Located in the South Pacific, Fiji is made up of more than 330 volcanic islands, with the main island of Viti Levu accounting for over half of its land area (World Atlas, 2015). Viti Levu and Vanua Levu are the main centers of development, economic activity and politics, while almost 200 smaller islands on the outskirts remain unsettled with dense tropical forests (Wong, 2005). Because the islands are small in area, roughly 90 percent of the population and its infrastructure, agriculture, and social services are concentrated in coastal communities (Wong, 2005). The country’s economic success depends on the export of water, the cultivation of sugar cane, and the fishing and tourism industries (OECD, 2003). Due to the regions settlement patterns, livelihoods and geography, the inhabitants of Fiji face increased vulnerability to the elements of climate change. Even if the human population takes action and reduces emissions, citizens of Fiji will need to modify their lifestyles in order to cope with the economic, environmental, and social hazards of climate change.
Climate Change Hazards
The primary global hazards affecting Fiji consist of rising sea level, ocean acidification, increased extreme weather events, and irregular rainfall. When looking at these hazards from a localized perspective, specific risks arise which impose prominent dangers to island communities. The regional dangers for the Islands of Fiji include, coastal erosion, loss of seashore vegetation, loss of marine ecosystems, increased frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, increased flooding, increased drought, and increased landslides (IPCC, 2014).
Exposure and Vulnerability
Rising Sea Levels
Since human settlement and activity is heavily concentrated on the ocean front in Fiji, the majority of the population will be impacted (IPCC, 2014). As the distance between civilization and the ocean diminishes, people and infrastructure face a greater risk of being effected by storm surges and rough seas (Combet, 2011). Even though the islands are somewhat protected by their geography in this instance, the rising ocean will lead to relocation and displacement of communities (IPCC, 2014). Higher tides will cause increased coastal erosion (IPCC, 2014). With development and recreation contributing to coastal erosion, there has been a decrease in mangroves on the shorefront minimizing the buffer zone between infrastructure and the ocean (OECD, 2003).
Evidence suggests a steady but slow increase in the acidification of Fiji waters starting a little over a century ago, which correlates with a recent decline in commercial fishing (Wong, 2005). Tuna fishing companies are finding more success further from shore and have reduced their fleet sizes by nearly 75% in the last five years. Fijian fisherman will now need to diversify their labor in order to maintain financial viability as fishing options become limited (World Fishing and Aquaculture, 2015). Aside from the threat coral bleaching poses on the fishing industry, it also decreases the security of the coastline (OECD, 2003). With dying and depleted coral reefs off shore, the coast becomes more vulnerable to high tides and storm surges with potential to cause an overbearing amount of damage to property (IPCC, 2014). Coastal vegetation becomes more exposed to high tides and ocean currents, stirring up sediment and grinding into the packed sand and metamorphic rock that form the islands (IPCC, 2014). The loose sediment also contributes to the suffocation of coral reef communities, and the aquatic life that Fijians so heavily depend on (McIver, 2016).
Extreme Weather Events
As shorelines erode, the oceanfront begins to intrude on island settlements, increasing financial risks for Fijians in the storm season (IPCC, 2014). With storms becoming more frequent, Fiji Islands are predicted to see difficulties when it comes to recovering from economic and physical impacts (McIver, 2016). Storm effects on infrastructure, roads, and buildings dampen economic activity, and as storm frequency increases, affected areas will have a shorter rehabilitation period (Wong, 2005). Fiji's overall gross domestic product is expected to see annual decreases in relation to storm damage, as well as future losses of livelihoods, and health (IPCC, 2014). Tropical cyclones can leave civilizations without adequate food and water distribution, which quickly results in malnutrition (McIver, 2016). The combination of malnutrition and personal stress from storms, is expected to increase incidence of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever (WHO, 2015).
In February of 2016, Cyclone Winston struck the shore of Fiji reaching a maximum wind gust speeds of 190 mph, placing the country in a state of emergency for 60 days (ABC News, 2016). After the storm dissipated, the death toll reached 44 people and the total damages amounted to the equivalent of $1.9 billion US dollars (ABC News, 2016). Although a storm's financial set back and death toll is the easiest way for media to quantify its impact, it does not account for cultural and social loss.
The issue associated with abnormal precipitation events, is the fact that Fiji is bound to experience more floods and droughts, due to its volcanic and granitic composure (IPCC, 2014). The geography and landscape of the mountainous islands has a key influence on the distribution of the water (IPCC, 2014). On Fijis two most populated islands Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, the high terrain receives 3000mm of rain annually while the low lying western region of the Islands only receives 1800mm (Wong, 2005).
Flooding: The islands steep and small river catchments respond quickly to intense rainfall overwhelming the ground's ability to absorb the water (Combet, 2011). The excess of water which creates flood surges can be harmful, and damaging to infrastructure (Wong, 2005). In the mountains this can result in landslides, as an abundance of water can loosen soil, causing sections of earth to pull away in layers of dirt, rock, and vegetation (Wong, 2005).
Drought: Low water tables on secluded Islands in Fiji affects the well-being of citizens (McIver, 2016). Western, Eastern, and Northern subdivisions of Fiji are dependent on water deliveries, bringing about the evident economic issue which comes with transporting resources by air from nearby islands (Reliefweb, 2017). Not only does Fijian government have to pay for an emergency supply of water, the government competes with a United States company at the source in Viti Levu.
