Photographing Fiji’s Sinking Island Communities

Climate change is literally washing low-lying seaside villages away.

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Mar 17 2015, 2:20pm

The remains of a house on Kubulau peninsula in Karoko that was flooded during high tides and then subsequently removed. January 2015. All images by Jeff Tan.

The customary Fijian greeting, bula, doesn't mean "hi" or "how's it going?" It means "life," and while that may sound quaint, it's also bittersweet given Fiji is sinking.

The island nation's low-lying seaside villages are bearing the brunt of climate change. A year after being the first community to be relocated due to encroaching seas, the villagers of Vunidogoloa are relieved to be away from the surging tides that would flood their township after their sea wall failed. The village was moved a mile and change up a hill on land that the village previously used for crops.

Other threatened areas include the Kubulau peninsula of Karoko, as well as Vunisavisavi, where the sea water reaches their doorsteps when tides are particularly high. Nukui village, an hour's boat trip from the capital, is protected for the time being by a sea wall, while on the other side of the village, the tide causes the river to burst its banks.

According to scientists including [rofessor Elisabeth Holland, author and director of the Pacific Center for Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific, the sea has risen faster over the past decade than at any time in the last century. "By mid century, on the current emissions trajectory, sea level is projected to rise an additional 30 millimeters [two inches] for a total sea level rise of about a half a meter [one and a half feet]," she told VICE.

Spending time photographing these communities, their reactions to the crisis were mixed. Some were frustrated that various NGOs had come and discussed relocation but nothing had come of it. The sense of who was to blame also varied. Some villagers weren't aware of the causes of climate change, only that it was happening. The more educated ones, such as the teachers, knew where emissions were coming from and how this was affecting the climate.

Pacific Islanders, however, are not ones to complain. This is particularly true of the villagers I spoke with, who were very laid back and cheerful people. These attributes, as well as their resilience, will be tested as the waters continue to rise.

For more on climate change and how it affect sea levels, watch our new VICE HBO episode, "Our Rising Oceans."

Simione Botu, the village chief, takes a break from attending to crops in Vunidogoloa, which was relocated more than a mile away and up a hill from the old village sit. that suffered from constant flooding due to sea level rise caused by climate change. "We couldn't plant crops there because of the sea level rise," he said. "Our ancestors were on that foundation, but now, in our time, it was better to shift than to stay because of the situation we faced," January 2015.

A house in the old Vunidogoloa village that was relocated due to rising sea levels. "The sea level rise brings water to all of the village," said Sailosi Ramata. He recounted a story of how one of the old men returned to the old Vunidogoloa site after the relocation. He wanted to be left to die there. January 2015.

Elizabeth, the granddaughter of the Turaga ni Koro (head man of the village), Sailosi Ramata, who was worried that there would be danger to the small children from the surging tides throughout the village. January 2015.

Children play on a mud slide they made in the new Vunidogoloa village. January 2015.

Iowane Qiolevu and Mereoni Siga with their children. They worry that the eroding coastline will eventually claim their house, which sits on the edge of the Kubulau peninsula in Karoko village. They are in favor of relocating to higher ground. January 2015.

Lusiana Driti (left) inspects the surge of water generated at high tide that surrounds her house. She's with her children, as their grandmother Serea Diiva looks on. January 2015.

Chief Milio Mara of the Kubulau peninsula of Karoko village points to a buoy and explains that this is where the land extended to when he was younger. This section of the village has lost six of its 12 acres. January 2015.

The remnants of a house that was flooded during high tides on the shores of Kubulau peninsula in Karoko village. It was subsequently removed. January 2015.

Vasiti perches on a fallen tree in Vunisavisavi. Its were exposed by coastal erosion, where sea level rise due to climate change is a contributing factor. January 2015

Usaia Sovakalia and Lavinia Kakua have three children, including Usaia junior (pictured). They live in Vunisavisavi and are concerned that the house that was passed on to them from Lavinia’s father will be swept away with a high tide. They are in favor of relocating to higher ground.

Children play on the sea wall of Nukui, which holds the tide at bay for the moment. It is prone to leaks and when combined with high tide and a storm, is overcome by the sea water, flooding sections of the village. The cement is donated by an NGO and the village contributes by gathering the stone required for construction. “If we hadn’t built the sea wall, the village would be no more, washed away," said Rusiate Goweva, the head man of the village. February 2015.

Young Rusty stands in the water brought into Nukui village by the Rewa river, which merges with the high tide from the sea to flood sections of the village. February 2015.

At low tide, on Turaga island, next to Nukui village, it is evident that the sea wall has failed. Gowe, walks among coconut trees that have died from the salinization of the land. February 2015.

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