After Cyclone Pam - now what?

By Cath Taylor
UnitingWorld Communications Officer

Posted in Leadership

An interview with UnitingWorld’s Rev Seforosa Carroll

Right now, there’s another Super Cyclone howling toward tiny islands in the Pacific and the Philippines – Maysak. It’s the third this March – unseasonably late – and as a Category 5, projected to be the biggest in the Pacific since 2002. In its path are tiny communities on islands that lie only one to two metres above sea level, with no shelter or high ground. It’s less than a fortnight after Super Cyclone Pam, the ‘monster’ that all but destroyed Vanuatu and left people reeling throughout Kiribati and Tuvalu: bigger storms, more often, with greater damage due to existing sea level rises.

Resilience and recovery is one thing. Long-term response is another. Talk of climate change is back on the agenda.

Sef, increasingly we’re hearing about Pacific Islands and other parts of the world being “wiped out by climate change.” You’re UnitingWorld’s Manager for Church Connections in the Pacific and you visit regularly – is it really happening? What are we talking about exactly?

Yes, it’s happening. Some places are affected more than others – Tuvalu and Kiribati are among the most vulnerable. Rising sea levels mean that some communities in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, for example, have already been forced to resettle – they’ve moved further inland. In Tuvalu and Kiribati, everybody is affected. They’re very low lying islands and in Tuvalu there’s very little land – an aerial view of Funafuti (the main island) shows how the land mass is being consumed by the sea. There’s nowhere for people to move to. We can debate the causes but for the people who are affected, this is real. And they’re in the process of considering what it means long term not to have a home – because eventually it will disappear.

The people of the Pacific are used to changing weather patterns – heavy rains, storms, cyclones – but this is different. The frequency and ferocity of what they experience is increasing and it impacts their resilience and their ability to bounce back. When I was growing up in Fiji you’d get a bad cyclone every four to five years but people would recover and get on with their lives. This is totally different.

What do people experience on a daily basis?

It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there. We visited Tuvalu just recently and during the high tide, the water came over the sea wall and flooded the kitchen of the hotel where we were staying (Funafuti’s only hotel, by the way, and its dining area has been under water more than once before!). This wasn’t a king tide or a major storm, just high tide on a windy night. This is regular life for people in Tuvalu. They’re used to getting up, cleaning up and getting on with it. Their economy is so tiny and land so narrow that relocating further inland just isn’t an option – there’s literally hardly anywhere left to build. Of course, when the hotel was first built high tides were never a problem.

The water basin is polluted and the rising sea levels are eating their soil, so local people can’t plant their vegetables and daily crops. They have to rely on imported food – a lot of it tinned, which is unhealthy for them and adds to a serious diabetes problem, particularly in Kiribati. There’s no fresh water and everything is either from a tank, boiled or bottled. People have to be constantly aware of disease like typhoid.

There’s a resilience in the people that can be read two ways – on the one hand they refuse to be climate change victims and are stubbornly asserting that this thing won’t beat them; or they’re masking a very great anxiety about the future because this issue is so far beyond them that they simply can’t deal with it. The faith of the people falls into this category too. Almost all of the community of both Kiribati and Tuvalu belong to the Christian Church. On the one hand, they believe that God will take care of this crisis, as God has before. On the other, they are totally overwhelmed by what they experience.

Realistically, what’s the future for these places?

They’re creating the future right now – mapping the possibilities with the support of their partners. The biggest need is to engage with the issue rather than taking a hands-off approach, believing that God or someone else will take care of it. Some have already relocated to other islands, but many don’t have any resources to take that step. Some have looked at buying land (Kiribati has bought land in Fiji as a possible place to migrate to and to secure food supplies). Some will have to look at how they can adapt their lifestyle and protect themselves from the elements so they can continue to live as humanly as possible.

But our partners recognise that the future is being created right now. People are being supported to inform themselves and make choices about where they want to be, how they can survive. The receiving communities will also need support as they take on the challenge of receiving those who need hospitality – Fiji, for example, will have the difficulty of several different nationalities all sharing the one space.

What kind of problems do these countries face as they try to tackle the impact of climate change on their own?

In many cases they’re committed and want to care for their people but they just desperately lack the resources they need. If you think about Tuvalu and Kiribati, for example, they’re both tiny economies reliant almost entirely on foreign aid to stay afloat. They’re simply too small to have real autonomy. On the outer islands the people live a subsistence lifestyle – just trying to grow enough to stay alive. The church is supported almost entirely by its partners. In the midst of that it’s trying to help people understand their options and possibilities.

Money and theological training are the greatest needs. Everybody needs training – the ministers to see how God relates to all of this and how they can lead their people in an active faith response that takes seriously our care for creation as well as hope for the future. The people themselves need to be equipped to know how to adapt and they also need spiritual nurture. The challenge is that many people are stonewalling – they find the whole thing too big to handle. That’s why the need for external support is so urgent.

Why do you think Australia doesn’t want to know about climate change in general and the Pacific in particular?

My theory is that if it doesn’t affect you and you don’t experience it personally, why would you bother? People need to feel it, see it, touch it! My advice would be – go to Tuvalu! You’ll be convinced of the fact that this is changing people’s lives right now, and of the need to act. In terms of the Pacific, I think it’s been romanticised and idealised as a place we go to play and relax. The idea that it’s under threat, that people live in great poverty or suffer because of events there, is very foreign to us because we know so little about it and see it very rarely on our television screens. This makes us reluctant to give in response to campaigns that ask for help for Pacific people.

What could Uniting Church people be doing to help? Why would that be effective?

The first step is to be aware of how this affects our brothers and sisters, for whom climate change is not a political debate but a daily reality. Really, the most helpful thing for people to do is to support our campaign to support leadership during this time of change. Every dollar really goes a long way in this work. The Pacific doesn’t need to be told what or how to respond, but it desperately needs the financial resources to put plans in place. I talk to people like our Climate Desk Officer, Maina, in Tuvalu, who is committed and passionate and really wants to get things done, but he simply can’t without the money. It’s the most effective way to help because it tackles the problem at the heart – the issue of motivation for many people in the Pacific begins with their understanding of life and faith, which is where the church is so influential.

Finally, why would Christians take a special interest in this issue?

It’s a faith response – a discipleship response. We’re actually interconnected with creation, that’s at the core. Our responsibility as stewards of creation is to manage our resource well – that doesn’t just mean economies but creation itself. And our interconnectedness works in reverse – our care for creation affects how we live, our human lifespan. If we believe that the earth is a God-given gift, we need to honour that. We see creation as God’s household and managing those resources is sacred, not to be taken lightly.

The other issue of course is that we’re also connected with our brothers and sisters and creation has a major impact on them through changing climate and extreme weather events. What affects others affects us all. When we see people suffering, we are part of a global spiritual crisis that impacts every one of us. As Christians, how can we fail to make a response?

To read more about the “Leadership in a Changing Climate” project, and to give a gift that will make an immediate difference to people struggling to adapt in the midst of extreme change, please visit unitingworld.org.pacificchange


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