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Climate Change in Pacific Islands

Climate change and the ongoing environmental crisis are everyday realities for the Pacific Islands. We are forced to witness the degradation of our ocean and terrestrial resources, which have provided for us since the time of our ancestors. This heritage has been passed down through generations. Growing up in a Pacific Island, I've personally witnessed the direct impacts of disasters – from relocating farm animals to higher ground in waist-deep water, to witnessing homes and belongings of family and friends submerged after a cyclone. These events often lead to families having to rebuild their lives from scratch. The aftermath of Cyclone Winston in 2016, for instance, left many families with nothing. According to local experiences, the impacts of the cyclone were still felt six months later, as it took a considerable amount of time to rebuild. Some of my family and friends opted to sell their homes and move to urban areas, believing it was safer to rent in the city than to live in flood-prone locations.
One my recent studies on Marakei Island in Kiribati revealed that water security is a major concern for local residents. They mentioned having "no choice" but to drink water from village wells, even though it was often muddy and had high salt concentrations, indicating salt intrusion due to rising sea levels. The thought of having no alternative but to consume contaminated water is a harsh reality for many in the Pacific Islands. Another pressing issue highlighted in the study was the lack of preparedness among individuals for impending disasters due to insufficient materials, funding, and support. This situation pushes local communities to the brink of climate vulnerability.
As a researcher and climate change advocate, it's essential to recognize that the current crisis requires a holistic approach. Climate change isn't just about environmental loss; it's also about the erosion of tradition, knowledge, and potentially, entire Pacific civilizations. Over the years, my research has shown that people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature as modernization advances. Climate change-induced environmental degradation forces native communities to turn to modern methods designed for maximum extraction, often at the expense of sustainability. For example, villagers are now using modern nets instead of traditional coconut leaf nets, which allowed juvenile fish to escape and ensured food security. Climate change has disrupted marine ecosystems, leading to the decline or shifting of marine species, making traditional methods less effective and impacting food security. To ensure a catch for consumption or sale, modern methods become necessary.
Apart from changes in fishing practices, there's also a shift in traditional food crops. While the Pacific Island diet traditionally relied on fish, seafood, and root crops like taro and sweet potatoes, rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, frequent cyclones, and other climate-related disasters are driving a transition to a more modern diet. People increasingly prefer purchasing food over growing local crops. Over time, this trend risks erasing local knowledge, fostering dependence on imported and Western foods. In some Pacific Islands, this shift may be the only solution as rising sea levels threaten agricultural land.
Furthermore, some coastal villages have had to relocate due to sea-level rise, moving inland. While this is a solution, it comes at a cost. Indigenous communities bear the brunt of this upheaval, experiencing detachment from their land and resources. In some cases, they return to their original village site, as it

holds their cultural heritage and where they've spent their lives. Land is sacred to indigenous people, playing a crucial role in their culture, traditions, and daily lives. During relocation, the focus is often solely on moving people from one location to another, overlooking the specific settings and traditions of traditional villages. For example, the placement of a village chief's house, typically at a higher vantage point overlooking the village, may not be considered during relocation. Such oversights indicate a lack of respect for tradition.

-story as told to PacificSOS. Danian is a researcher at the University of Fiji in areas of traditional knowledge and climate anthropology. He is also the hub coordinator for the Sustainable Ocean Alliance Pacific.

Story Information:

Country: Fiji

Topic: Climate Change (General)

Photo or video credit: @dannysingh_fiji

Text Credit: Danian Singh

Date : 10 September 2023

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