FEATURE: Ahead of Paris Agreement signing, cyclone-hit Fiji champions climate change action

18 April 2016

As Fiji and Governments of more than 100 other United Nations Member States are preparing this week for the historic signing of the Paris Agreement, back in Fiji, residents of the South Pacific country are clearing debris and trying to recover from one of the region's fiercest storms.

Fiji was hit by Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 storm, on 20 February, less than a week after the country became the first to ratify the Paris Agreement, which establishes a long term, worldwide framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Small island developing nations, like Fiji, have led the charge on climate change, sounding the alarm because their communities are on the front lines of rising sea levels and increasing natural disasters linked to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“We don’t realize it would be big like this because this is the first time a big cyclone, the first time a tsunami came in our village,” Vilisa Naivalubasaga from Mudu Village, on one of Fiji’s more than 300 islands, told the Pacific branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as she was preparing food with other women in a temporary shelter.

If your house is built on sand, you must expect to lose it when a cyclone hits. There is no point of putting a house back up again on sand.

The Cyclone thrust Fiji to the centre of a narrative around climate change, sustainable development and disaster risk reduction, and the vital role for humanitarian work when these three intersect.

In the village of Nabukadra, residents are working with OCHA and partners to procure chainsaws, so they can cut fallen wood and construct new homes. This is the immediate priority, but Winston has shown the need to think longer-term about reducing the risks facing their community.

“We will discuss how we will manage to rebuild because the sea level became high,” Raivolita Tabusoro, the village’s headman said ahead of a community meeting. The group had been discussing a range of measures, including moving seafront homes further back from the water’s edge and building a seawall from boulders displaced by the cyclone.

Diplomacy and natural disasters

When Winston hit Fiji, Peter Thomson, the Pacific island nation’s Ambassador to the United Nations, was in New York and instantly aware of the key role he would have in rallying political support for assistance to his home country.


“Suddenly, you have a responsibility for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of people,” he told the UN News Centre.

In the storm’s wake, Mr. Thomson convened a briefing to the wider UN membership on his country’s need for international assistance. He asked Member States not to issue travel advisories against visiting Fiji.

He also strongly urged Governments to follow in his country’s footsteps and promptly ratify the Paris Agreement, which will enter into force after 55 countries that account for at least 55 per cent of global emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification.

On 22 April, the Paris Agreement will be signed at the UN Headquarters in New York, with participation from more than 120 Member States. Each Government that signs the Agreement will also have to ratify it, as Fiji did, when its Parliament unanimously agreed to approve the Agreement. Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is expected to formally sign the document on behalf of the country on Friday.

But for Mr. Thomson, the timing could not be soon enough.

“This is the worst storm I have ever seen in my lifetime,” he noted, referring to Winston.

The destruction brought back memories of Hurricane Bebe, which hit Fiji more than four decades ago when Mr. Thomson was working at a local district, and which cemented his interest in disaster preparedness and response.

“We’ve got to think about what is causing these storms,” Mr. Thomson said, stressing that climate change “puts the whole development agenda at risk.”

Disaster preparedness and resilience

A Category 5 hurricane, as measured in intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, is the strongest hurricane that can form on planet Earth. Only 11 cyclones in the Category 5 have been registered south of the equator since 1970.

Two of them hit in the past 13 months. Pam, which ripped through Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in March 2015; and Winston, which took more than 40 lives and affected 350,000 people, about 40 per cent of Fiji’s total population.


In addition, Winston’s fury wiped out generations of aspirations for rural schools and agricultural projects in a space of a few hours.

“Generally speaking, humanitarian assistance lasts at least six months,” Mr. Thomson said.

This timing comes from the fact that the provision of food is one of the most crucial, in addition to potable water, shelter and sanitation, for example, and that the fastest growing staple in the Pacific Islands – the sweet potato – takes at least six months to grow.

The recovery phase takes much longer. One year on, Vanuatu is still recovering from the devastation by Cyclone Pam. The Philippines is still rehabilitating from the wreck brought by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Five years on, Japan’s northeast coast is still healing from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

For its recovery, Fiji will follow the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, a voluntary non-binding agreement which recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk, but that responsibility should also be shared by the local government, the private sector and other stakeholders.

For example, Fiji’s disaster management system at the national level is complemented by local offices. Ahead of Winston’s landfall, the Fijian authorities, under the leadership of the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), activated evacuation centres and moved people to those facilities, saving many lives. Military, police and other personnel on leave had been ordered back to active duty and worked with local officials.

