6. Fighting from the frontlines of the Pacific’s climate crisis

Pacific Island countries are suffering the devastating effects of climate change. But as CIVICUS Youth Action Team’s Betty Barkha stresses, they are amazingly resilient.  

The sea is coming closer to home, we don’t have to walk to the lagoon anymore.” The haunting words of a four-year-old playing with his friends near Bonriki village, on the main island of Tarawa in Kiribati, still gives me chills. Little did he know that the ocean that gives him and his friends so much happiness was out to claim their home.

This is not an extraordinary story, but a reality for many coastal villages in the South Pacific. Each country is currently being affected by climate change. To some it will remain a challenge to economic growth and sustainable development. For others, especially the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), climate change has become a matter of survival for the population.

The Pacific Small Island Developing States is a coalition comprising of 14 Pacific Island States, which allows state delegations to consolidate and advocate for Pacific priorities at the United Nations. Together they comprise a land area of approximately half a million square kilometers scattered in the world's largest ocean, with a significant portion of that land made up of low-lying atolls that do not reach more than a few meters above current sea level.

The combination of physical characteristics, remoteness and poor infrastructure, make the PSIDS inherently vulnerable, and climate change has a profound impact on development and security. Rising sea levels, changing weather patterns, soil erosion, loss of coral reefs, migration, food security and many other challenges are among the impact of climate change. The increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters have been directly linked to climate change and recognised as a threat to global peace and security.

Image Credit: 350 Pacific

Mass migration is inevitable. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimate climate change induced displacements will be between 25 million to 1 billion people by 2050. But with nowhere to go for many, especially in the current geopolitical situation, it has become very challenging for citizens of these nations. In the last decade various efforts have been made Pacific leaders and activists to bring attention to the crisis.

There are various actors in place working on climate change adaptation, education and mitigation and while we continue to rely on the persistence resilience of our people, it is nowhere close to what we ultimately need to do. A large chunk of dedicated resources for climate change action has to be directed towards rebuilding and restoration after disasters strike. Fiji was struck by Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016 and post disaster assessments showed damages worth FJD $2.8billion, (about USD $1.4 mil).

Similarly, in 2015 Cyclone Pam cost Vanuatu approximately USD $449.4 million - almost 64% of the country’s GDP. The damages aren’t limited to our economy, it takes months to rebuild. But Pacific people are resilient and I have seen them rise, always with a smile. Despite flooded homes, contaminated water (or no water) for weeks, damaged farms, ruined roads and blown away schools, we are not giving up. Fiji is one of the bigger and more economically stronger PSIDS however still struggles in securing resources to support fast regrowth. But as one of my favorite bunch of Pacific activists, the  “Pacific climate warriors” from 350.org like to say, “We are not drowning. We are fighting”.

Earlier in 2018, Fiji was struck by Tropical Cyclone Keni and Tropical Cyclone Josie. Two within a week. This time around though things were different. You can of course never entirely be ready for a cyclone. But people had stocked up, moved to higher grounds, sealed their homes and stayed indoors. The aftermath was still dirty and devastating and reached new heights, but Fijians got to work the very next day. Schools and offices were closed to help families and communities get sorted before normal work days resumed. As part of its leadership for COP 23, Fiji will be developing the first ever National Relocation Guidelines(to be finalised later this year), to support mass migration. While relocation is seen as a last resort, three villages in Fiji have been completely relocated to higher ground and 45 others have been identified for relocation in upcoming years.

A brilliant Fijian woman, who I greatly admire recently told me “it is no longer time to play the blame game, there is now a growing moral consciousness recognising this threat and we must act on it”. So we must. Because despite the overwhelming evidence, governments continue to protect the interests of large corporations who are able to profit from destruction of the environment. We need to move away from reacting to situations of crisis and disasters and work towards preventing them. We can no longer work in silos, we need to take concrete action. Join the movement, check out your local environment policies, speak to someone who knows more about it! This is not just one nation’s crisis, it is a global one and we need all hands helping to keep us alive.

Betty Barkha is an activist from the Fiji Islands and a recent addition to the CIVICUS Youth Action Team. She is also an advisor to FRIDA Young Feminist Fund and an alumni of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program (2016).  Betty tweets via @BettyBarkha.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

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