In Fiji, moving to higher ground – twice

By Alister Doyle

VUNIDOGOLOA, FIji – Simione Botu points to a lump of concrete and a few wooden posts jutting out of the yellowish sand of a remote Fijian beach overhung by coconut palms.

“This is my house,” says Botu, 61, surveying the remains of his boyhood home, washed away decades ago by the South Pacific Ocean.

Simione Botu, chief of Vunidogoloa Village, Fiji, on the site of his boyhood home

Since then, Botu, the chief of Vunidogoloa village, has rebuilt his family home inland twice to escape coastal floods, partly caused by a creeping rise in global sea levels. Botu and his family are among vanishingly few people anywhere in the world forced to move twice during their lifetimes to escape shifting coastlines.

They probably won’t be the last.

New Vunidogoloa Village, Fiji

Many places – from Vanuatu in the Pacific to Alaska in the United States – are moving communities inland, driven by a cocktail of reasons including more powerful storms, natural subsidence and man-made climate change.

The trail of abandoned, rotting houses in old Vunidogoloa, slowly getting overgrown by vegetation in eastern Fiji, may hold lessons for governments worried by an accelerating rise in sea levels driven by melting ice from Greenland to Antarctica.

“The water came into the village – at high tide it could be up to our knees,” Botu said. Vunidogoloa is a community of 150 people who live from farming and fishing on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island.

New Vunidogoloa village

As an adult, he built a new wooden house about 100 metres inland, behind makeshift sea walls built in vain to keep out the rising tides. Even here, though, floods reached the top of the low stilts underpinning the building, threatening to buckle the wooden floor and making it uninhabitable.

In 2006, the villagers sought and won aid from the Fijian government to relocate – or re´hi´cate – the village.

New Vunidogoloa, a kilometre inland on a hillside with 33 cyclone-proofed wooden homes painted light green, is the first community moved inland by Fiji as part of a policy of helping coastal people cope with climate change. It was formally opened in January 2014.

Botu, who has four children and four grandchildren, lives in one of these new homes – an airy space with colourful decorations.

Botu in his new home in Vunidogoloa

Another three communities have since moved in Fiji and about 40 more are earmarked to move to higher ground.

Botu’s family in their new home

Fiji’s government says it was also the first to promise to take in potential Pacific migrants from lower-lying atolls – such as Tuvalu or Kiribati – where entire islands may become uninhabitable this century. Sea levels are rising with an accelerating melt of ice sheets and glaciers.

“We understand the situation, we are the coal face of it,” Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said of rising seas driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are perhaps luckier overall than the other atoll countries where it is existential for them, like it is for some of our low-lying communities,” he said.

Fiji is formed by extinct volcanoes – higher and more robust than coral atolls for bedrock. “We have mountains, here the highest peak is 4,000 feet above sea level. Tuvalu’s highest point is 12 feet,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.

Still, it’s hard to pin down why Vunidogoloa is so vulnerable when seas are rising worldwide – on average by about 20 cms in the past century. As with many communities moving inland, other factors aggravate the problems.

The old village is at the end of Natewa Bay, lashed by storm surges when cyclones rage from the north east. It is also at the mouth of a river, whose meandering estuary capriciously devours the coastline.

Vunidogoloa could move easily because the villagers own the surrounding land. They earn money from selling timber, sand, gravel, coconuts and grog – a drink made from the roots of the kava plant served in a coconut shell that gives a sedative, mildly euphoric feeling.

Fiji is part of an international coalition, led by small island states, that wants deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times as part of the global 2015 Paris climate agreement. Average world temperatures are already up about 1C and on track to breach the limit by around the 2040s.

“Climate change cannot be stopped, it will be increasing, increasing,” Botu told me when I visited in December 2018.

And Vunidogoloa, with solar panels for electricity, was a showcase for Fiji at U.N. negotiations on climate change in Bonn, Germany, in 2017. Fiji hosted the annual talks as part of efforts to spur action under the Paris deal.

Some pipes haven’t been buried as planned, Simione Botu says

But not everything’s fixed.

Despite being hailed as a model for the world, 90 percent of people in Vunidogoloa voted for opposition parties in November 2018 elections when Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama won a new term. Botu says locals accuse the government of failing to finish the project. Some drains are incomplete, water pipes lie unburied and some of the houses lack promised extensions for kitchens, he said.

“The government told us ´you have to do it on your own´. So when the election came we decided we do not vote for them,” he said.

Attorney General Sayed-Khaiyum, however, insists Fiji has kept its side of the bargain. He said many factors were at play in Bainimarama´s wafer-thin re-election in 2018 and that Vunidogoloa was not untypical in voting for the opposition in large numbers.