Building back better and safer is very much on people’s minds, and the World Humanitarian Summit next month is an opportunity to discuss the lessons learned from this emergency about community resilience.

But a key question, not only for Fiji but other countries, is how to make communities more resilient to such natural disaster.

In Fiji, vital disaster preparedness measures include the introduction of stringent building codes to ensure that all structures, whether in urban or rural areas, are disaster-proof.

“If your house is built on sand, you must expect to lose it when a cyclone hits,” Mr. Thomson said. “There is no point of putting a house back up again on sand.”

There are also considerations on how to build. Nails are no longer the main choice for roofing, for example. But even development projects need to be rethought. Solar panels, which are increasingly utilized in Fiji for clean energy are often placed on rooftops. Unfortunately, they are often one of the first objects to be blown away in heavy winds.
“The inevitable question is who’s next in our region,” Mr. Thomson said, stressing that Pacific island nations share an understanding that climate-caused disasters are a common challenge.

Relocating above the waves

Some village leaders on the Island of Koro have started discussing complete relocation of villages to higher ground, far away from future storm surge and rising sea levels, and have already identified suitable land if this goes ahead.

“That’s a good message coming from the villagers themselves,” said Amena Yauvoli, Fiji’s Ambassador for Climate Change and Oceans, following a visit to his home community of Nasou on the island of Koro, where Winston made landfall.

“What we have to look at is the reality of the situation on the ground,” he noted, pointing to some of the key challenges in moving affected communities to another area or potentially another country.

“Relocation comes with lots of costs and even the emotional traditions and attachment to the current village site is always there,” he said, stressing that ample time for discussions should be given before any definitive step forward by the village and the government.

More than 40 at risk communities in Fiji have been identified for relocation in the near term and two have already been moved to higher ground. There is also talk of Fiji hosting migrants from other Pacific countries where people have been displaced by climate change, if the need arises.

‘New normal’ requires higher level of planning, preparedness

Karen Allen, Pacific Representative of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that an increasing number of more destructive storms throughout the Pacific is “the new normal,” requiring another level of planning, preparedness and emotional strength.

The implications are immense for everything from the way that buildings are constructed – including schools and health facilities – to other critical infrastructure, such as water and power supply, to the way that families prepare themselves, their crops and their livelihoods.

“Buildings traditionally designated as evacuation centres may now be insufficient,” she added. “Community centres built to serve large numbers as evacuation centres are needed.”

One of the concerns is that many people do not understand what a “Category 5” storm means or how to protect themselves should one be forecast.

UN agencies, such as UNICEF, and partners, are investing in school-based preparedness efforts so that children will be prepared for emergencies from their youngest years. The aim of such programs is to instil in young children what needs to be done in case of natural emergencies, making it habitual, such as brushing their teeth and washing their hands.

The programs are new, but Ms. Allen says they could have wide reaching impacts: “Just as the Pacific looks to others for expertise and guidance, the rest of the world has much to learn from the Pacific region. We are, after all, experts by circumstance.”

Taking the message on to the World Humanitarian Summit

Today, about 43 per cent of the world’s population live in fragile situations, and that number is estimated to climb to 62 per cent by 2030.

“Building back better and safer is very much on people’s minds, and the World Humanitarian Summit next month is an opportunity to discuss the lessons learned from this emergency about community resilience,” said Osnat Lubrani, Humanitarian Coordinator for Fiji, referring to the international event to be held 23-24 May in Istanbul, Turkey.

The World Humanitarian Summit will be the first event of its kind in history, bringing together more than 5,000 people from governments, international organizations, civil society, Diaspora, business and academia to tackle a number of humanitarian challenges. These include how the vulnerability of people and communities can be reduced so that there is less need to deliver humanitarian aid. Read more about the World Humanitarian Summit and the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Humanity on our special webpage.

“It will be a chance for the Pacific to speak out on the need to adequately finance and invest in disaster preparedness and risk reduction to alleviate humanitarian crises. It also makes good social and economic sense for governments striving to achieve sustainable development,” said Ms. Lubrani.

Mr. Thomson is also looking ahead to the Summit with a clear message from Fiji: “What we want to see at the Summit is a renewed call to make the implementation of the Paris Agreement as number one priority in the world.”


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