Passing the Test

Koro, Kiribati, and Climate Change


At first they could see next to nothing. It was about nine in the morning. The rain had started and a blast of wind spewed off from the sea. It kicked up dirt and dust; it bent many of the island’s slender palm trees to a sickening angle to the ground, as if punched sideways. For a moment, they said, they couldn’t even see from their door across the street. A neighbor would later say that it had looked just like that: a ball of black, a darkness, cartwheeling down the road.

At around five in the evening the storm passed and the winds quit. And for the first time that day, they could see. There were 63 houses in Nabasovi Village, on Fiji’s Koro Island. All but three had been stripped bare.

When Tropical Cyclone Winston slammed into Fiji on February 20th, 2015, it was the strongest storm ever to have made landfall in the country. Forty-four Fijians were killed. There was worry that airborne disease like dengue fever would spread. Billions of dollars of property — homes, farms, schools, businesses — had been badly damaged or decimated.

The home of Samuela Ratulele, Nabasovi’s village headman, had once faced the ocean, not more than a few feet from the water. Eight months after Winston, hardly any of his house remained.

“All the roof, gone,” Ratulele said, gesturing to the platform where his house had stood. “All the concrete, all the clothes and all the things inside … It was very dangerous on that day.”

Samuela Ratulele

In September, when I visited, Ratulele lived with his family in a tent hung from within another gutted house nearby — this one, at least, with four standing walls. “We’re just waiting for the government to bring all the stuff to build housing before the hurricane season,” Ratulele said. “It will maybe take a long time to build a house like this again.”

I’d come to Koro from Kiribati, a small island nation three hours north of Fiji by plane. At its widest, the nation’s main island was no larger than a soccer field; the highest point, a bump in the road. And soon Kiribati would have to move. A cocktail of the more lethal impacts of climate change — extreme drought and rising seas — seemed to doom the islands to an uninhabitable future. What was to be done? In 2012, under President Anote Tong, Kiribati purchased roughly 6,000 acres of land on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu. The land, Tong said, was earmarked for future resettlement.

Tong’s plan — called “migration with dignity” — struck a note of reason. Life on Kiribati was difficult. But it wasn’t yet impossible: no mass migration had occurred; somehow, folks made ends meet. If Kiribati was a disaster, it was or would be a disaster deferred and slow in the making. Unlike Koro Island, Kiribati at least had time to prepare.

South Tarawa, Kiribati

Nasou Village faced the open Pacific on Koro’s eastern side. At around 400 people, it had been the largest of Koro’s 14 villages and, with one post-office and police station, the de-facto administrative hub. Winston’s repercussions there were particularly severe. Nabasovi, to the west, survived rain and bad winds. Nasou was flattened by a thirty foot tidal wave. All 90 of the village’s houses had been destroyed or badly damaged. Eight months after the storm, like their neighbors in Nabasovi, Nasou’s villagers were housed in tents or beneath plastic tarpaulin.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. So much immediate aid had flooded Koro after the storm that Itu Josiah, disaster officer for Fiji Red Cross, had no initial plans to visit the island. But that was before Josiah received a report, some five months later, which revealed that Koro’s residents still lived in temporary shelters.

“What could I do?” he said. So he went.

“The feeling of a disaster on the first day was still here,” Josiah said, remembering his arrival. “Just broken-up, damaged houses, and these little tents.”

Fiji’s government had promised hardware materials to help Winston’s victims rebuild. But high demand for lumber and construction know-how on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, had led to a scarcity of materials on the more remote Koro. With the start of a new cyclone season looming, and promised material aid from Fiji’s government absent or slow in arriving, Nasou’s residents had taken it upon themselves to rebuild.

Nasou, Koro Island, Fiji

On the hills that tower behind Nasou, the arms of whitish trees leap from the brush. From the road they look like wisps of lightning, bolted to the ground.

“Most of the trees have died because of Cyclone Winston,” an old man explained, leaning on the door of his truck. A group of men from Nasou had come to harvest the dead trees for lumber. Each tree was felled and then, with an industrial saw lugged up the hill, fashioned into long planks. With this wood, they would build 100 new houses in Nasou.

As the men carried planks to the truck, the older man kept me company. “I’m 70 years old now,” he said. He had lived in Nasou all his life. “This is the first time I’ve seen a big tidal wave,” he went on. “It was about thirty feet high.”

On the trip up there had been friendly chatter, some joking. The older man, who sat beside me, had hummed along with what played on the radio. There was silence on our return. Visible from the hill was was what had once been Nasou, by the sea and far below.

Nasou, Koro Island, Fiji

In August, I sat with Kiribati’s Anote Tong as we talked over what could be done for his country. The problem was grave. “Whether we like it or not,” Tong explained, “we are the test case… The question is whether the international community will pass its test. And passing that test either means we survive or we don’t survive as a sovereign nation.”

The village, Naviavia, descended a lush valley. In appearance Naviavia seemed to be like any other small Fijian community. Then I noticed that tauruplin blanketed one roof, then another, and another beyond that. I turned to my host, a relative of the Naviavia headman.

“Did T.C. Winston reach Naviavia?”

“Oh, yes. “ He stopped and shook his head. “Oh, it was very bad on that day.”

Naviavia, Fiji

As the world warms, climate change is predicted to displace millions of people. It is already doing so.

Whether it caused Tropical Cyclone Winston directly, whether it instigated the damage to Ratulele’s house, stripping Koro’s trees bare — this is no easy thing to prove. But what is certain is that storms like Winston will increase in force and in frequency. Like Samuela Ratulele, more will lose their homes. More will move. Some will move because of quick-onset natural disaster, hurricanes and flooding that surge and pass in a day. Others will move because of disasters less evident — the incremental, grinding pressures of drought, water shortage, crop failure. Then there are those who will move because their island, all of it, will have vanished.

Climate change is more than a cause for migration: for Pacific island nations, as for much of the world, it shapes a context that is unavoidable. No matter how wide the sweep of international protections, no matter how humane the resettlement process, the problem would stand. Climate change remains. And so even in the best case, if all went to plan, Kiribati would run from one symptom of the problem — rising seas — smack into another on Fiji.

Which is why the dilemmas of climate change cut to a concern deeper than any hand-wringing for polar bears and glaciers. For there’s no ignoring the plain fact: climate change disproportionately burdens those least responsible for its inception. It wears an injustice on its face. Kiribati and Koro are forced to adjust because we — in America, in Europe — won’t. What, then, would pass the test?

I think about my friends on Koro Island. Sometimes I visualize the houses they have or don’t have, at this point, the houses they deserve. I ask myself if it had to happen as it did. And as I do, it’s made clear. What would pass the test is nothing less than what the slogans demand: Keep it in the ground. Fossil free. A just transition.

Because anything less would fall short. Because climate change can upturn the lives of ordinary people. Because, despite all this, it can be avoided. Whether it is avoided or not — this is the test we must pass. And it matters very much that we do.

North Tarawa, Kiribati

Support was provided by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Each year, the Watson funds twelve months of independent travel and study for young people of “unusual promise.” Interviews featured here were recorded for a podcast set for release in September 2017.

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