A Tropical Paradise Under Siege: Life on the Front Line of Climate Change

Imagine coming home and discovering your home has been washed away. The crops you depend  on to feed your family, destroyed. The school you rely on for your children’s education, flattened.  This is the harsh reality of life on the front line of climate change in the Pacific Islands. As the climate  crisis continues, what will life look like for these small island nations who collectively contribute just  0.03% of global emissions

The Pacific Ocean has nourished island nations for generations but it now represents one of their  greatest threats. In their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate  Change declared sea level rise “one of the most widely recognized climate change threats to low lying…islands”. Warming of 2oC is predicted to increase global sea level by 20cm with a greater rise  seen in the Pacific region. As sea level rises, extreme sea level events from intensifying weather  patterns and extra-tropical cyclones will intensify, increasing the likelihood of frequent and  prolonged inundations of low-lying islands.  

Vunidogoloa, Vanua Levu

Sea level rise is having massive impacts on the life of Pacific Islanders. Sailosi Ramatu, the headman  of Vunidogoloa, a small village on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, knows this all too well. In documentary footage Sailosi describes how rising sea levels and extreme tides have warped buildings and caused salinification of valuable farmland. To ensure his people survived, Sailosi led them two kilometres uphill, leaving behind their familial homes and precious memories.  

The Fijian Government is investing close to $200,000 to help improve the livelihoods of those forced to relocate in Vunidogoloa. The first phase of the project provided housing and infrastructure with the second improving and elevating livelihoods. Drainage and shelter have been established to help protect against future natural disasters, providing a blueprint for future relocations

Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea

Moving across the Pacific, the Carteret Islands face a similar fate. Nicholas Hakata, a resident of  Han Island, describes the effects of increasing sea level extremes on island life. Inland swamps  become breeding grounds for mosquitoes leading to Malaria outbreaks. Coconut and fish are all  there is to eat for months. Crops are washed into the sea and fresh water wells are contaminated.  

Like the people of Vunidogoloa, the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands must relocate. There are  plans to move these people to neighbouring islands, a massive and complex operation that takes  time, a commodity these people are running short of. They are quickly becoming climate refugees and are not alone. Similar can be seen across the Pacific, from the Solomon Islands to Tuvalu and  Nauru.  

Naigani Village, Batiki Island

Unfortunately, extreme sea level events are not the only threat. In 2016 Cyclone Winston ravaged  the islands of Fiji. The category-five storm brought 200mph winds, torrential rain and 12m waves  causing extensive damage.  Think Pacific captured footage of the aftermath of  the storm which left thousands homeless, without electricity, water or basic provisions.

Below is Timoci Ravaga’s story about how the cyclone affected Naigani Village, a village on Batiki Island where Think Pacific had the privilege of working over the years. The first build projects here commenced in July 2011… then after Cyclone Winston destroyed the village their teams were able to return to support the community rebuild in July 2018.


Cyclone Winston would affect the lives of Fijians for years to come. I observed this first hand whilst  volunteering with Think Pacific in January 2017. Nearly a year on, the damage from Winston still  reverberated through the lives of my Fijian hosts in the small village of Saliandrau, nestled in the  heart of the Namosi highlands.  

The final night of my time in Saliandrau. A farewell feast in the new village hall, not yet fully constructed after cyclone Winston destroyed the original building that had served the village for decades.  A stark reminder of the long-lasting effects of natural disasters, and now climate change, on the lives of individuals in the heart of the Pacific Islands 

What does the future hold?

Recent evidence suggests tropical storms formed over warmer waters will be stronger and stay over  land longer, increasing the devastation they cause. Models also suggest that whilst the overall  frequency of tropical storms will decrease, frequency of category four and five storms could double in a warmer climate, increasing the incidence of events like Winston.  

Beyond the increased physical destruction climate change will bring, a wide range of factors lead  to distinct human health risks both during and after these extreme events. Rodents are driven from  their burrows. Swamps form breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The risk of communicable diseases dramatically rises. In a climate change context this is particular worrying. A warmer climate will  extend the geographical range over which many disease-carrying microorganisms can thrive as  evident in the emergence of Zika and Chikungunya viruses in Fiji in 2015. Extreme precipitation has  also been linked to an increase in gastrointestinal-related hospital admissions, posing further threat.  These increasing climate change- related health challenges threaten Pacific healthcare systems  already burdened by unprecedented levels of non-communicable diseases and health inequity  with the rest of the world.  

Beyond the physical impacts and the lasting health consequences of climate change, there is a  further, more nuanced impact. Direct and indirect impacts of climate change across short, medium  and long timeframes have been shown to have detrimental effects on mental health. This is  compounded by the increased exposed to direct physical impacts and health inequity described  above. With a pre-existing lack of mental health resources in the region, a climate change induced  mental health pandemic could be on the horizon for the Pacific Islands.  

It is without question that the Pacific Islands face a grave challenge in dealing with the direct and  indirect consequences of climate change. These people live the reality of a fossil fuel centric world.  A failure to curb emissions isn’t a number in a spreadsheet for them, its their homes, their lives and  their children’s future. The threats they face should be a lesson to the rest of the world.

Climate change is real, climate change can destroy entire communities and climate change is not always  fair. The Pacific Island nations, who have contributed unimaginably little to this crisis, may well be  the people who lose the most.  

Blog written by Ollie Short – Think Pacific Volunteer

Vinaka vakalevu Ollie for writing such an eye-opening article on climate change in the Pacific and your first hand experience of it.

Hopefully reading this blog may have inspired you to consider your own contributions to climate change, but more importantly – how these contributions could be lessened. Remember, everyone has the power to make a difference, reduce their carbon footprint and become more sustainable. Collectively, small individual changes collate and it is together we have the power to positively change the lives of people around the world. Everyone on this planet will be impacted by climate change in some shape or form – do you want to be part of the solution?

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