On 20 February 2016, Fiji was hit by Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston — one of the largest cyclones the nation has ever experienced. Over a 24-hour period Winston left a trail of destruction along its path through the middle of the country.
The Fiji Government immediately announced a 30-day state of emergency, calling for coordinated assistance from non-government organisations (NGOs), the private sector, and humanitarian aid agencies for the 40,000 people that needed immediate assistance. Across the country 44 people lost their lives. Some 30,000 homes, 495 schools, and 88 medical facilities were damaged or destroyed.
The cyclone destroyed food and agricultural crops on a large scale and impacted the livelihoods of 62 percent of the population.
Here in Honolulu at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress, I have been engaging with other practitioners who are starting to look at the relationships between disasters and biodiversity and how to better integrate the environment into disaster recovery to provide resilient solutions. As environmental NGOs we acknowledge it is challenging for us as to find our niche and fit when a disaster strikes and the most urgent need is not conservation, but water, food, shelter, and sanitation.
But in a world where issues can get easily siloed, we are going to have to figure out how to bring the agencies that deal with disasters and disaster risk reduction together with those of us working on the protection and sustainable use of our natural resources. By pooling our organizational strengths, we can build resilient ecosystems that support local communities and national economies. For instance, we need to bring groups that work on disaster risk reduction together with those of us that work on climate change.
So closer to home, what have we been doing? In Fiji, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) has been working with local communities in Bua Province to develop ridge to reef management plans that incorporate ecosystem based management principles. Two weeks ago four districts launched these management plans, which include networks of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine protected areas and best management practices.
In collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and partners, WCS has quantified the impact of Cyclone Winston on fisheries-dependent communities. We assessed the impact on fishing infrastructure (e.g. boats, engines and gear) to provide a monetary estimate to government to guide recovery efforts, estimated village dependence on local fisheries to determine the impact on food security and livelihoods, and identified the villages that may need alternative livelihood initiatives to reduce the impact on recovering fisheries.
A report, to be launched shortly, provides guidance to the Fiji Government and development agencies on where to target limited resources to support the recovery of the most vulnerable and impacted fishing-dependent communities in Fiji. And working with government, academic and NGO partners, WCS recently completed an Integrated Vulnerability Assessment (IVA) on Koro Island to quantify the vulnerability of communities and their resources to cyclones, other natural disasters, and to climate change.
The assessment is being used by the Climate Change Division under the Ministry of Economy to guide discussions around the relocation of communities to safer locations on the island, as well as to take an integrated approach to address five critical areas of importance for the people of Koro: food security, human health, water security, ecosystems health, and energy security.
Extreme events like Cyclone Winston are likely to become more frequent if we cannot make significant progress globally to address climate change. But those of us in the Pacific cannot afford to wait. We need to ensure that protecting the environment is a core part of reducing our risk to natural disasters and climate change.
Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai is Country Director for the Fiji program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).