3 Jun 2013

Fiji village opts to stay put despite rising tides

4:30 pm on 3 June 2013

As Pacific Island coastal villages look at relocating to escape rising seas, one community in Fiji is refusing to budge.

The people of Daku don't want to move inland, instead they are focusing their efforts on shifting in soil to hoist their village above the incoming tides.

Sally Round went on a tour of Daku and heard about the ambitious plan.

Children arriving at Daku school by boat - nothing out of the ordinary for this village lying on the swampy Rewa River delta, about an hour to the northeast of Suva. But the river water's been lapping a lot closer to the village these last few years and at king tides and after cyclones, two-thirds of it lies flooded. Afterwards, when the water drains away, there are stagnant puddles to wade through and crabs pop up in ditches where there was once just green grass. The church takes pride of place in the village centre. The church was built 60 years after the community first relocated here from the island of Bau. The newcomers built their homes on a coral bed near the mangroves where they could catch fish and crabs. But as Nausoni Bigatagi explains, they don't want to move again.

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: ..for the older generation and this generation here, we just want to stay here. Our forefathers lived here before and we're used to the type of environment around us, so that's why we want to stay here.

SALLY ROUND: And is it important in your culture to stay, for your forefathers?

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: Yeah, it's important. It's really important.

The church is safe now after a seawall and floodgates were built a few years ago, protecting a third of the village from encroaching water. But the project has stalled due to lack of money and most of the village still floods about four times a month. The salty water is affecting the village's vegetable plantings.

SALLY ROUND: We're walking along this path, which is a slightly raised bank - to keep out the sea-water - all dug and built by hand. On each side there are puddles and pools of water and sea-water encroaching gradually into the area where they grow their vegetables. Daku people manage to grow only a quarter of their crops now ... they have to buy the rest from the market. This Daku farmer tells me how things have changed over the years.

FARMER: .. the coconuts here have been getting smaller from the sea-water affecting the crops. And the (Indistinct) and the mango and the taste, too, is different. It's a little bit salty, not very nice. Crops are very small, too, and the taste is not good.

Nausoni Bigatagi says village elders noticed the climate started changing in the 1990s.

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: The river mouth now, it's getting shallow, not like before. Before you could catch bigger fish and there were plenty of fish around. Now the river mouth is getting shallow. Plenty of fish, they're migrating.

SALLY ROUND: That means fewer fish to take to the market?

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: Yeah, fewer fish. Not like before. Our women usually go and catch the crabs from the mango swamps. Before they can catch about three bundles, four bundles like that. Now they can catch only about two or one bundle.

A teacher at the village school, Tove Rodolagi, says they want to move the building. The land underneath is boggy and it would be better to shift before things get much worse.

SALLY ROUND: So we're just walking to have a look underneath this school building here.

TOVE RODOLAGI: This is it. This is what we're talking about.

SALLY ROUND: The support that the school is sitting on, that looks like it's being sort of chewed away by the water. Is that right?

TOVE RODOLAGI: That's right. That's what is exactly happening here.

VILLAGER: When high tide comes, it comes right up here. You can see the crabs there - the 'mana', we call it in Fiji.

SALLY ROUND: Normally, you wouldn't have crabs this close to the village?

VILLAGER: Normally, before, no crabs here. Yes.

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: Normally, no crabs, no land lobsters like that, but now...

SALLY ROUND: You don't need to go fishing now.

(All laugh)

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: We don't need to go inside the mangrove swamps to catch crabs from inside there. (Laughs)

SALLY ROUND: They come to you.

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughs)

SALLY ROUND: But it's not funny, is it?

NAUSONI BIGATAGI: Yeah, it's not funny. It's not funny.

The frequent flooding sees water rising up to half a metre to lap at the steps of Vasemaca Radave's home. When that happens she keeps her children close by.

SALLY ROUND: So how many times does the water come in a month?

VASEMACA RADAVE: Three, four times a month.

SALLY ROUND: Do you know when it's going to come?

VASEMACA RADAVE: (Laughs) No. After I see it. I don't know when water is coming. I can't tell anything.

SALLY ROUND: Do you worry about your children in the sea-water?

VASEMACA RADAVE: Yeah, because of the deeper drain. When the sea-water comes, the children run, go and see. The boy can't swim, but the girl, I have to watch her. It's part of our daily life.

Climate change has affected Daku people in many ways - a depleted harvest from the sea, health and sanitation issues and less cash earned at the market for their produce. Two years ago, they dug ditches and moved soil to do the first part of the works to deal with climate change. They now have a special committee to deal with the problem and see through their plan of building up the land to a higher level. The villagers say climate change affects everything they do, but they are adamant they won't move. The Fiji government likes the villagers' proactive approach and it's contributing towards more earthworks and flood protection. But the villagers say they're still short of funds for their plan, which they estimate will cost about $US1 million.