As an island nation where the majority of its citizens live along low-lying coastal areas, Fiji is highly exposed to climate risks such as sea level rise and inundation, recurrent tropical cyclones, floods, landslides and droughts. Climate change is projected to increase rainfall levels during Fiji’s wet season, causing more extreme rain events, and to increase the intensity of tropical cyclones and of existing high daily temperatures.

Extreme rain events and cyclones in the Pacific Ocean already cause heavy swells and contribute to flooding in low-lying coastal areas, negatively impacting local economies and livelihoods. As a result of the climate crisis, inland riverine flooding and storm surges now occur more intensely, and the likelihood of category 1 cyclones becoming a category 4 or 5 is increasing, damaging and destroying homes, businesses, infrastructure and natural areas. Agriculture is also affected by the increase in floods, cyclones and saltwater intrusion, which damages arable land and the freshwater supplies needed to maintain health and hygiene. But despite facing acute climate impacts, challenges and ranking as the 87th most vulnerable country out of 181 countries on the ND GAIN Index, Fiji is making progress on adaptation, ranking 66th when it comes to adaptation readiness.  

To face its climate risks, Fiji’s strong government institutions are coordinating adaptation activities across a wide range of stakeholders to make adaptation measures like this possible. Fiji’s Climate Change Division (CCD), within the Office of the Prime Minister (formerly under the Ministry of Economy, is the agency responsible for coordinating implementation of the National Climate Change Policy. Fiji’s National Climate Change Policy includes 160 adaptation measures across 10 sectors, which are reflected in the National Adaptation Plan. Part of its mandate is to ensure vertical and horizontal integration of climate risks through interlinking adaptation efforts across multiple sectors and stakeholders. To achieve vertical integration requires creating intentional strategic linkages between national and subnational government levels, while horizonal integration or mainstreaming involves adaptation being integrated across all economic sectors and governmental units.

The Ministry of Waterways and Environment, with support from Fiji’s coastal communities, has been an important player in implementing Fiji’s National Adaptation Plan, finalized in 2021. Among the key initiatives is the hybrid seawalls strategy: an ingenious combination of human-made and nature-based solutions to protect the coast against the encroaching ocean. Mangroves are planted as the first line of defense, followed by a wall built out of locally-sourced boulders, and then vetiver grass is cultivated behind the wall for extra protection. These measures protect against coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, preventing the need for community relocation and safeguarding the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen.

Monitoring, Evaluating and Learning from Adaptation Action

In conjunction with the United Nations Satellite Center (UNOSAT), the CCD has been trackng adaptation through monitoring tools like geographic information systems (GIS), which track past and on-going projects across the country such as the aforementioned hybrid seawalls. This data is used to develop a national adaptation registry database to take inventory of past and ongoing adaptation initiatives.

Nature-based seawalls
Monitoring adaptation projects in Fiji using GIS, Fiji Climate Change Division, UNITAR, UNOSAT. 

Fiji’s government is also deploying the Adaptation Impact Analysis Tool (AIAT), which was developed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). This analysis profiles four types of village-level adaptation projects including floodgates, seawalls and other coastal protection methods such as canal drainage, and the diversification of crops and seafood produce. The CCD’s goal in monitoring and evaluating adaptation efforts at the village level is “to learn from the past and prepare for the future.” Through this analysis tool and by working together with several technical and regional partners, the CCD evaluates the impact of each intervention has been for the intended beneficiary communities, thereby capturing the investment value of these measures.

A Participatory Approach that Emphasizes Working with Local Partners

Fiji’s adaptation policy follows a ten-step process that combines scientific assessment with community consultation through a local coordination unit, using a participatory approach that ensures that the priorities, experiences and needs of the community in question are reflected in planning. The local coordination channel of government ministries encourages and facilitates vertical integration, promoting  consensus among all relevant local partners and community elders.

This process includes an adaptation survey that was administered in 17 villages and communities seeking assistance from the state to adapt to climate impacts, assessing exposure, vulnerability, resource needs, capacity and other issues. The survey focused on communities most susceptible to sea level rise and coastal or riverine inundation and therefore urgently in need of adaptation interventions such as sea walls or riverbank stabilization. To supplement the survey findings, local partners and ministries collected baseline data and used GIS tools to create models on hazards and exposure and identify vulnerability indicators.

Community-led Climate-induced Relocation 

Coping and adapting to immediately disruptive climate impacts is a common reality for many Fijians and a major task for institutions. Since the first village relocation in Vunidogoloa to higher ground due to sea-level rise in 2012, Fiji has developed the Standard Operating Procedure for Planned Relocations, which systematically addresses the relocation of communities identified as being at immediate risk of inundation. 

Fiji is a global adaptation leader not only for applying a comprehensive process to adapt to climate-induced inundation, but also for centering culturally-sensitive social engagement as a major tenet of community-led resilience building. According to Fiji’s guidelines on relocation, “Only when necessary, voluntary, planned relocation, initiated by the affected communities and organized by government, should take place in close and continued consultation with all the affected communities at every stage of the process.” The Talanoa Dialogue principles of inclusive decision-making guide the community consultation protocol, as part of the common understanding that locally-led approaches and community ownership are critical in ensuring that projects are inclusive, sustainable and regenerative for the communities in question. 

Still, relocation is the last resort. A community’s request for relocation initiates a multi-phase assessment of the need and urgency for relocation. This triggers a scoping exercise of the locality alongside a comprehensive community assessment of climate hazards and vulnerability to assess risk levels against a risk threshold to determine whether these risks can be addressed through adaptation measures. The Office of the Divisional Commissioners then administers a survey to the affected communities to explore various adaptation interventions and strategies to determine whether it is possible to preserve the community in its original locality or advise the taskforce of the community’s need to relocate.

If it is deemed that adaptation cannot adequately address the community’s concerns, the ministry confirms the request to relocate. Community consensus and participation are central in decision making, including in all stages of relocation planning as well as funding and procurement arrangements for the requested intervention.

The village of Cogea — where tropical cyclones have washed away houses and inundated them with floodwaters for years — is the latest community to finalize its relocation to land at a higher elevation three kilometers from the existing village. For community elders, leaving behind their cultural and ancestral heritage sites is not easy, but ultimately, the collective decision was made to protect people’s safety and livelihoods, and those of future generations. Although normally state-led, relocation is a multi-stakeholder effort; Cogea’s relocation is being financed by Bread for World, an international philanthropic organization, and the facilitated by Fiji Council of Social Services, a key institution that assists communities throughout the process.

Fiji’s National Climate Finance Strategy lays out a whole-of-society blueprint for Fiji to ensure a secure future for villages like Cogea while moving toward a net-zero, climate-resilient economy. Bilateral and multilateral financing for community-based adaptation must be aligned with this strategy.  In June 2019, the Parliament of the Republic of Fiji enacted the Climate Relocation of Communities (CROC) Trust Fund to provide a dedicated source of financing for the planned relocation of communities. It combines resources from a variety of sources to fund this complex task.

Other nations and adaptation practitioners of all levels can look to Fiji’s example of successfully enacting adaptation strategies to defend communities, the land and the economy against the encroaching impacts of climate change. As a steering committee member of the Adaptation Action Coalition, Fiji leads by example, sharing with peer nations models, information and strategies needed to accelerate action towards a more climate resilient world by 2030.