Defiant residents face up to coastal flooding
Sea water intruding into the homes of residents in an informal settlement outside Lami town bears the fingerprint of human activity.
Doubly worrying for them are the waves of rubbish that accompany the tides, leaving them exposed to obvious health risks and clogging water outlets.
The settlement, nestled against mangrove trees on the Queens Highway, is one of many situated along the coast outside of the capital city.
People settled near coastlines have increasingly become vulnerable to a recorded upsurge in extreme weather conditions and rising tides.
Salaseini Lave has lived in Wailekutu Qoya for 15 years and said her husband and three children stay indoors during high tides.
“We raised our house on posts to avoid water entering our homes,” Ms Lave said.
“It worked for a while but during Cyclone Winston last year, half our house was underwater,” she said.
Despite the obvious dangers literally present at the family’s door, the 34-year-old is defiant.
“I’m waiting for my lease – I don’t want to leave this place,” she said. Wailekutu Qoya is home mostly to factory and dock workers, many of whom have come from villages seeking better job opportunities in the urban areas.
The settlement is crowded and its deteriorating conditions with hastily built houses, careless disposal of rubbish and recurrent tides and inclement weather increases its vunerability to multiple health risks and frequent inundation.
Tokasa (prefers to be addressed with one name), a grandmother has lived in the Wailekutu Qoya settlement for 30 years; she is confused.
“It wasn’t like this when I was young,” the Waiqanake villager said, looking up at the dark, gray skies.
“I remember not so long ago when November was usually a hot month, but just look at the weather now,” she said.
“I see on TV people talking about climate change and I only understood what they were saying after witnessing the changes in the weather patterns and sea levels myself.”
Ms Tokasa grimaced as she said: “We can’t do anything now. It’s out of our hands.”
That seems to be the consensus in the settlement; most seem resigned to their fate.
“Sadly, many of these communities do not have access to scientific information on the hazards that they can understand,” wrote Jessica Dator Bercilla, a climate change researcher, on her blog.
Ms Bercilla works on resilience, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction for the Manila Observatory, a not-for-profit research institute in the Philippines.
She wrote: “Unfortunately, for many of the communities, there is no time to adapt and, thus, losses and damage will be the consequences.
“What little time other communities have, they must use to enable resilient households, ecosystems, infrastructure, local economies, and social capital in the most efficient way and with innovations that are calibrated according to the power of projected climate change hazards.”
Many residents say they have recently spotted unidentified men cutting down mangrove trees in the settlement, presumably for firewood.
Mangrove forests imitate the functions of coral reefs, accommodating a diverse and productive ecosystem of marine organisms.
The trees also cater to human needs, with goods and services the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates to hold a worth of $USD186 million. Unchecked removal of these trees often results in devastating effects to the coastline, which is already being witnessed in Fiji.
At COP23 in Bonn, Germany, Minster for Fisheries Semi Koroilavesau revealed that Fiji loses $52 million a year in the agriculture sector from coastal flooding.
Out of their Hands
The residents in the settlement, like millions of others around the world, represent the vulnerable majority at the mercy of climate change and its hazards.
As informal settlements are still technically illegal in Fiji, its residents do not have access to official assistance.
They have tried collectively to mitigate the impact of the tides by clumping together blocks of soil designed to keep out at least some of the water.
But it has had little to no effect. People like Ms Tokasa and Ms Lave face a nervous and prolonged wait as our leaders continue to attempt to garner assistance from the international community.
Ms Lave said: “I love staying here but I think it’s time to consider leaving my home.”
Many residents say they remain indoors during high tides as sea waters engulf parts of the settlement.