‘First line of defence’: mangroves – and mitigation – lost in Fiji’s tourism development | Pacific islands

Spread the love

In the crook of a river near the west coast of Fiji sits Yavusania village. One day soon, if nothing is done to help, residents fear it will disappear. The threat is most obvious along the water’s edge, where successive flash floods have surged up a river once sheltered by mangrove forests, chewing away metres of soil and sand so trees left behind are held up by only a handful of roots.

Epeli Turuva, a 48-year-old community leader in Yavusania, sits near the weathered concrete foundations of an old home, half of which appears to have collapsed into the water below. It is not the only house to have done so: four other buildings have also collapsed during floods over the last few years, the most recent of which hit in March.

Turuva worries his home will be next. “I don’t want to move,” he says. “Our land is rich, and our community is very close-knit. It’s hard to imagine life without this village.”

Epeli Turuva stands a few feet behind his home and points to where his plantation used to be.
Epeli Turuva stands a few feet behind his home and points to where the river banks have been affected by flooding and storm surges. Photograph: Viniana Vuibau/The Guardian

Yavusania is on the edge of the Fijian town of Nadi. Over the past four decades, at least 54 floods have surged through Nadi, damaging homes, businesses and displacing thousands of people, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). At the same time, Fiji has allowed tourism developers to clear the mangrove forests nearby that once limited the damage caused by floods – leaving Yavusania more vulnerable to environmental disaster.

The thick, curling roots of mangroves are not picturesque and obstruct access to the water, but they play a vital role in nature and for communities. Shipra Shah, assistant professor of forestry at Fiji National University, explains that mangroves are the “first line of defence” against floods in Fiji as they shield residents from storm surges and disperse flash floods as they flow through rivers.

“People don’t realise that if you’re destroying mangroves, you’re making the climate issue worse,” Shah says.

Building a tourist paradise

In recent decades, Fiji has seized on tourism as a pathway to economic development. “The strategy is all about presenting Fiji as a Pacific paradise to get more tourists into the country,” says Andreas Neef, professor of development studies at the University of Auckland.

According to a report by the UNDRR, as part of that strategy, in the 1980s and 1990s Fiji began offering international hotel chains an “attractive package of incentives, including tax-free status for 20 years” to encourage them to invest in Denarau Island, several kilometres west of Nadi.

As hotels signed up for places within the resort, developers cleared hundreds of acres of land. Despite being “a very effective natural buffer” against storms and floods, the UNDRR report found that much of the mangroves were destroyed “as these plants interfered with tourists’ access to the sea and did not mesh with the new vision of a highly manicured landscape.”

Denarau Island was transformed into a tourist hub with a collection of five-star hotels operated by brands including Marriott, Hilton and Wyndham, as well as an 18-hole golf course, shopping malls and a marina.

Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa in Denarau Island. For a series about tourism in the Pacific
Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa in Denarau Island. Photograph: Viniana Vuibau/The Guardian

Neeraj Chadha, Marriott’s Pacific Islands vice president, says the hotel chain is “as good as anyone could be in the sustainability space.” Chadha says Marriott, which also owns the Sheraton brand of hotels, often participates in mangrove planting efforts and notes: “We have done a lot with the community, ranging from employment to putting a farm together.” He adds that after recent floods, Marriott provided sheets, mattresses and financial aid to affected residents.

Hilton, Wyndham and Sofitel did not respond to questions.

‘Vital’ to mitigating climate change

Government data indicates that tourists to Fiji spend almost half their time in Denarau, Nadi and the nearby Mamanuca Islands, which has made the region an economic powerhouse. Tourism now contributes almost 40% to Fiji’s GDP.

Between 2000 and 2018, a study found that 120 hectares of mangroves were destroyed by tourism development in Ba province, where Nadi is located: a third of all mangrove deforestation in the region.

The study, published in the Environmental Challenges journal, notes mangroves “store disproportionate amounts of carbon … and protect coastal communities against the impacts of tropical cyclones.” It adds: “They are therefore vital in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

Mangroves seen in the area around Denarau.
Mangroves in the area around Denarau. The plants act as a natural buffer against storms and floods. Photograph: Viniana Vuibau/The Guardian

Meanwhile, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2019 that people in Nadi “are already being affected by climate change” and noted that both extreme rainfall and flooding have become more frequent in recent decades.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said of the 84 floods to hit Nadi since 1870, at least 54 have occurred in the last four decades. Two of the most damaging floods to hit Nadi occurred in 2012, killing at least eight people and forcing 15,000 to evacuate.

map of fiji

The UNDRR report said while the area around Denarau has always been flood-prone, in recent years “the incidence of severe floods has increased remarkably”. The growing frequency and impact of these floods “may be considered partially an effect of climate change”, said the UNDRR report, “but the Denarau development can also be considered a key aggravating factor”.

Mangrove deforestation around Denarau “could be a contributing factor” to more damaging flooding, agrees Nezbitt Hazelman, the general manager of Denarau Corporation, which manages the island. “That’s common sense.” Hazelman says, however, that the development has been a net positive given the economic activity it has generated. Many villagers in Nadi support the development, which has brought significant numbers of jobs to the region.

Vulnerable to disaster

In 2016, the Fijian government proposed a flood alleviation plan for Nadi, including widening nearby rivers, improving drainage and constructing several dykes. In 2022, Fiji began to dredge some local rivers to try and address the issue, but Fiji’s former economy minister told the country’s parliament that year the pandemic had significantly delayed the wider alleviation project, which remains largely in the planning stage. Fiji’s minister for tourism and minister for waterways did not respond to requests for comment.

The hanging roots of a tree on the banks of the Nadi river in Yavusania village.
Hanging tree roots on the banks of the Nadi River in Yavusania village. Photograph: Viniana Vuibau/The Guardian

In the meantime, little has been done to protect the villages. In 2019, the ADB found: “Despite the high frequency and consequent damage caused by floods, only small scale bank protection and small retention dams have been constructed [and] a systematic flood management plan for the Nadi River catchment is yet to be implemented.”

Without new protections, Nadi will remain highly vulnerable. Much of the settlement lies six metres below sea level. During the flooding in March, water inundated the central part of Nadi and surged into buildings. At the time, Nadi town council’s CEO said the flood waters forced 80% of businesses to close.

Meresiana Ubitu points at the river that widens every year on the banks of the Nadi river in Yavusania village.
Meresiana Ubitu points at the river that widens every year on the banks of the Nadi River. Photograph: Viniana Vuibau/The Guardian

Meanwhile, from the riverbank in Yavusania, Meresiana Ubitu, another resident, watches the water that threatens her home.

“Within the last five years, four families have lost their houses to soil erosion, swept away by the flood,” Ubitu says.

“We’re wondering why this is happening. We never used to have this problem before, so why now?” And she asks: “Who will help us?”

Source link