Sunday 10th - 21km
The South Pacific is irrefutably one of the world’s most predisposed regions when it comes to climate and weather induced disasters, which is why I chose Fiji as the location for my next run. For several of the islands in this region, adaptation has become an immediate necessity for survival, and the realities of relocation has become a sad predicament for many communities. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that rising temperatures will cause some communities to seek refuge abroad, most displacement will occur within countries.
I landed in Nadi after an overnight flight from Honolulu, a flight that included an impromptu stopover in Apia. When we were made aware of this initially unannounced deviation, my new friend* Janine in the seat next to me exclaimed “this was not on my ticket – it is very annoying that we have to drop some people off in Samoa.” I agreed with Janine that this new carpool-style of flying that Fiji Airways appeared to be trialing seemed rather bizarre. *[Friend is possibly an exaggeration, Janine didn’t appear to be that interested in continuing our conversation past displaying her initial frustration at Fiji Airways]
From Nadi I continued on to Labasa, on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, before travelling overland to Savusavu and on to Vunidogoloa. In 2014, the community of Vunidogoloa made environmental headlines as one of the first villages in the world to be successfully relocated because of climate change. Years of storm surges, high tides, costal abrasion and flooding had made the village uninhabitable and has forced its residents to move 2km inland. Summer's king tides had advanced through the once idyllic village and, at times, families without boats had to build rafts just to leave their houses. High tides frequently flooded plants and crops with salt water, making farming impossible. One Vunidogoloa resident that was interviewed at the beginning of last year recalled, “Initially relocating was not an option to us at all but climate change came like an enemy that chased us away by taking our land, taking our food, taking everything.”
The villagers always maintained that they would relocate together. True to their word, the entire community moved into new homes over the course of three days in January 2014. The government provided about $500,000 Fijian dollars (US $246,640) toward the cost of site preparation and other building and resource materials, however the villagers were still expected to contribute one-third. They did so by felling trees that grew on their own land, for timber, as well as providing labour. In 2015, when describing the day of the move to reporters, the headsman Sailosi Ramatu said that he told his children “this is the last day for you to share this old site, where I brought you up. I struggle for your life, because of this climate change”. Ramatu described that day as the saddest day of his life.
Vunidogoloa had been on the list of places that I wanted to visit right from the inception of this project. Before visiting, I was told in broken English that I needed to buy a kava root, three loaves of white bread and some butter and present this to the chief of the village out of respect. I was then dropped off in front of the village (that resembled a rural-Pacific version of Hobsonville Point) and told to find the village headsman. Vunidogoloa, or the “new site”, consisted of rows of identical wooden houses, painted green with white roofs, and set slightly above the ground on stilts. Although Hobsonville Point possibly boasts better urban design, Vunidogoloa definitely competes in terms of the rate in which it was constructed. I was met by a girl of about 14, wearing an oversized tee-shirt that read “no pants are the best pants”. She guided me to the headsman’s house where I presented the chief with what can only be described as a muddy tree-root wrapped in newspaper, and we sat cross-legged on the floor talking about life in the village and the issues associated with the relocation.
One challenge that remains for the villagers of Vunidogoloa is that the elders and ancestors in their cemeteries couldn't come with them. The villagers have a connection with the old site and their ancestral land that, along with many treasured memories, they have had to leave behind. However, the village chief described life as easier now. He said that the people in his community were “the lucky ones” - they no longer had to worry about children navigating flooded lagoons on the way to school or houses subsiding.
Vunidogoloa is different from many other communities in the same predicament, in that it had the resources to move. Further, as it was the first village to be relocated, it had extensive government assistance. According to the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about 800 communities have been impacted by climate change. Of those, 45 villages are earmarked to relocate in the next five to 10 years, and while the Fijian government partly funded Vunidogoloa's relocation, it cannot afford to support 45 more moves. As sea levels continue to rise, it is not clear what will happen to the other coastal and delta-dwelling communities in Fiji that have been identified as under imminent threat and in need of relocation.
Vunidogoloa put itself on the map* by being one of the very first villages to be relocated due to climate change. However, planned relocation is a growing issue on the climate displacement agenda. In a number of countries, governments plan to resettle entire communities impacted by climate change. In New Zealand, a previously withheld report has recently been released by the government that concludes that sea level rises of just centimetres could make some coastal New Zealand communities intolerable and that New Zealand does not have a coordinated plan to address these effects. Priority areas include parts of South Dunedin, Hawkes Bay and Auckland. There are significant risks to property and infrastructure and James Shaw has warned that in a few decades, some parts of the country may become "uninsurable" as climate change effects filter through to insurance premiums.
*[Not literally - it was impossible to find Vunidogoloa village on Google maps which was a logistical nightmare in terms of planning this trip]
A big shout out to the pack of wild dogs that kept me company for about 3km. Apart from white and brown spot dog, who got a bit carried away and bit me.