And ‘rehication’ isn’t cheap.

Fiji’s government reported in 2014 that it had spent almost a million Fijian dollars ($460,000) to relocate Vunidogoloa, including building homes, fish ponds, and a processor for helping produce coconut oil.

Clothilde Tronquet, a researcher at the Institute for Climate Economics in France, estimated the Fijian government probably paid about three-quarters of the cost of the village’s relocation. Botu disagreed, saying the locals had contributed a bigger share than the government by providing labour, timber and land.

The high cost “casts doubt on the viability of the project to be replicated elsewhere”, Tronquet wrote in a 2015 report.

Prime Minister Bainimarama casts Vunidogoloa squarely as a victim of sea level rise – effectively pinning the blame on industrial greenhouse gas emissions by nations such as the United States, the European Union, China and Russia.

“Today, we launch the first project in Fiji to save an entire village from the rise in sea levels caused by climate change,” he said in a ceremony in January 2014, opening the new village.
“It is real. It is happening now.”

On a visit to Fiji in 2018, Britain´s Prince Harry went even further, calling Vunidogoloa “the first village in the world to begin relocating to higher ground due to sea level rise.”

The rhetoric over-simplifies science and history.

Born in 1957, Botu said his parents’ generation decided in 1953 to move the village away from the shoreline – long before scientists detected man-made global warming or global sea level rise. The unpredictable estuary was simply an unsuitable site.

Some sceptics question whether Vunidogoloa is a misleading media poster child for climate activism and sea level rise.

Around the world, several remote communities claim to be the first to move inland because of a changing climate and rising seas. In 2005, for instance, the U.N. Environment Programme said a community of about 100 people on Tegua Island in Vanuatu north-west of Fiji “has become one of, if not the first, to be formally moved out of harm’s way as a result of climate change” by moving to higher ground.

Still, Fijian officials say that a bit of over-simplification is justified to highlight the problems of rising seas that will get ever worse this century. Rising seas worsen other risks – such as more powerful storms and “king tides” linked to man-made climate change that blow salt water onto coastal crops.

Bainimarama warned the United Nations in Bonn in 2017 that “cities in the developed world like Miami, New York, Venice or Rotterdam” are as vulnerable to the global rise in sea levels as low-lying nations. That was a veiled jab at U.S. President Donald Trump, who owns properties in both New York and Florida and doubts that climate change is man-made.

Climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change write, in an unpublished draft report, that seas are likely to rise by up to 133 centimetres this century if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. Deep cuts in emissions could limit the rise to 33 cms.

Despite grumbling about unfinished business, Vunidogoloa is a success by many yardsticks.

In new Vunidogoloa, children laugh as they play with used car tyres – one heaves a tyre to make it roll as far as possible while rivals try to hurl tyres from the side to knock it over.

Under the shade of a mango tree, a group of women are sewing and cutting leaves to make brooms for sweeping the floors. Further up the hill, workers are tending a plantation of pineapples.

And atop the hillside, the villagers are building a Methodist church. On Google maps, new Vunidogoloa is listed as “Kenani”, the local version of “Canaan” or the “promised land” of the Bible. Botu reckons the church, a locally funded project separate from the relocation, will cost 250,000 Fijian dollars.

Among other advantages, the new village is right by a gravel road where buses stop on the way to the towns of Labasa and Savusavu. That means the locals have far less to walk when carrying shopping home, and anyone who is ill can get to the doctor more easily.

Jane McAdam, a law professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a leading global expert on migration, wrote in a 2015 review that few people uprooted from their homes are happy about moving. “Resettlement is a fraught and complex undertaking, and rarely considered successful by those who move,” she wrote.

Vunidogoloa may be among exceptions.

“People are happy here,” Botu says.

Botu works on a raft on the beach at abandoned Vunidogoloa village

Still, he is wistful for the past.

Down on the beach, looking out over the sea from the abandoned site of his boyhood home, he shrugs: “When we come here our heart is here. Our forefathers were here.”

Pacific islands could be helped by MIT infra-red maps

Vaitupu is a tiny low-lying island of 1,600 inhabitants in the Pacific — part of the island nation of Tuvalu (red dot, left) — and one of the first places studied by a mapping project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to expose invisible risks.

The OpenIR project used infra-red images that could help planners with everything from disaster relief to coping with sea level rise.

Arlene Ducao and Ilias Koen, co-principals of the inspiring DuKode Studio, developed Vaitupu maps (below) from satellite images as part of an project (link to the final paper here) for a class Arlene and I attended run by the brilliant cyberscholar and activist Ethan Zuckerman. Vaitupu covers about 5.6 sq kms.

