In Fiji, climate change could increase the cost of cyclones and floods to 6.5% of GDP, and push 32,400 people into poverty per year by 2050. The recent Climate Vulnerability Assessment, prepared by the Fijian government with support from the World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), pilots a methodology to assess climate and disaster vulnerability and design climate change adaptation and risk management plans and strategies.
It’s 5:30am in Vunisavisavi, a small village on the coast of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second biggest island. The sun is rising, birds are chirping, and Catalina*, 11 years old, is awake. The sight of the sea greets her as she walks out her front door every day.
Unpredictability of the ocean
The youngest of three, Catalina is often home alone with her mother. Her sister attends boarding school in a nearby town, and her brother is away with her father, a farmer, who has travelled to neighbouring island Viti Levu to work in sugarcane farms.
“My father is a farmer, my mother stays at home doing mothers work, and I always go to school every morning. What I love most about my family is we talk about what’s happening – our timetable, family budget, family problems – and what will happen the next day. I laugh when my father makes funny stories and does things that make me laugh. They [Catalina’s parents] always want us to be happy.”
Catalina’s is one of the brightest students in her class, and her mother smiles with quiet pride as she flicks through a folder of Catalina’s tests, showing average scores of 70% and above. Catalina says that aside from being at school, her favourite time of the day is when she’s able to go fishing with her mother when returning home from school.
“After school, I sometimes go fishing with my mother for dinner. I like swimming with the fish because they make me laugh and happy. [But] I have noticed the fish and turtles have declined.
“We just catch enough fish for us, and we leave some to grow. I love to see fish swimming around me. But during high tide we see some dangerous things. When the weather changes, then we see that the sea is scary.”
‘A change in weather’
In the indigenous Fijian itaukei language, there is no word for climate change. Most people, including Catalina, refer to climate change as visau ni draki, directly translated to ‘a change in weather’. Unfortunately, Catalina knows all too well how devastating and how frequent a sudden change in weather can be, having lived through Category Five Tropical Cyclone Winston in February 2016.
The impacts of climate change – the sudden storm surges, and devastating natural disasters like Tropical Cyclone Winston – are becoming more common, and more worrying, especially for someone like Catalina, one of the youngest members of her community.
“If you see the sea and there is bad weather, like when it rains the seawater pours out into the village, a lot of scary things happen. Questions come up in my mind; like what kind of accidents can happen?
“When the weather is really bad, the seawater can reach my house [50 meters inland],” explains Catalina. “If the weather changes all of a sudden it can reach up to here [knee height] and past this house. I’m scared and worried because I don't know what to do if this house is destroyed. I don’t know where we will go.”
Dreaming of a solution
Despite the devastating effects of climate change, Catalina has bright hopes for the future of her community. She dreams of building a seawall, something she believes will protect her community from increasingly high tides and sudden storm surges.
“When I’m older, I want to construct a sea wall for the village; to protect the future generation of Vunisavisavi, and also to make the people happy. [And] when younger ones are older they will follow my footsteps by building a seawall [too].
“Then we will have a big thanksgiving celebration. The seawall will stop the waves from entering the village. It will give peace and assurance to people and they will no longer worry about the waves.”
*Name changed. The World Bank is a child-safe organization