Fiji Bottled Water
The Fiji government taxes the company Fiji Water, 15 cents for every liter of water taken from the aquifer (NPR, 2010). As the island faces a water scarcity conflict, their water has attained the title as Fiji’s number one export in dollar value in the past decade (NPR, 2010). In recent years with decreasing water sources, it can be expected that pressures will rise between the Fiji's government and Fiji Water. For a country facing a water scarcity issue, how can it be so that the economy is dependent on the exportation of the same resource they lack?
Effects of Rainfall on Agriculture
Although farmers have been losing crops due to extreme weather events, abnormally long dry seasons also take a toll on crop exports (Combet, 2011). Sugar cane, Fiji’s primary export crop, has been impacted by drought in the past and production is expected to continue to decline in years to come (Wong, 2005). Projecting for the next 50 years from El Niño events between 1992 and 1999 Wong (2005) finds that 47% of the years will have the expected production of 4 million tons, 33% of years will have half of the expected production, and 20% of years will have three-quarters of the expected production. Like sugar cane, root crops the second most popular agriculture export in Fiji, are also expected to decrease in production due to lengthened dry seasons and increased cyclones. For El Nino seasons, 30-40% production is expected in one out of three years, signifying an economic strain on the agriculture community (Wong, 2005). Farms and plantations stressed by these conditions, face only two options when it comes to increasing or maintaining yield, that is relocation or improving irrigation (Wong, 2005).
Adaptation and Resilience
Fiji has started addressing the impacts of climate change. Increase in public awareness, legislative measures, and penalties are being put forth in order to educate the public on the environmental damage which faces mangroves and coral reefs. Mangrove rehabilitation will be implemented, by planting new trees and protecting severely eroded locations with artificial barriers (Agrawala, 2003). In addition to constructing artificial aggregates, artificial reefs are being explored and installed to assist the dying reefs in ecosystem habitation and coastal protection. As for preventing future destruction of Fiji’s infrastructure, the Pacific Island Climate Change Assistance Program has developed several adaptation plans. Engineering techniques include discouraging settlement in low lying coastal areas, and possible relocation of individuals facing extreme damage to estates and property. When it comes to conserving water resources, the initiative is slightly less obvious due to a low confidence in the effect of overall rainfall on Fiji (Combet, 2011).
Water Resources and Flood Control
Floods are among the most disruptive natural disasters in Fiji, often times leaving affected areas in poverty (Neef, 2013). Analysis of storms in 2009 and 2012 and disaster response mechanisms of villages downstream from Fiji’s Ba River show that four approaches were being used to assist disaster preparedness among these villages (Neef, 2013). The approaches consist of practices such as search and rescue, information distribution, mutual assistance and commercial cooperation (Neef, 2013). Water resources and flood control measures such as diversion channels, weirs, drainage basins, dams, and river bed excavation have been completed in attempt to reduce flood surges and manage the flow of flood water (Wong, 2005). Technology will also be improved for rainwater drainage on infrastructure, by applying catchments and collectors for fresh water storage (Wong, 2005). For soil conservation purposes, reforestation will be an effective device to terminate the loss of organic matter and the buildup of sediment in run off (Wong, 2005). Regulations which aim to protect water resources, include controlling land use in susceptible low lying areas and protecting wetlands which serve a buffer zones for high tides (Wong, 2005).
Although Fiji is not a major contributor to climate change at a global level, they signed United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and will do their own part in reducing the countries emissions (Wong, 2005). As part of Fiji’s agreement they developed an inventory of greenhouse gas sources and sinks in 1994 (Wong, 2005). Fiji’s main accelerants to climate change were found to be carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide outputs from burning fossil fuels and biomass, and methane from animal and human wastes as well as flooded rice fields (Wong, 2005). The three tier plan designed to reduce Fiji’s impact involves reducing energy consumption by maintaining the demand of energy desired by the users, reducing supplied emissions by transitioning to fossil fuels, and developing sinks through reforestation and forest management (Wong, 2005). Fiji’s departments of energy, forestry and environment have been collaborating with regional and private sectors in order to apply new regulations to support their greenhouse gas mitigation plan (Wong, 2005).
Action and Response
In the mitigation process it is important to note the strong correlation between Fiji's stressors, and how environmental issues often determine economic and social responses. Even with effective local action the island nation will still face difficult decisions in terms of living with the risks of global climate change. With high confidence for loss of livelihoods, coastal settlements, infrastructure, ecosystem services and economic stability in the next 40 years, the obligation for Fiji’s response becomes more pressing (IPCC, 2014). As acidifying oceans rise up around the island nation, and cyclones and intense rainfall become more prominent, increasing environmental hazards leave citizens tense and anxious. It is important that in risk management, the community takes into account the geography of the region they inhabit, and plan accordingly to work with the natural structure of their volcanic islands. Response to climate change becomes a man vs. nature predicament; a battle often lost, but if the people assemble and work resourcefully the Islands of Fiji will remain inhabited for many years to come.
About the Author
My name is Jake Van Deursen, I am from Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire. I created this website as part of a research project for an Adapting to Climate Change course I took while attending St. Lawrence University. At a young age I developed a strong interest in studying human contributions to climate change, which transpired into my environmental major.
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