In Fiji, villages need to move due to climate change

As Cyclone Gita leaves Tonga battered, neighbouring Fiji has started moving some of its villages to higher ground.

Sailosi Ramatu
Sailosi Ramatu moved within his old village three times before the entire village was moved 2km inland in 2014 [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

Vunidogoloa, Fiji  Just a few metres from the shoreline, a slab of concrete indicates where Sailosi Ramatu’s home once stood.

The headman of Vunidogoloa village was born here in 1960 on a river estuary in Natewa Bay, on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu.

Today, all that remains of his childhood home is the concrete bathroom foundation and three wooden stumps sticking out of the dark, muddy sand. The beach is just a few metres wide, precariously situated between a grassy elevation leading to the main part of the old village and the bay.

“This river was not as wide as this before. It was just there,” said Ramatu, gesturing into the distance.

“When I was eight, I used to cross this river. Now we have to swim.”

A slab of concrete in the mud indicates where the toilet in Sailosi Ramatu's first home used to be [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]
A slab of concrete in the mud indicates where the toilet in Sailosi Ramatu’s first home used to be [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

Before Ramatu was born, previous generations of Vunidogoloans noticed water levels were rising and the mouth of the river was gradually widening. 

By the 1950s, they realised the changes were more than an anomaly.

“In Fiji, we have seasonal weather. But where there should have been rain, there was sun. Where there should have been sun, there was rain. [Our grandparents] understood that the climate had changed,” Ramatu said. 

As the decades passed, it got worse. King tides would sweep water into the village, forcing residents to move to higher ground on bamboo rafts. In the 1990s, a young boy drowned after he followed his mother into the river where she was fishing.

“He thought that the river was just on the same level, but it got deep and he couldn’t swim. We just saw the body floating,” Ramatu recalled.

By 2006, regular flooding, soil erosion and the unabated rise of water surrounding their community forced the villagers to ask the Fijian government for help.

In January 2014, Vunidogoloa moved two kilometres inland, becoming the first village in Fiji to relocate because of the effects of climate change.

Sailosi Ramatu in front of Vunidogoloa's new site [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]
Sailosi Ramatu in front of Vunidogoloa’s new site [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

In Vunidogoloa today, colourful clothes run on lines between identical green wooden houses scattered on a lush hillside, while chickens mill around in the grass.

The 132 villagers are happy here, Ramatu said, as the move has come with new perks.

“We have access to the main road. Children have transportation to school. We’re also close to a health centre,” he said.

But to the headman, these upgrades cannot offset the trauma of leaving the old village.

“Where we were living, we hoped it would be our home forever. We had to leave our beautiful village. It’s painful.”

Losing paradise

For much of the world, climate change is a catastrophe unfolding in slow motion, with consequences that can still seemingly be ignored.

But in island nations across the Pacific, climate change has well and truly arrived and is already posing an existential threat to communities.

Rising sea levels have swallowed up five of the Solomon Islands since the mid-20th century.

For Kiribati, a small island nation made up of coral atolls, rising waters pose a threat so dire that in 2014 the government purchased a 20-square-kilometre piece of land in Fiji, to be used to re-settle climate refugees. 

Fiji itself has recorded a six-millimetre sea level increase each year since 1993. And that’s just the beginning. 

“The worst-case scenario is that we would be looking at one to three metres of sea-level rise [in the next 100 years],” said Elisabeth Holland, director of the Pacific Centre for the Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific.

“We’re looking at significant changes from here on out, so we need to have strong plans in place,” Holland told Al Jazeera.

Rising sea levels aren’t Fiji’s only concern, however.

Tropical cyclones are predicted to increase in intensity in the region. In February 2016, Fiji was struck by the most powerful tropical cyclone to ever hit the country. Cyclone Winston killed 44 Fijians and caused more than $1bn worth of damage.

With nearly one-third of all Fijians currently living in areas prone to these environmental disasters, the government announced last November that 43 villages would need to move to higher ground.

But, said Holland, “What many of these villagers want is to stay exactly where they are, where they’ve been for generations, where their ancestors are buried.

“Many of these villages have been there for the last 100 years. Any time you have to move your home – and this is not a choice that’s in their hands – it’s a terrible challenge.”

Cultural significance

Marica Bulimaitoga sits on the doorstep of her small house, a stilted shack made with corrugated tin sheets on a hillside in Vunisavisavi, a small village of 67 residents on Vanua Levu.

Peeling the taro she will cook for dinner, she recalled refusing to leave the house she and her husband built down by the shoreline – even while it was being torn down.

“I was crying, crying, day and night. For three days I slept there without a roof, without a mosquito net. I wanted to stay in my old house,” Bulimaitoga said.

Marica Bulimaitoga, 65, initially resisted the move to a cyclone-proof house [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]
Marica Bulimaitoga, 65, initially resisted the move to a cyclone-proof house [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

Bulimaitoga moved into her new shelter about two years ago. The cyclone-proof house was one of four donated by USAID, the United States‘ development agency. The project was inaugurated just weeks before Cyclone Winston hit Fiji.

