Rising seas and relocation in Fiji

People are already being pushed out of their homes

Celia McMichael, Teresia Powell, Sailosi Ramatu

Environment & energy, Government and governance, National security, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific, The World

27 June 2019

Due to a rise in sea levels and other flow-on effects, several communities in Fiji are already having to move out of their homes and relocate, Celia McMichael, Teresia Powell, and Sailosi Ramatu write.

In 2014, residents of the small village of Vunidogoloa in Fiji were left with no choice but to relocate. Their village had been experiencing increasing coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, and flooding over recent years.

The people wanted to relocate their village because of the rising sea levels and also flooding and erosion and the effects of climate change.

With the support of the Government of Fiji and international agencies, they relocated to higher lands two kilometres from their old home. While some infrastructure still needs to be built, relocation has reduced their exposure to climate risks and protected the community’s future.

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Elsewhere in Fiji, other villages are retreating as shoreline encroachment and coastal flooding increase.

Climate change threatens the sustainability and habitability of coastal communities and environments. In 2018, researchers reported that the world’s mean sea level had risen by more than seven centimetres since 1993 due to the expansion of warming ocean waters and melting ice sheets and glaciers. Should atmospheric CO2 concentration continue to rise rapidly, sea levels could rise up to one metre by 2100.

For low-lying Pacific island countries, sea level rise contributes to coastal erosion and flooding, saltwater intrusion, and damage to infrastructure and places of belonging. Atoll island nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands are at high risk.

Any country with low-lying coastal populations will need to adapt to rising seas. This can be done through the managed retreat of populations and facilities, protecting people and places using the likes of sea-walls or coastal revegetation, and accommodating risks through insurance programs or raising the height of infrastructure.

Fiji is exposed to substantial climate risks. Specifically, these include higher sea levels, storm surges, flooding, and coastal erosion. Fiji’s 2017 National Adaptation Plan Framework identifies planned relocation as a form of adaptation to climate risks.

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The Government of Fiji has indicated that 830 vulnerable communities require relocation due to risks from climate-related impacts. Of these, 48 communities have been identified as being in urgent need of relocation.

In some villages in Fiji, government- and donor-supported relocation has already either been initiated or implemented. Community leadership is key, with traditional leaders playing a crucial role in community governance and decision-making. Customary land and resources are also important in enabling relocation.

Residents of Vunidogoloa expressed great sadness when speaking with us of leaving their original village, their homes, and their coastal location. Despite this, village leaders and residents were willing to move and were involved in planning and undertaking relocation.

Similarly, residents in Vunisavisavi – where, in 2015, four households in the inundation zone were forced to retreat to new homes – conveyed to us the important role that their village leaders play. They explained that, despite their first-hand experience of the effects of rising seas and their knowledge about climate change, they were still uncertain about moving until they received permission and blessings from their Chief.

Fiji has recently released Planned Relocation Guidelines for communities experiencing the adverse impacts of climate change. Planned relocation will be undertaken as a last resort only when other adaptation options are exhausted.

The Guidelines seek to enable climate vulnerable villages, communities, and households to play an integral role in adaptation and relocation decision-making and planning. They emphasise the importance of community consent, the conservation of traditions and cultural identities, and community involvement and engagement in decision-making.

Further, they underline the importance of site selection, livelihood restoration and diversification, and the establishment of climate-resilience resettlement sites. The Standard Operation Procedures for the Guidelines have not yet been released.

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Access to global climate finance will be required, given the scale and costs of adaptation – including those of planned relocations. The Fiji Development Bank was accredited to the Green Climate Fund in October 2017 as a ‘Direct Access Entity’. The bank will channel funding for climate mitigation and adaption projects through national institutions. It is not yet clear whether funding will be available for community relocation.

As residents of low-lying villages in Fiji begin to consider and implement retreat from rising seas, mitigation of greenhouse gases remains an urgent imperative.

As President of COP23 – the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the Fijian government called for the world to achieve net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to cap global warming at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial age.

At a community level, many Fijians understand global climate change as a primary driver of local environmental changes and coastal erosion. They are aware that smaller countries like their own are suffering as a result of the actions of bigger ones.

As one village resident explained to us, “Other big countries caused the problem and the small countries suffer.” It is critical that the international community take decisive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation and climate-resilient development.

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