‘It takes time to settle in our hearts’: Fijian villagers left their homes to higher ground

Boats are moored next to living rooms on Sirua Island in Fiji, as high tide breaks through the seawall and floods the village.

Wooden panels connect the homes to the sea-flooded gardens.

The village elders always thought that they would die here, as their chiefs were buried.

But with the local community running out of ways to adapt, the 80 villagers have to decide whether to leave their ancestral homeland.

Semisi Madanawa and 11-year-old Monika Betomakita on a boat from Serua Island to the mainland.(Reuters: Lauren Elliott)

‘We need to make a decision’

The three children of Simesi Madanawa play in sea-water playgrounds.

The 38-year-old says the village may have to move to the main island of Fiji so that the next generation has a future.

But he says the village elders are reluctant to move.

“It takes time for the idea to settle in our hearts so that we humans can accept the changes that are coming,” he says.

“Climate change is happening and we need to make a decision.”

A group of children gather at the water's edge and repair a boat engine.
Students gather at the edge of a flooded seawall during high tide in the village of Sirua.(Reuters: Lauren Elliott)

Sirua Island is one of many coastal villages seeking help to adapt or move, according to the Fiji government.

But these projects are expensive, and all too often, adaptations — such as building seawalls, planting mangroves and improving sanitation — are no longer enough to save villages from rising sea levels.

existential threat

Leaders of 15 Pacific low-lying island nations declared climate change the “biggest single existential threat” at a mid-July summit in Suva, Fiji’s capital.

They want developed countries like Australia, which contribute the most to global warming, to pay so that islanders can protect their people from rising sea levels.

A woman at her door, with sea water up to the threshold.
Verena Delasso, 63, has been at her home for the past 20 years in the village of Vivatoloa. (Reuters: Lauren Elliott )

This push has become a major battle at the United Nations climate conferences.

“A lot of societies are in a real crisis, they have been trying to survive,” explains Shivanal Kumar, a climate change adaptation specialist in the Fiji government.

“The effects of climate change have been felt for many years and it is time they gave up and said it was time to act.”

A little boy wading through the water next to a house that was flooded by the sea
Ratusila Wakanasiva, 14, wades through the sea waters that are inundating his village.(Reuters: Lauren Elliott)

He says the resettlement aims to preserve human rights by protecting people from rising seas and severe storm surges and cyclones.

But the money pledged by developed nations at UN climate conferences does not cover resettlement – only adaptation.

At COP26 last year, leaders only agreed to keep talking about compensating people at risk affected by climate change, including migration.

The moon rises over the island of Fiji
The villagers of Serwa must decide whether to leave their island for the mainland. (Reuters: Lauren Elliott)

Knees up in the water

In 2014, Fiji became the first Pacific island country to relocate a community, Vunidogoloa, due to rising sea levels.

Six villages have now moved, or are planning to.

Another 795 people are expected to follow, says youth climate activist Saluti Nasalu, who adds that young people in the Pacific will continue to protest against polluters who do not act.

The people of Vunidogoloa were the first to move.

Villagers were living on their knees in the water, and it became impossible for 150 residents to grow food, says former village chief Silusi Ramatu.

People gathered for church service on Sunday.  Their village has moved to the mainland and no flood waters are in sight
The village of Vunidogoloa was the first community to relocate due to sea level rise. (Reuters: Lauren Elliott)

In the new village located 1.5 kilometers inside the island of Vanua Levu, children can now sit outside with their dry feet firmly on the ground.

It took time persuading the elderly to relocate, says Ramatu, 63, but the village banded together and listened to the experts.

“We can also make a decision in the world if the leaders come together,” he said.

“They should help us, they should pay for our loss and damage.”


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