Suva, Fiji – A disposable mask flies out of an overflowing bin that hasn’t been shut properly; in the course of one night it encounters a seagull, a whale and a school of sleeping fish who fervently attempt to chase it out of their homes – afraid it might kill them, just like so many other scary things that humans carelessly throw away.
Masky’s Night of Adventure is part of a new ten-book adventure series created by a group of Fiji-based authors covering critical ocean themes spanning sea-level rises and pollution to ocean acidification and deforestation.
The colourful books are also part of a small number globally that address the need to include people living with disabilities in the fight for climate action.
“The ocean plays a big role in climate regulation,” said Milika Sobey, the Pacific Islands programme manager at The Asia Foundation, which initiated the project.
“While the ocean is so deeply embedded in the identity and culture of the Pacific Islands, many children in the region have already experienced firsthand the impacts of severe cyclonic events which are happening with greater frequency. They are experiencing firsthand the warmer ocean, the sea level rise, the destructive storm surges, the eroding coastlines and the trauma of relocation. But, we want Pacific children not to have to fear the ocean; rather they must be empowered to become respectful protectors of the largest aqua ecosystem in the world – the Pacific Ocean.”
Pacific Island nations occupy and govern the largest body of water in the world.
For tens of thousands of years, oceanic civilisations have navigated, built, fought, married, celebrated, mourned, sung and worshipped along the “blue highways” of the Pacific. They have revered the sea for its life-giving abundance; feared it for its mighty power and guarded it with a fierce love that has transcended time. In return, the ocean has sustained the people of the Pacific in one of the most geographically remote parts of the planet.
But, in the last two decades, the loss of coastal infrastructure, homes and land has become increasingly common. So too have more intense cyclones and droughts, failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, death of coral reefs and mangroves and the spread of certain diseases. For the first time in living memory, the North Pacific nation of Palau saw its famous stingless jellyfish disappear for three years from 2016, due to warming waters.
Further south, the Fijian government is relocating dozens of villages that it fears will disappear beneath the water, and the atoll nation of Tuvalu can no longer be saved from sinking, except through urgent, billion-dollar land reclamation.
Perhaps the most painful part of this alarming turn of events, is that none of the countries that are at risk of disappearing forever has done anything to contribute to the climate crisis that is changing the ocean.
Instead, after thousands of years of careful stewardship and conservation, the proud people of the “Large Ocean States” risk being brought to their knees by the world’s biggest nations – mega carbon emitters whose industry and lifestyles are driving global warming.
A vocal advocate at last year’s Climate Conference in Glasgow, Fiji’s Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations, Satyendra Prasad explains that the climate crisis is essentially an ocean crisis.
“The earth has two lungs – the Amazon and the vast Blue Pacific,” he told Al Jazeera. “The Amazon is already carbon positive [releasing more carbon dioxide than it is absorbing], which means we need to work even harder to keep the Pacific Ocean functioning at its optimal. It currently provides 20 percent of the world’s oxygen; 60 percent of its tuna and over 80 percent of non-tuna aquatic ‘blue foods’. Beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and a key target of the 2015 Paris climate accord), we stand to lose all of this, as well as the Ocean’s infinite biodiversity.”
Labelled the “Blue Leaders”, the broad coalition of government leaders and ocean advocates from 13 countries, including Fiji and Palau, called for immediate action by global heads of state at COP26 to protect the world’s vast oceans and its irreplaceable ecosystems from the potentially fatal impact wrought by climate change and human activity.
“Really, our only hope for a future where the Pacific and the planet continue to exist and thrive is in the leadership of youth,” Prasad said. “Pacific youth must continue to lead the world – through science, technology, knowledge; through activism and advocacy both at home and well-beyond the region.”
Unseen and unheard
Sakiusa Volavola is one of the illustrators of the new Fijian book series.
As a deaf person, he was brought on board to provide a lens of inclusivity into ocean and climate storytelling – something notoriously lacking in every part of the world.
“Disability representation in climate action is so important,” he told Al Jazeera. “Because the climate crisis does not discriminate. It affects every single person; it impacts the lived experiences of people with disabilities, just as much if not more than anyone else. When you keep people with disabilities on the outside – away from climate work – you also lose out on a huge resource pool of knowledge and talent.”
Although people with disabilities constitute 15 percent of the world’s population, climate action, including at the global multilateral level, has neglected to fully reflect their rights.
While recognised as one of the groups most acutely affected by climate change, they have been largely excluded from decision-making processes and outcomes under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as from individual states’ climate change policies and plans at the domestic level.
In 2021, the International Disability Alliance highlighted that due to inaccessible disaster preparedness plans, systemic discrimination, and widespread poverty, people with disabilities were being left behind in relief and response efforts.
“Part of what we hope will captivate readers in this book series is the diversity of characters,” explained Sakiusa. “One of my favourites is the story, Scaredy-cat Moli. We follow Moli as she stumbles across a small shark that has become stuck in a rock pool. Contrary to what others have told her for a long time, Moli soon discovers that she is a lot braver than the world thinks, and readers also learn through illustrations that Moli is a child with Down’s Syndrome.”
The effects of climate change – from rapid-onset disasters such as typhoons and wildfires, to more gradual changes such as droughts, rising temperatures and higher sea levels – have disproportionate effects on the lives, wellbeing, and livelihoods of persons with disabilities all over the world. The consequences are especially severe for members of the disability community that experience intersecting forms of discrimination, including women, children, Indigenous peoples, older persons and displaced populations.
A UNESCO-led research project on the impact of the Tropical Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu in 2018, found that people with disabilities were almost two and a half times more likely to have been injured during the cyclone. If they were female it was even worse. The study found disabled men had better access to response and recovery efforts than disabled women, although services for the disabled generally were more likely to be affected by the disaster.
Among other benefits, the International Disability Alliance emphasises that including people with disabilities in communication and storytelling about climate action, and the impact of climate change ensures more informed decision-making.
The Fijian ten-book series is expected to become available online in the next few weeks via Let’s Read, a free digital library for children. The books will appear in English, as well as in the nation’s two main vernacular languages – iTaukei and Fiji Hindi. There will also be audiobook versions for those who are visually impaired or still learning to read.
Reflecting on the unique Fijian origin of these stories, the Asia Foundation’s Sobey harbours a personal hope.
“To see their own lives reflected in these books and to read them in their mother tongue is part of being culturally visible in a world where people from small island states often feel invisible. All of us in the BookLab hope that these ten original stories, in the three main languages of Fiji, will awaken a passion for reading in primary school children and perhaps give birth to a new generation of writers and illustrators who will tell their nation’s tales.”