“We talked about it with the whole village and most of the villagers didn’t agree to moving. My mother was one of them,” Bulimaitoga’s 24-year-old son, Lorima, who is the headman of Vunisavisavi, told Al Jazeera.

The family’s old home has been reduced to a concrete base and several wooden beams sticking out of the ground, much like the remnants of Ramatu’s first house.

The soil around it is wet and soft, not suitable for keeping a foundation in place.

The shoreline has changed, Lorima said, standing by the remains of the house where he grew up.

“See that tree there, there was grass along that. Now it’s sitting on the sand,” he said.

The tree behind Lorima Bulimaitoga used to sit in the grass, but the shoreline changed [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]
The tree behind Lorima Bulimaitoga used to sit in the grass, but the shoreline changed [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

When king tides and heavy rains coincide, half the village floods, Lorima said. The water would often come into the house. “During cyclones, we would see our cupboards floating on the waves,” he said. 

But living down by the shore also meant proximity to food.

“Living down here, it’s easy for us to go out to the sea, get some fish. Now that we have moved up the hill, we have to carry our gear and our food back up,” he said.

For his mother, who is 65 years old, going down to the beach has become especially difficult.

Vunisavisavi used to be the home of Cakaudrove province's first paramount chief, Ro Kevu [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]
Vunisavisavi used to be the home of Cakaudrove province’s first paramount chief, Ro Kevu [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

Vunisavisavi’s shoreline has important cultural significance, too.

The first paramount chief of Cakaudrove province, Ro Kevu, was installed and lived there before moving to a small island just off the coast.

“This village is a historical site. The people living here, we have an ancestral duty to look after this place,” Lorima said.

Still, it was Lorima who convinced his mother to move into the cyclone-proof home.

“I told [my parents], just a few weeks from now and you will be gone,” he said, smiling mischievously at the morbidity of his own words.

Lorima is among a younger generation of Fijians who appear more willing than their parents to move away from ancestral grounds. He said the next generation of Vunisavisavians should build houses further up the hill, where their children can be safe.

“There’s a new generation coming,” Lorima said.

These cyclone-proof houses donated by USAID were built slightly uphill from Vunisavisavi's main site [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]
These cyclone-proof houses donated by USAID were built slightly uphill from Vunisavisavi’s main site [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

Double curse

Three Fijian villages, including Vunidogoloa, have been completely relocated and two are in the initial stages of moving. One more village beside Vunisavisavi underwent a partial relocation. 

That leaves about 40 villages earmarked for relocation in the short to medium term. 

And these may be just the tip of the iceberg: In 2015, a Fijian official said the government was looking at possibly relocating as many as 676 villages.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji’s minister of economy, who is also responsible for the country’s climate change policy, said he hopes the risks posed by climate change can be mitigated through different methods, such as building seawalls.

“You try and minimise the relocations, but of course in some cases you have to do it,” Sayed-Khaiyum told Al Jazeera.

The Fijian government contributed more than $345,000 to the relocation of Vunidogoloa, while the villagers themselves paid about $100,000 – and that’s just one village.

“It’s not just a question of relocating homes. You have to make sure that you have a water system, a sewer system in place. Roads must be built to give them access to other parts. All of these things need to be taken into account,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.

Fiji is vulnerable to the effects of climate change not just because of its geography, but also because the size of its economy makes the country less able to cope financially. 

A report compiled by the Fijian government and the World Bank said Fiji will need to spend $4.5bn over the next 10 years on measures to adapt to climate change – an amount that’s nearly as much as the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). 

Sayed-Khaiyum said money is not the only thing Fiji is short on. 

“Small island countries face the challenge of being able to have the construction capacity … After Winston, [Fiji] ran out of cement because there was so much simultaneous building going on,” he said.

What makes this an especially bitter pill to swallow is that Fiji and other Pacific nations have contributed almost nothing to global warming. In 2014, Fiji’s carbon emissions made up less than 0.004 percent of the worldwide total.

“We’ve always said that the effects of climate change do not recognise borders,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.

For some of the relocations, Fiji has received financial assistance from organisations including the EU and the German development agency, GIZ. But within the country, climate change needs to be a central tenet of policymaking. 

Fiji is one of just a few countries in the world where climate change policy falls under the ministry of the economy. 

“The whole idea is to mainstream climate change and also tie it in with planning,” Sayed-Khaiyum explained.

Last October, Fiji became the first emerging market to issue green bonds. The $50m raised will be used for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. 

“We are where we are … Let’s focus on what we can do. Let’s focus on the ones that have some immediate need,” Sayed-Khaiyum said. 

In Vunidogoloa, that immediate need has now subsided. Heavy rains and king tides no longer threaten to inundate the village.

But the pain of moving away is still felt by the villagers. 

“We still have our old cemetery here [in the old site], and we have our new cemetery there,” Ramatu said. 

“That’s one of the painful issues of moving – that we left our grandparents behind.” 

Source: Al Jazeera