In July 2017 I went to Fiji for the Lancet Countdown Project to make a short film about the impacts of climate change on health in the Pacific. The aim of the film was to bring attention to the research the Lancet Countdown Project has been compiling about climate change and health around the world (it’s very impressive, you can access it here http://www.lancetcountdow
n.org/). Apart from being in the Pacific and vulnerable to climate change Fiji was also chosen as it was presiding over the COP23 UNFCCC Climate Change Conference.
I decided the best way to make the film would be to go somewhere climate change impacts were fairly obvious and find out how those impacts were affecting the health of local people. I found out rising sea levels were already forcing some Fijian villages to move, and that plans were underway to move the primary school in Waciwaci village on Lakeba Island, so I booked my tickets.
Lakeba Island is one of Fiji’s most remote, in the Lau Island Group, in the South East of the Fijian Archipelago. Waciwaci is a small village there of about 200 inhabitants. I spent 1 week on the island, walking to the village every morning, getting to know the residents, talking to them about the sea, the weather, their health and their plans for the future. The climate change impacts were obvious and worrying. Waciwaci is being flooded by high tides more and more every year, with more and more of the shore being washed away. Homes along the shoreline have already been moved or abandoned, and the flooding has already caused substantial damage to the primary school building. As such the government plans to move the school to higher ground in 2018 – a new location has already been picked out and construction is due to begin shortly. Everyone in the village thinks they’ll have to move in the next 10 or 20 years, and they don’t know where they’ll go. They don’t want to give up their homes.
But in terms of health? Well, turns out Waciwaci is actually one of the healthiest places I’ve ever been. The one doctor on the island reported that apart from scabies, which many of the Waciwaci children do have, nearly everyone is very healthy. And that makes sense, they grow and collect food in the forests and the sea, they have active lives, healthy diets and lots of strong social connections. There are increasingly frequent droughts on the island, making food and fresh water scarce, but when the rains return the islanders’ diets go back to normal. The impacts on health infrastructure are a significant concern – some of the nursing stations in the Lau Group are regularly flooded by seawater, and the threat of flooding means the hospital on Lakeba Island is planning for possible relocation.
So I left having learnt some valuable lessons that I’ve tried to communicate in the video. That climate change is already having substantive negative impacts in the Pacific, in terms of damage to infrastructure, an increase in extreme weather events and malnutrition, and according to the WHO by 2030 it will contribute to 250,000 more deaths each year – through increases in illnesses such as malaria, diarrhoea and heat-stress. But on the positive side, it was clear that the lifestyle the people of Waciwaci live day-to-day is actually very healthy, and definitely something we can all learn from. And finally, I found out that the people of Fiji are the friendliest on the planet and I can’t wait to go back. I hope stories like this help people realise that climate change impacts are not something that will happen in the far-off future, but are happening already. So all of us can take more action to help protect our beautiful planet and the beautiful people who live on it. Bula Vinaka Fiji!