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As wild weather brings more migration, Pacific islands look for ways to cope
November 13, 2017 / 2:37 PM / 4 days ago

As wild weather brings more migration, Pacific islands look for ways to cope

BONN, Germany (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Cyclone Winston smashed into Fiji last year, killing 44 people and destroying more than a dozen villages, people who found themselves without homes got on boats.

A tree uprooted by Cyclone Winston lays in the roof of a house in Fiji's capital Suva, February 21, 2016. REUTERS/Emma Stadelmann/Handout via Reuters

Many headed to Suva, Fiji’s capital, where they moved in with relatives – in some cases relatives they’d been helping pay the rent, with income from the farms and businesses now lost to the storm, said Filipe Nainoca, the director-general of the Fiji Red Cross.

At first things went well. But in time the strain that often accompanies long-staying houseguests – including growing financial strain – set in, Nainoca remembers.

“You stay for one month, it’s okay. Two months is difficult. Three months becomes a burden,” he said. “Who feeds who? Who pays the electricity?”

As climate change brings wilder weather, countries around the world are dealing with a growing stream of temporary – or sometimes permanent – migrants fleeing damaged homes, lost crops, and lost jobs.

In hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, thousands of people have moved to Miami this year, looking for work, housing and a reliable power supply as their houses sit dark and damaged at home. In Texas, more than 30,000 people were driven at least temporarily from their homes by Hurricane Harvey.

In the Pacific islands, the number of people moving within their own countries to flee worsening storms, sea level rise and other climate-related crises is still relatively small. But as it grows, the countries are grappling with a range of new and thorny issues.

Fiji, for instance, has now relocated three villages threatened by sea level rise, said Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the country’s attorney general, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks in Bonn.

In one case, in Vunidogoloa, on the island of Vanua Levu, that involved disinterring the graves of ancestors to move them inland with their families, he said.

Such moves are a challenge in a nation where more than 90 percent of land is communally owned and cannot be sold. Communities seeking to relocate try to move within the boundaries of their own community’s land, but if that cannot happen leases need to be negotiated, said Sayed-Khaiyum, who is also Fiji’s economic minister.

Coastal villagers – many of them fishermen - forced to move inland to higher ground also face big cultural changes. “The whole lifestyle is different. The income is different,” he said.

Fiji’s government has realised, he said, that as more villages are likely to need relocation – because of water shortages, inundation from the sea and other problems – it needs to come up with guidelines and frameworks to manage the process, to save time and money and avoid mistakes.

“If we had to relocate 40 villages it would be good to have a template approach to it, in terms of livelihoods and the structures of buildings,” the minister said.

To help manage growing climate risks, Fiji is now one of the few countries in the world where the climate change ministry sits within the country’s economic ministry, to ensure that climate change is taken into account in major budget and financial decisions, he said.

“We want a more coordinated approach to it among ministries,” he said – particularly with Cyclone Winston alone having cost the island $1.4 billion in damage, or about a third of its GDP.

Nainoca, of the Red Cross, said one of the problems driving more displacement is how many more homes are being destroyed in villages as storms grow stronger.

“We are used to cyclones in Fiji,” he said. “But the cyclones coming now are so devastating that the proportion of houses remaining is changing. It might be 20 destroyed in a 60-house community before. Now it’s 20 left standing.”

That means “those left are unable to cope. People have to move”, he said.

Following Cyclone Winston, about 80 percent of people whose villages were entirely destroyed eventually returned home to rebuild. But about 20 percent have remained in Suva – perhaps an indication of things to come, Nainoca said.

Efforts to prepare for migrants – temporary or permanent – in the capital and other potential host communities remains inadequate, he said. Such preparations need to be not just physical – things like housing and school places - but psychological as well, he said.

Among families who had lost their villages to Cyclone Winston, many people – particularly children – showed signs of trauma, he said.

In schools, “as soon as they heard the wind blowing, kids would shake where they were sitting”, he remembers. The Red Cross ended up seeking training on providing psychological counseling for its volunteers working with cyclone victims.

Coping effectively with worsening wild weather and migration in the islands, he said, will require helping not just potential migrants but those who will have to adjust to hosting them.

“We want movement in a controlled way, rather than in a panic,” he said.

“Mobility is going to be a serious issue in the islands,” he warned. “And Fiji is one of the strongest economies in the Pacific. It’s going to be 10 times harder in the smaller economies in the Pacific.”

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Alex Whiting:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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