How Fiji is Affected by Climate Change
“Unless the world acts decisively to begin addressing the greatest challenge of our age, then the Pacific, as we know it, is doomed,” – Frank Bainimarama, COP23 President and Fijian Prime Minister
Fiji—like its neighbours across the South Pacific—remains one of the smallest contributors to global carbon emissions, yet faces some of the most devastating consequences of extreme weather patterns.
According to Fiji’s National Climate Change Policy, global sea level changes will more than double by the end of the century. Since 1993, Fiji has recorded a 6 millimetre (0.2 inch) increase in its sea level per year, larger than the global average. The rapid rise in sea levels and the resulting saltwater intrusion that stems from the increased ferocity of coastal floods have made portions of the island nation uninhabitable.
Fiji’s future depends on countering the impact of climate change.
This November, the world’s gaze will fall on Fiji to move the global agenda forward on reducing carbon emissions. As president for the 23rd Climate Change Conference (COP23), the Fijian Government will continue its unwavering battle to address one of the greatest challenges threatening the nation, the region and the planet, at large.
- The country, in brief. Home to around one million people, Fiji comprises more than 300 islands
and atolls, about one-third of which are inhabited.
- Rising sea levels coupled with warmer temperatures and stronger El Niño patterns increase the island’s susceptibility to deadly food- and water-borne diseases. Across Fiji’s two main islands, the number of cool nights has decreased and warmer days has increased since 1942. Tropical cyclones are predicted to decrease in frequency and increase in intensity. These changing weather patterns have worsened Fiji’s susceptibility to viral disease outbreaks. Fiji recorded a drought-induced outbreak of diarrheal disease in 2011, combatted a post-flood leptospirosis outbreak in 2012 and quelled a Dengue outbreak in 2013.
- Changing weather extremes threaten the livelihoods of the Fijian people—implicating the island’s ecosystems, on land and at sea. Saltwater intrusion from coastal flooding destroys farmland, disrupting the supply of staples in the Fijian economy and forcing communities to migrate to safer ground. The damages sustained to Viti Levu, Fiji’s most populous island, total some $52 million per year, or 4 per cent of Fiji’s GDP. In 2012, residents of Vunidogoloa became the first to begin relocating due to the impact of rising tides, eroding agricultural lands and intensifying floods.
- Ocean acidification—or carbon pollution that increases the ocean’s acidity—will continue in Fiji, impacting the health of the island’s coral reef systems.
- Countering the crisis will require collective action from the Fijian Government, the nation’s private sector and the world’s industrialized nations. Fiji remains at the frontline in advocating international policies to counter climate change. But internally, the nation lacks sufficient technical expertise, human resources and financial capacity to fully implement protective measures. The private sector, other governments and international financial institutions can play key roles in helping Fiji mobilise financing to implement integral climate adaptation measures.
Destructive Winds: The Growing Intensity of Tropical Cyclones
Climate change represents one of the biggest threats to sustainable development. In Fiji specifically, destructive weather patterns have hindered the island’s economy and uprooted thousands across the island nation.
In February 2016, Cyclone Winston ravaged Fiji, taking the lives of 44 Fijians, destroying homes, uprooting families and inflicting serious damage on the nation’s sugar crop, a foundation of the Fijian economy. The Prime Minister declared a 30-day state of emergency. With winds recorded at 185 miles per hour and gusts up to 200 miles per hour, Cyclone Winston took its place as Fiji’s worst recorded natural disaster and the strongest storm to ever to make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere. Damages from the storm totalled an estimated $1.4 billion, which represents more than a third of Fiji’s GDP.
Rising Tides: Migrating to Higher Ground
In 2012, residents of Vunidogoloa, a village on the shoreline of Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu, became the nation’s first community to relocate due to climate change. The village’s 26 homes sat mere metres from the coast, but with four decades of a higher tide and heavier rainfall, Vunidogoloa—its homes, gardens, crops and trees—found itself at the mercy of relentlessly encroaching seawater. Migrating to higher ground offered the only remaining option for the community.
Indeed, planned relocation in Fiji is a relatively new response to the effects of climate change, and it is only viewed as a last resort. Relocation is a complex process and can be traumatic for those involved. It is not just a case of economics and physical structures, there are a number of complex, non-tangible aspects associated with relocation, which can include challenges to identity, as well as various psychological, social, emotional and cultural damages.
Three villages have already been fully relocated, two partially relocated and two more in the initial stages of relocation (view list here). And according to the Fijian Green Growth Framework, there are around 40 more communities recommended for relocation.
Proper assessment of the socio-economic dynamics of these communities is critical. That is why the Fijian Government has finalised a Relocation Guideline that provides a step-by-step framework of procedures that will guide relocation work in Fiji. The guidelines are intended to be an easy and useful reference for communities seeking assistance with climate-induced relocation; coordinating government ministries; and, external organisations providing support for the relocation process.
Action Plan: Setting the Standard
Fiji has a Green Growth Plan and has aggressively pursued and implemented policies to promote sustainable development in the country, all while partnering with the private sector and international organisations to elevate the issue on the global stage.
Fiji has pledged to transition completely to renewable energy sources by 2030 and has adopted a reforestation policy intended to store carbon from freshly planted trees. Working alongside the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund and several United Nations agencies, Fiji has activated efforts to monitor and launch rapid response to climate-related risks.
In the international arena, Fiji has hosted high-level delegations from UN bodies to address the impact of climate change. Fiji was the first nation to ratify the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit temperature rise to “well below” 2° Celsius. Fiji is one of 43 nations on the Climate Vulnerable Forum and has been a vocal proponent of limiting temperature rise from global warming to 1.5° Celsius. In 2017, Fiji became the first small island developing state to join the Under2 Coalition, which is an international pact among cities, states and countries committed to limiting the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius by either reducing their greenhouse gas emissions from 80 percent to 95 percent below 1990 levels or holding emissions to less than 2 annual metric tons per capita by 2050.
At COP23, Fiji launched its first National Adaptation Plan as well as released the results of the region’s first Climate Vulnerability Assessment. It also launched its five- and twenty-year National Development Plan, which underscores Fiji’s commitment to the principles of sustainability, carbon neutrality, climate resilience, and inclusive socio-economic development.