Maldives foreign minister calls on world to stand with Fiji

From Climate Home

By Dunya Maumoon

Today Fiji will make a formal appeal to international donors for assistance in rebuilding after being hit by one of the strongest tropical storms in history.

Cyclone Winston, which slammed into the Pacific Island nation on 19 February is just the latest in a series of extreme weather events to impact small island nations.

But, even by in a world increasingly accustomed to “super storms,” Winston stands out. It formed between Fiji and Vanuatu eight days prior to landfall and followed a circuitous path that surprised veteran meteorologists and computer models alike.

Travelling over waters fuelled by strong El Niño conditions, with sea surface temperatures at times in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, the storm skirted Tonga on 17 February.

It tore off roofs off houses and causing widespread flooding before turning back on itself as a Category 4 storm and crossing by the island again on its way toward Fiji—building in strength with every rotation.

By the time it hit, winds were clocked in excess of 300 kilometers per hour, the strongest ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

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When it was over, 42 people were dead and at least US$486 million in damage had been inflicted, roughly 10 percent of Fiji’s GDP or the equivalent of 15 Hurricane Katrinas hitting the United States at once.1

Before and after Cyclone Winston we heard the familiar refrain: though it is impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change, most scientists agree that storms will become more powerful as global temperatures rise.

But, while I can appreciate using caution when discussing complex meteorological phenomenon, we must not lose sight of the big picture.

In the past year since Maldives became chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 44 island and low-lying coastal nations, we have witnessed one record storm after the other: Cyclone Pam, Typhoon Maysak, Hurricane Patricia, and Hurricane Joaquin, to name a few.

Kolora, 26, holds her daughter Semaima, 2, in what is left of her home in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston in Rakiraki district in Ra province in Fiji (Pic: UNICEF)

Kolora, 26, holds her daughter Semaima, 2, in what is left of her home in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston in Rakiraki district in Ra province in Fiji (Pic: UNICEF)

It also happened to be the warmest year on record. I think that is more than enough evidence to conclude that these are not isolated events.

We may not be able to predict exactly when or where they will strike but we know that there is a new paradigm with storms along the world’s tropical belt, which happens to be the latitudes of the AOSIS membership.

We also know that small islands are particularly vulnerable to impacts given our low elevations, small size, and geographic isolation. Climate change is happening and we have a long way to go to prepare for the new realities of life in a warming world.

However, that is not to say that we don’t know how to get ready. In fact, if not for the early warning systems and emergency plans Fiji had in place before Winston came ashore, the death and destruction likely would have been far worse.

And the Paris climate change agreement (set for signing in April), the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (which is now being operationalised), and the SAMOA Pathway for sustainable development in Small Island Developing States all contain strong calls for disaster preparedness.

But full implementation for these processes remains elusive and powerful storms aren’t going away any time soon, no matter how quickly we cut the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

Makelesi, 7, standing in destoryed library of Nabau District School in Ra Province, Fiji. The photo is picture perfect in a very odd way with– bright blue skies and very sunny, however, Mother Nature is a force not to be reckoned with – it only took Cyclone Winston literally minutes to rip off the roof of this classroom. Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji on Saturday 20 February, continuing its path of destruction into Sunday 21 February. A state of natural disaster and a nationwide curfew had been declared by the Government of Fiji earlier in the evening. In the wake of Cyclone Winston, UNICEF's main concern is for children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers across Fiji. Little is yet known about the status of communities living on the outer islands of Fiji that were directly under the eye of Tropical Cyclone Winston- as communications remain down for many. The Fijian Government is rapidly working to assess the overall situation in order to pinpoint the critical needs. The Fijian Government has declared a state of natural disaster for the next 30 days and has initiated the clean-up process by clearing the huge amounts of debris scattered everywhere. UNICEF staff members are standing by to assist as required.

Makelesi, 7, standing in destroyed library of Nabau District School in Ra Province, Fiji (Pic: UNICEF)

I learned first hand after the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the Maldives in 2004, how critical timely international assistance is to making countries impacted by catastrophe whole again.

I also learned how strong our people are in the face of adversity.

In the days after Cyclone Winston, when damage assessment crews were fanned out across Fiji, a striking image emerged of a scene of near total destruction on one of the country’s islands: In the foreground, houses were levelled and debris covered the sand.

Behind that, among a stand of coconuts, Fiji’s flag was flying. We are stronger than these disasters. With help, Fiji and islands around the world can prepare for the new realities of climate change and build back better when disaster strikes.

Dunya Maumoon is Foreign Minister for the Maldives, which chairs the Alliance of Small Island States