“When I have to work late in town, I am always fearful coming home. How will the water levels be? Will I be able to cross safely? Were my children able to get home safely from school? Every day I pray that if the tide is high, I will not lose my footing in the dark. That I will be able to make it across safely.”
I’m sitting on the ground in one of our projects’ informal communities, speaking with Nihola, a young girl who is sharing her concerns about the greatest climate-related challenges she faces on a day-to-day basis. She looks to be about my age. She has two young sons, age four and six. The former has his arms latched around her neck, cackling at us while we speak, lightening the mood of this solemn conversation. Around us are sixteen households, all of which are poorly constructed using a wide array of materials which are held together with boards, nailed in at odd angles. However, this communities’ biggest concern is not the lack of safety provided by of their housing infrastructure nor the cyclones which frequently hit this region; rather, it is the daily sea flooding which floods the road used to enter their village, which may soon cause their community to be relocated to higher ground.
Accessing the community requires walking ten minutes down an unpaved dirt road which follows the coastline, winding between sugar cane crops. Every day during high tide, sections of the road flood, water levels sometimes rising as high as one’s hip. When this occurs, the children must use rafts to cross the water to get to and from school. As the village does not have access to electricity, there are no street lights, therefore furthering the danger of crossing at night when the tide is high. This is a concern for many of the village women, such as Nihola, who often work late in town and must cross at high tide in complete darkness.
Flooding has become a reality for this community, but it was not always this way. Climate change has resulted in increased frequency and severity of flooding for many coastal communities in Fiji, having substantial impacts to local livelihoods. In 2012, the coastal community of Vunidogoloa became one of the first villages in the world to be relocated to higher ground due to climate change impacts- and many other coastal villages now face the same potential future. By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 1.7 million people in the Pacific Island region may be displaced due to climate impacts. But the process of relocating communities far exceeds geographical displacement; it often means a loss of culture, of traditional livelihoods and practices which have been passed down for many generations.
The unfortunate reality is that climate change does not allocate impacts based on carbon emissions. Rather, the impacts are often the most significant for those communities that are the most vulnerable. So, while Fiji only contributes 0.04% of global average greenhouse gas emissions- the greatest contributors are developed countries- Fijians such as Nihola and her community are paying the price.
While I sit speaking with her, I look down at her son and wonder whether he will live through his communities’ relocation, living the rest of his life remembering this settlement as somewhere he used to play rugby on the beach with his older brother every day; where he used to help his father catch fish in the early mornings. And if that day comes, I wonder if he will know that his loss has been primarily caused by the choices of people living thousands of miles away, who are tucked away safely in their developed countries, largely unaffected by the consequences of their actions.