Giving high-risk coastal communities a voice

Fiji National University Assistant Professor Amelia Turagabeci, Monash University's Dr Rohan Sweeney
Fiji National University Assistant Professor Amelia Turagabeci, Monash University's Dr Rohan Sweeney

Giving high-risk coastal communities a voice

The science of climate change is well understood, and mitigation and adaptation strategies are evolving at pace, but understanding which strategies best protect social, community and economic wellbeing are far less often explored, particularly in Pacific Island communities.

And Fiji National University Assistant Professor Amelia Turagabeci, Monash University's Dr Rohan Sweeney and their colleagues want to change that.

Over the next year, the researchers will work with Fijian communities to understand their priorities for navigating the negative impacts of climate change.

Research findings will lead to actions that allow communities, with the Fiji Government, to better react and build resilience in the face of climate change impacts on issues like health, sanitation, employment, agricultural damage, and forced migration due to rising water levels and severe weather events.

“The reality is not every desired mitigation strategy is feasible and difficult funding decisions have to be made. We use economics methods to identify what strategies communities prioritise, and also understand what trade-offs they deem most acceptable,” Dr Sweeney says.

The work is largely focused on high-risk communities in coastal areas outside the Suva urban centre, and according to Dr Turagabeci, it comes at a crucial time.

“If these issues are not addressed now, then the challenges communities face are just going to multiply. It's not only about addressing the cause, but also addressing the current impacts of climate change with an integrated management response system,” she says.

According to Dr Sweeney, it’s vital residents in these regions actively participate in the study to ensure any recommendations reflect their needs.

“Community-based development projects are much more likely to succeed when government policies and interventions are well aligned with communities’ own priorities,” Dr Sweeney says.

“There's a lot of evidence that community development interventions in water, sanitation building and infrastructure are more likely to fail in the long run because community priorities were not understood and addressed.

“Sustainable strategies for ongoing maintenance of new infrastructure is another challenge that hinges on community support.”

Dr Turagabeci agrees, saying it’s not only about community members making their priorities clear in the initial stages, but also ensuring they are involved in the entire process.

“They should be allowed to provide the solutions. If they have ownership of an activity or development in their own community, they will look after it properly,” she says.

While this is a pilot project, it’s hoped a longer and larger research piece to follow will give the Fiji Government and other development partners a clear understanding of where they could see the biggest wellbeing-enhancing impact.

“What we're trying to do is help the Fijian government and development practitioners better understand what the priorities are for communities to help them work out whether their current plans and policies are going to meet those needs and minimise the impacts of climate change,” Dr Sweeney says.