Making Sense of Climate Change on a Cyclone-hit South Pacific Island

07/06/2016 09:14 | Updated 07 June 2016

By Kumar M Tiku

Like each one of the 14 villages of Koro Island, Nacamaki is sea-facing, and the 90 houses that comprise the village command an endless view of the sea. It is a blessing and a luxury reserved for few. Twice in the last six years, however, the communities here have found their homes devoured by the angry, bestial cyclonic winds. Last time was just three months ago when Tropical Cyclone Winston swept through this picture-perfect island village in Fiji at speeds topping 300 kilometres per hour. People are no longer sure if being so close to the sea is a blessing or an unmitigated curse.

The world watched in disbelief on 20 February this year, when South Pacific's most powerful cyclone ever wreaked havoc on eight of the 14 villages on Koro Island in Fiji. The six villages on the western part of the island escaped with somewhat lesser degree of damage to their existence. As many as 85 of the 90 homes in Nacamaki village were either completely or partially damaged.

The Category 5 Cyclone battered and uprooted acres and acres of humongous coconut tree forests, root and branch. The cyclone was accompanied by tidal waves higher than the high walls of the old Methodist church that once stood not too far from the village coastline. The waves rained water into homes and over farm lands even as the winds flattened roofs and brought down tender wood-based homes that the villagers must have built with care over their lifetimes. Life came crashing down in hours. Like it never had before.

To be sure, Malakai Salabula, 52, the Turaga ni Koro or the village administrator has seen the weather patterns change for some time now. "We used to enjoy more pleasant and predictable weather before. But these days, when it is hot, it is very hot. The spells of dry weather are also increasing and rain that was abundant and made our lands fertile is in shorter supply". He recalls that the village used to be a good 50 metres further down on the coast until Cyclone Thomas hit the village in 2010, washing away homes and forcing new houses to be moved to the current location further up from the coast. "After Winston, we will move as up and away from the wind surge as possible. I would say at least another 100 metres towards the high ground from where we are now. So, the next time you visit us, this village would not be located here anymore," Salabula says with a sense of anticipation of what is to come.

On the day of the cyclone in February this year, Salabula did well to heed the cyclone warnings and rang the siren in time, calling people to huddle in the evacuation centres on the high ground. That surely saved lives in the village. Since the community hall that stood right on the shore was completely damaged, the villagers were asked to shelter in the health centre, the primary school and the bio-fuel factory, that were all built on relatively higher ground and were only partially affected by the cyclonic surge.

As the villagers assembled in safety, they watched in disbelief their homes and farm-wealth turn to dust by the monster cyclone. For over five hours high-velocity winds kept coming hard at them. A little before sundown, by the end of it all, their homes stood battered and vandalized by the winds. Their root crops - the dalo, the cassava and the kumala - the staple of their daily starch needs, were lying all over the place, mercilessly uprooted prematurely by the strong cyclone and marooned in the high tidal waves. Coconut, fruits and green vegetables lay strewn and dead all over the place.

From 11:50 A.M in the morning to about 5 30 P.M in the evening when Cyclone Winston caused the most harm on this tiny island village, the fate of Nacamaki had changed for good. For the next two weeks, the villagers camped out of the makeshift evacuation centres, living an exposed, nomadic life, waiting for dregs of food assistance from the munificent mainland of Suva.

A third of the village has emptied out already as terrified families seem to have left the village for good to places of safety. It has been three months since the cyclone and not one has ventured to return back to their roots. "If you were in the village at the time when Cyclone Winston hit us, you would never want to be back", Salabula tells me, fear visibly coming through in his trembling voice. I found a similar pattern of people on the run in each of the eight cyclone-affected villages that I visited on the Koro island. In these parts though, instead of the conflicts it is the climate that is spurring human migration. Clearly, an extreme natural event can leave a population just as terror-stricken as an extreme event involving violent conflict.

About 40 families are living out of tents supplied by aid agencies and some 20 have moved into their temporary homes. The rest have all moved out of Nacamaki to live in the safety of faraway Suva for now. No one knows if they will ever return. "They saw high waves from the sea leap with ferocious speeds towards their homes. These people want to move to safety now", says Salabula.

Salabula says in that one short afternoon, the villagers lost practically everything. "In the farms, there is nothing more to eat or harvest. It will be at least a couple of months before we can start eating from the small backyard home-gardens. To keep up with our household needs, we will soon look to grow the greens - the long beans, cabbage, eggplant, okra, bele, cucumber and yams come good in months. But to sell from the farm, it will be a good two, even three years when our cash crops will flourish again. That is if we do not get another cyclone in between. Yaqona - pronounced 'Yangona' all over the Pacific islands - the prince of our cash crops from which we make the fabled Kawa drink - will take time to bloom again. Same is the story with other cash crops like the dalo and cassava that will take at least nine months to harvest. As for having our Pandanus leaves back in life for weaving the fabled voivoi mats, that is going to take a good two to three years. We need high quality stems and suckers to plant".

Prior to the cyclone, middlemen from Suva would make their weekly trips to the island and go back with a ready supply of the natural produce. An average farmer in Nacamaki would make 100 Fijian dollars (roughly USD 50) week-on-week by selling the coconut, the Yakona and other cash crops. Enough not just to survive but live well on the island. Some would make as much as 600 Fijian dollars. Now, every single crop stands totally damaged. "We might yet make some money from selling the last remaining Yaqona roots but it will be bust time in two months at the most", says the village administrator, himself a landowner of some seven acres of farm land.

After Cyclone Winston, for the village community in Nacamaki, it is down to keeping their body and souls together, as food shortages plague the village communities. Salabula, a father of six children, says that following the cyclone, rations supplied by the government were the only source of nutrition for the families. The supplies include various quantities of rice, flour, tinned fish and meat, oil, sugar, powdered milk and lentils. "I hear the government will supply the rations for six months. With hardly any income at hand, I wonder how we will provide for our families in a few months", he wonders aloud.

For this tiny island village tucked somewhere out there, the climate is indeed changing lives for the worse. And how!

(The writer is a UNDP Communications Specialist working on Tropical Cyclone Winston Recovery)