Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister and Attorney General, Aiyaz Saiyed Khaiyum today launched the first regional joint meeting of the Pacific Platform for Disaster Risk Management and the Pacific Climate Change Roundtable in Nadi’s Sofitel, Fiji Resort and Spa.
In essence, this gathering acknowledges that climate change is occurring and that it clearly has the potential to cause natural disasters. It’s incumbent on all Pacific countriesto acknowledge the risk and take the necessary precautions.
We all know that an international debate rages about climate change and its causes. The majority scientific opinion has it that much of the change is due to human activity, carbon dioxide emissions causing global warming.
The minority scientific opinion – from the so-called climate sceptics – has it that global warming is a natural phenomenon, our planet warming and cooling over long periods in a cycle over which we have no control.
From where we all sit in the Pacific, that climate change debate may be interesting but it is largely moot. We are clearly not in the ranks of the world’s principal carbon emitters. Whilst the debate between the advanced industrialised countries and those in developing countries with advanced economies continues, we in the Pacific are at the cold face of climate change.
We have to work together with other nations to exert influence in global forums such as the United Nations to try to focus attention on the need for immediate action to radically reduce emissions.
Because whatever the cause of climate change – man-made or cyclical – there’s no denying that the planet is warming and the most prudent course of action is for the international community to try to arrest it by setting binding emission targets.
That warming, of course, is affecting us here in the Pacific more than most.
Indeed, whole countries – such as Tuvalu and Kiribati – are at risk as ice caps melt and sea levels rise to unprecedented heights.
Some of these countries are already preparing for a doomsday scenario in which their islands are eventually submerged and their populations have to be moved to higher ground elsewhere.
As many of you will know, Kiribati has actually bought 6000 acres of land in Vanua Levu – Fiji’s second biggest island – to guarantee its food security as its own arable land is swamped by rising tides.
It’s a sobering thought indeed when we start talking about the need to prepare for a scenario in which the nation of Kiribati largely exists within the borders of Fiji.
So there is no doubting the grave situation that we all face in this region. Which is why collectively, the Pacific island nations have begun to seriously assess the risk of climate change and lobby heavily internationally to put it at the forefront of the global agenda.
At the United Nations, Fiji is leading the push by PSIDS – the Pacific Small Island Developing States – to get the international community to take the issue more seriously.
For us, climate change isn’t some arcane debating point. The rising seas around us mean that for some of the smallest island nations, their very existence is at stake.
In short, we badly need the international community to stop talking about climate change and start acting. The days of global gabfests that expend hot air and little else are over. We need a concerted global effort to tackle the problem before – in our case – it’s too late.
And in the meantime, we must all strive to assess the risks, and to put in place concrete measures to deal with climate change and its impact on our peoples.
Which is what this conference is ultimately about. We need an integrated approach at a regional level to deal with today’s challenges. And we need to prepare for whatever challenges we may ultimately have to face, especially if the global community as a whole continues to drag its feet.
Rising sea levels, of course, are one thing. By far the most pressing immediate issueis the manner in which climate change is already producing wild extremes in our weather, including an increase in the number of hurricane strength cyclones.
In the Pacific, We are now seeing an average of four such events each year. And the wave heights of recent cyclones have exceeded even the projections ofclimate change models.
The destructive force of these events is something to which we can all personally attest. I certainly don’t need to explain to ordinary Fijians that we are especially vulnerable to the national disasters that we are becoming more and more convinced are being caused by climate change.
Last year, Fiji declared a state of disaster over flooding and landslides that killed at least six people and displaced many thousands more. Over 8,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centresorganised by Government through the National Disaster Management Office. We had a repeat event with Hurricane Evan earlier this year, though mercifully without loss of life.
The impact of flooding was especially felt here in Nadi and nearby areas in Western Fiji. Roads were inundated, the water supply was severed, communications and power were disrupted, farms and the food supply were damaged, shops and schools were closed, every aspect of life was affected.
A similar event occurred in 2009. While we cannot scientifically prove that the stronger impact was directly due to climate change, we know from the evidence that disasters in Fiji and the rest of region are becoming more intense and probably more frequent.
It’s estimated that natural disasters have directly affected more than 3.4 million in the region since 1950, not including Papua New Guinea, and led to the deaths of more than 1,700 people.
I’m told that ten of the fifteen most extreme events reported over the past half a century have occurred in the last 15 years. Can we expect more? Clearly, the answer must be yes.What should our collective response be at the regional, national and local levels? That is the task facing you all at this gathering.
As I ranged over the program of speakers this week, I was struck by the broad scope of these deliberations. Everything from the risks posed to agriculture by climate change to the way hotels can best deal with the threat of tsunamis. How Fiji’s disaster management team dealt effectively with the ravages of Hurricane Evan to the role of the media in educating the wider public about the issues we face.
In formulating an integrated Disaster Risk Management plan, I would urge you all
to bear in mind some important principles to address the challenges we all face as Pacific nations.
As always, our resources are limited and we need a holistic approach to problem solving that is practical, affordable and involves a close partnership between Government, the business community and civil society groups.
We also need to strike a balance between the urgent need to mitigate against the effects of climate change and the economic capability of Pacific Small Island Statesto do so.
We will need outside financial assistance to tackle this most serious of threats andwe deserveit. Because after all, if we are to assume that global warming is human-made, or exacerbated by humans,we in the Pacific are clearly not to blame. We are victims of the big carbon emitters and natural justice alone dictates that they should carry the burden of the problems they have created.
The quest for an integrated response is one of the most important challenges we all face. Because aside from the threat to life and limb and the massive disruption these events cause, they are crippling our economies and retarding our development.