Cyclone devastation in Fiji latest sign of worrying trend in Pacific Islands

A week ago, Tropical Cyclone Winston smashed into Fiji with ferocious force. By the time it reached the island’s shores, the storm had escalated into a Category 5 event, with gusts of wind reaching 325 kilometers (200 miles) per hour. It was the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

The extent of the devastation across Fiji is astonishing. The death toll has reached 43 people and is expected to rise. The winds demolished farms and collapsed buildings, folded concrete electric poles, twisted palm trees and scattered metallic debris across the countryside. The Fijian government has declared a 30-day state of emergency, as electricity and cell phone coverage is slowly restored and debris is piled along the roadside. According to UNICEF’s latest report, roughly 39,000 people continue to be sheltered in evacuation centers.

As I’ve taken in the scale of the damage and watched communities begin the long process of rebuilding, the importance of protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems to bolster and defend vulnerable coastal communities against increasingly hostile weather — in Fiji, across the Pacific and around the globe — has never been clearer.

Escalating impacts

Three days after the storm, Conservation International (CI) Fiji Country Director Susana Tuisese and I traveled from the capital city of Suva to Rakiraki district in Ra province to assess damage to CI’s local office and check in on our field officer, Nemani Vuniwaqa.

We arrived in Rakiraki to find that the roof to our field office had blown away, the seedling nursery was in shambles and rainwater still covered the yellowing walls and floor. Thankfully, Nemani and his family — though shaken and assessing the damage in their home — were safe.

Others weren’t so lucky. To avoid the storm’s wrath, many people hid under wooden bed frames and in windowless bathrooms as corrugated metal roofs peeled off their houses like rinds from oranges. An elderly woman in Rakiraki told Nemani how she’d suddenly seen the stars shining through the dark open space where the roof had been.

Cyclones are not new to the Pacific, but in recent years warming temperatures and other factors attributed to climate change have influenced the strength and frequency of these events. In late 2012, Cyclone Evan blew across Samoa and Fiji and caused massive damage to infrastructure and the Samoan economy. The following year, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, setting the record for the strongest storm to ever make landfall. And in November 2014, Cyclone Pam ravaged Vanuatu with 265-kilometer-per-hour (165-mile-per-hour) winds (the strongest storm in the Southern Hemisphere on record at the time) and displaced an estimated 70% of the country’s population. Its impact was also felt in neighboring Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.

Cyclone Winston has caused more damage to Fiji than any storm on record for this small island state, but it’s only the latest weather-related problem. 2015 was the hottest year on record, and so far 2016 is keeping pace. Only weeks before Winston, Fiji experienced massive fish die-offs linked to excessively hot and still conditions. Coastal fish are the main source of protein for most Fijians, and the area worst hit by these die-offs — the Coral Coast — is the center of Fiji’s renowned tourism industry. Climate change has also been linked to more frequent, stronger El Niños.

Island nations such as Fiji are known to be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. With the exception of some inland Papua New Guineans, all Pacific Islanders live within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of their coasts. Despite contributing few greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, these small island developing states are experiencing severe climate change impacts and have few resources to rebuild and adapt. Protecting and restoring important natural areas may be one of the most effective ways they can fight back.

The power of trees

CI began working in Fiji in the late 1990s, and in 2003 helped establish the Sovi Basin Protected Area, a 16,340-hectare (40,000-acre) area of native forest in the heartland of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. In 2009, CI began a reforestation initiative in Ra Province — the third most impoverished province in the country — largely in order to develop alternative livelihoods for locals that don’t depend on forest destruction.

But the project had another benefit: mitigating global climate change thanks to carbon being absorbed by the growing trees. So far, this project has facilitated the reforestation of 1,135 hectares (2,804 acres) of trees that could sequester 280,000 tons of carbon dioxide by 2039 — as much as keeping more than 53,000 cars off the road for a year.

It is undeniable that Cyclone Winston has radically changed the future of development in Ra. We haven’t yet been able to visit the project site, so we’re not sure yet how much damage the cyclone may have caused to these young trees, but given that Ra province has seen some of the worst damage in the country from the storm, it may be considerable.

Understandably, communities across the country are currently focused on rebuilding homes, schools and churches, not planting trees or restoring mangroves. However, for CI’s Fiji team, the gravity and extent of this disaster has reinforced the importance of our organization’s mission. People are at the center of our work, and building resilience to the impacts of climate change is one of our major goals.

Further reading

Clearing of mangroves, unsustainable management of both coastal and offshore fisheries, extensive deforestation — all of these threats are prevalent in Fiji and readily preventable.

Through scientific research and conservation efforts, we can enhance the resilience of vulnerable communities and improve their ability to weather shocks and natural disasters. We are committed to helping our communities in Ra rebuild sustainably through investment in alternative livelihoods, climate-smart agriculture, and nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation. Prior to the storm, CI helped communities in Ra build beehives and establish a successful honey processing center, which was washed away by the cyclone. We plan to support the rebuilding of this cooperative.

But no matter how Fiji tries to adapt, it will not be enough without support from the global community. Building on the global climate change agreement signed in Paris in December — which Fiji was the first country in the world to ratify, just days before the cyclone — significant financial investments in climate change adaptation and mitigation, particularly in small island developing states across the Pacific, will be paramount to shape the prosperous future of our region and our world.

Recovery begins

Despite the wreckage and overwhelming tragedy, the strength of Fiji’s people endures. In the wake of the storm, they are supporting one another and demonstrating the very best of the human spirit.

In one district in Ra, relief workers scrambling to meet massive demand were only able to provide a single hammer, saw and chainsaw to assist in the rebuilding effort. When they returned days later, they were astonished to learn that the materials had been passed from house to house within two villages, and were now being used in a third.

Among the ever-present sounds of chainsaws and hammers in the last week, I’ve also heard much conversation, laughter and the ever-present strum of the Pacific guitar. Fiji is a strong and resilient island nation. We will persevere.

Bridget Kennedy is the development manager of CI’s Asia Pacific field division. She is based in Suva, Fiji.