortages due to contaminated supplies.
Heavy, rain-sodden ash has caused the roofs of some buildings to collapse, while schools have been closed as many people remain indoors.
“They are really desperate for help,” said Nadia Kanegai, a community leader on Ambae told Radio New Zealand.
“Part of west Ambae was covered and it was dark because of the smoke and the population there was remaining inside and could not come outside. And there was a gas emission as well. So the people are scared.”
A local priest warned the situation was becoming “desperate” as food supplies dwindled and illnesses spread.
“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,” William Bice said.
The country’s central government last ordered the island’s compulsory evacuation in September, as huge columns of smoke, ash and volcanic rocks billowed from Manaro’s crater. People moved back after the volcano settled a month later.
In March, however, the volcano roused again. This time, it looks likely there will be no return for islanders, after ministers approved plans for their permanent relocation.
Authorities are in talks with chiefs in neighbouring islands Maewo and Pentecost to discuss obtaining land for the resettlement.
“The government does not wish to get into an endless evacuation and repatriation circuit and hence is looking at the reality that Ambae’s volcanoes are not likely to become totally dormant in the short term,” said Andrew Parker, head of Unicef in Vanuatu.
Aid agencies including the Red Cross have been distributing protective masks, safety glasses, food and fresh water to islanders.
Vanuatu’s Disaster Management Office said it was working through a “phased” evacuation, first moving islanders to safer parts of the Ambae before they are relocated further afield.
Ambae, one of 83 islanders that make up Vanuatu’s archipelago, is formed from the parts of Manaro that rise from the Pacifc Ocean. The shield volcano is one of the world’s most active.
Vanuatu is home to about 280,000 people and is prone to natural disasters, with six active volcanoes as well as regular cyclones and earthquakes. It sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire,” the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanoes are common.