In Fiji, villages need to move due to climate change

In Fiji, villages need to move due to climate change

Vunidogoloa, Fiji  Just a few metres from the shoreline, a slab of concrete indicates where Sailosi Ramatu’s home once stood.

The headman of Vunidogoloa village was born here in 1960 on a river estuary in Natewa Bay, on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu.

Today, all that remains of his childhood home is the concrete bathroom foundation and three wooden stumps sticking out of the dark, muddy sand. The beach is just a few metres wide, precariously situated between a grassy elevation leading to the main part of the old village and the bay.

“This river was not as wide as this before. It was just there,” said Ramatu, gesturing into the distance.

“When I was eight, I used to cross this river. Now we have to swim.”

A slab of concrete in the mud indicates where the toilet in Sailosi Ramatu’s first home used to be [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

Before Ramatu was born, previous generations of Vunidogoloans noticed water levels were rising and the mouth of the river was gradually widening. 

By the 1950s, they realised the changes were more than an anomaly.

“In Fiji, we have seasonal weather. But where there should have been rain, there was sun. Where there should have been sun, there was rain. [Our grandparents] understood that the climate had changed,” Ramatu said. 

As the decades passed, it got worse. King tides would sweep water into the village, forcing residents to move to higher ground on bamboo rafts. In the 1990s, a young boy drowned after he followed his mother into the river where she was fishing.

“He thought that the river was just on the same level, but it got deep and he couldn’t swim. We just saw the body floating,” Ramatu recalled.

By 2006, regular flooding, soil erosion and the unabated rise of water surrounding their community forced the villagers to ask the Fijian government for help.

In January 2014, Vunidogoloa moved two kilometres inland, becoming the first village in Fiji to relocate because of the effects of climate change.

Sailosi Ramatu in front of Vunidogoloa’s new site [Loes Witschge/Al Jazeera]

In Vunidogoloa today, colourful clothes run on lines between identical green wooden houses scattered on a lush hillside, while chickens mill around in the grass.

The 132 villagers are happy here, Ramatu said, as the move has come with new perks.

“We have access to the main road. Children have transportation to school. We’re also close to a health centre,” he said.

But to the headman, these upgrades cannot offset the trauma of leaving the old village.

“Where we were living, we hoped it would be our home forever. We had to leave our beautiful village. It’s painful.”

Losing paradise

For much of the world, climate change is a catastrophe unfolding in slow motion, with consequences that can still seemingly be ignored.

But in island nations across the Pacific, climate change has well and truly arrived and is already posing an existential threat to communities.

Rising sea levels have swallowed up five of the Solomon Islands since the mid-20th century.

For Kiribati, a small island nation made up of coral atolls, rising waters pose a threat so dire that in 2014 the government purchased a 20-square-kilometre piece of land in Fij

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