Island News

Fear of water

Written By : Kalesi Mele and Koila Valemei. Irane Tubuna, the Turaga-ni-Koro for the village of Muana-I-Ra in Rewa, is a worried man. Before his very eyes, the river has
30 Oct 2010 12:00

Written By : Kalesi Mele and Koila Valemei. Irane Tubuna, the Turaga-ni-Koro for the village of Muana-I-Ra in Rewa, is a worried man.
Before his very eyes, the river has been inching closer and closer to the houses and food gardens in his village.
What is alarming is that river is not receding as far back as it used to.
People talk about the effects of climate change. Tubuna and fellow villagers are bearing witness to it.
According to the pro-vice chancellor for research at USP, Professor Patrick Nunn, climate change is one of the biggest threats to people living along the Rewa River delta.
With the area sustaining a population of almost 70, 000 (five times the number of people in Tuvalu), future costs for climate change adaptation in Fiji will likely be very high, says Nunn.
USP staff and students researching climate change have been studying parts of the Rewa River delta.
During a research day organised by USP recently, over 50 university staff and higher degree students converged in the area.

King tides
Interviews with people in the three villagers who make up Vutia district indicated that they had noticed an increase in king tides.
The tides come further inland than they used to some years ago.
“We used to experience king tides once in a while. But now it is more common,” says Tubuna.
The sweeping tides are starting to erode riverbanks and the shoreline.
When tides and heavy rainfall come together, the villages experience flooding.
The situation reminds many villages of Cyclone Kina in 1993, when they used boats to travel through the village (see photo).
Research conducted by former USP academic, Dr James Terry, reveals that climatic change in the tropical South Pacific region will be associated with greater tropical cyclone intensities.
This, says Terry will increase the size of floods in the Rewa Basin.
Vutia district is one of many coastal villages along the Rewa River delta already vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise, being a mere two metres above high tide level.
The riverbanks and shoreline of the three villages in the district – Muana-I-Ra, Muana-I-Cake and Laucala Island – show obvious signs of erosion and encroachment from the sea (see photo).
Salinisation a looming threat
The district is also experiencing salinization of its groundwater, a serious problem where wells supplement the water supply.
Soil salinisation is another problem, with extensive accumulation of free salts in the soil disastrous for crop farming.
USP Masters in Science graduate Shalini Lata says that salinisation is more evident on Laucala island.
“Agricultural output is declining because of salinisation,” she says.
Lata used Vutia District as a case study for her research thesis.
It was titled Perceptions of future climate change in a vulnerable community and its implications for future adaptation: a case study of the Rewa delta, Fiji.
Lata’s study found that the Rewa delta is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and in dire need of effective anticipatory adaptation.
It established a strong link between people failing to perceive a risk and the resulting minimal or zero adaptation actions.
Lata highlighted that although the people of Vutia have noticed the changes, not all of them have related them to climate change.
“Even though they can see that the water level is rising, they feel that it is punishment from God rather than being human-induced.
“So there is a low level of climate change awareness,” says Lata.
During a field survey of Laucala island, the USP group saw the devastating effects of the dredging.
Professor Nunn said that the villages did not receive any income from dredging to compensate for the loss of their land and damage to their crops.
He said this was a reflection of a wider problem in the history of land use and management in the Pacific.
“One of the problems in general in the Pacific is that the people who interact with the environment every day are not the ones who make the decisions about them,” says Nunn.

Adaptation and relocation
Nunn highlights that adaptation is key.
“Over the next 60 years all we can do is adapt to the changes in sea level. We have to think about what we are going to do now.”
“Decisions are being made by the elites. Whether they are chiefly elites or elected elites, those decisions do not always benefit the people at the ground level.”
The people of Vutia have taken temporary adaptation actions by building raised homes and raising cement paths throughout their villages (see photo).
In the long run, such measures may not be sufficient, and re-location may be the only realistic option, although this is not something that the villagers are likely to be happy about.
“It’s not easy for them to uproot their homes,” says Lata. “Some of them have lived here all their lives.”
*The authors are journalism students at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.

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