Arlene says the idea is that the maps “pop” — by using different infra-red filters they suddenly highlight the exact extent of things that are invisible to the naked eye, including hard surfaces (pink in the left-hand image) like roads or buildings that floods will run off.



Or they can highlight vegetation (red, right):



Or water (blue, left)



Knowing such factors can help emergency workers help plan relief efforts for a tsunami, a cyclone or an earthquake. They could also set benchmarks against which we can judge sea level rise and other impacts of climate change. My recommendation: get OpenIR!


Can art give clues to sea level rise?

Paintings by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch often give you a sinking feeling (see “The Scream”, left). But can art give clues to sea level changes?

Masterpieces by Canaletto and Bellotto in the first half of the 18th century have been used to document the subsidence of Venice, relative to its lagoon. But might paintings from past centuries be used as informal gauges elsewhere to show the rate of ocean rise? (…has anyone tried?)

For fun, here’s a comparison that highlights some of the problems.

Below is “Melancholy” painted by Munch in 1892 by the fjord in Aasgardstrand, the village in southern Norway where he lived, and at a time when photographs were still rare:

The dark shoreline seems to be seaweed with a thin wavy line along the beach that suggests a high tide mark. Below is a photo I took today of roughly the same place (I couldn’t find a sad-looking guy: he was probably looking even more morose indoors since it was pouring with rain).

Art experts at the house where Munch lived say that the rock on the right is the same as the big one in the painting — the smaller ones have been moved with reconstruction along the beachfront.

At first glance it looks like the sea has risen, right up to the large rock — it hasn’t. In the bottom photo it’s simply nearer high tide. Also, the land in south Norway is rising — maybe 30 cms a century — outstripping any effect of sea level rise since Munch was here. (The land is still rebounding after the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago removed a vast frozen weight).

So this simply shows some blindingly obvious objections — artists often aren’t trying to paint an exact scene…in the painting it might be low tide, high tide, etc…and changes in sea levels — an average 17 cm rise in the 20th century, according to the U.N. panel of climate scientists — vary locally.

Still, if sea levels rise as much as many experts fear this century, old masterpieces might get dusted off as evidence — and might be far more convincing to ordinary people than experts talking about tide gauges.




U.S. coasts — California faces fast sea level rise: “hot spot” already in Atlantic

Much of California could suffer sea level will rise of about a meter (39 inches) this century — faster than the global average — while there is already a “hot spot” of sea level rise on a densely populated 1,000 km (600 mile) strip of the east coast, studies show.

The separate reports are new evidence that city planners, governments, engineers etc will have a tangle of priorities and competing claims for money if sea level rise accelerates since the effects won’t be the same everywhere.

The west coast projections, in a report by the U.S. National Research Council, are bad news for low-lying areas such as San Francisco airport or Venice Beach (below) in Los Angeles, which might look ever more like the flood-prone Italian city of the same name.

And a recent acceleration of sea level rise along a strip of the east coast, to 3 to 4 times the global average (of about 3 mm a year), is affecting cities including New York and Boston, according to scientists writing separately in Nature Climate Change.

A slowdown of the Gulf Stream system that sweeps warm water northwards in the Atlantic seems to be the cause. (…of course that doesn’t mean that seas off the east coast can keep on rising at such fast rates throughout the century).


The west coast report also says that seas will rise by less than the world average in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Yet other worries are that a big earthquake could cause subsidence that lowers the coastline by a meter in one gigantic jolt.

“Sea-level rise is uneven and varies from place to place. Along the U.S. west coast it depends on the global mean sea-level rise and regional factors, such as ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, melting of modern and ancient ice sheets, and tectonic plate movements,” the council said.

For the California coast south of Cape Mendocino — a spot north of San Francisco — the committee projects that sea level will rise by 42 to 167 centimeters by 2100 (so a meter is about the middle of the range). For Washington, Oregon, and California north of Cape Mendocino, sea level is projected to rise by 10 to 143 centimeters by 2100, it said.

On the east coast, scientists write that “Our analyses support a recent acceleration of sea level rise on about 1,000 km of the east coast of North America north of Cape Hatteras. It said the hotspot was “consistent” with sea level rise expected by a slowdown of the Gulf Stream.

The report about California projects that world sea level will rise by 50 to 140 centimeters by 2100, a lot more than the estimate of 18 to 59 cms by the U.N. panel of climate scientists in 2007, which also said there was a possible extra of up to 20 cms if there are big changes in ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica.