Living with the effects of climate change: Cyclone Yasa

André Klaassen
26 December 2020

Last week, Fiji was struck by one of the strongest cyclones on record. Cyclone Yasa entered the Fijian Isles on Thursday the 17th of December carrying heavy rainfall and wind speeds measuring a soaring 345km/h. While the damage is yet to be fully assessed, at least 600,000 people in the South Pacific are reported to have been directly affected by Yasa. By now, the storm has passed. But its devastating blow will carry consequences for years to come. 

Four years after cyclone Winston, the biggest and costliest storm on record in the Southern hemisphere, Fiji is again facing the devastation of what is deemed a direct correlation to climate change. Cyclones are born and nurtured in warm waters, which is why they are common in the South Pacific. In fact, the cyclone season is a natural part of the South Pacific weather patterns, where its warm waters are natural breeding grounds for cyclones. Yet, the increasing strength and frequency of cyclones are far beyond the normality of the region. 

View of the Pacific Ocean from a Fijian coastal village on a beautiful calm day. A row of palm trees serve as the only protection against coastal erosion, wind, and waves.

Cyclones and Climate Change
Tropical cyclones typically feed off warm waters, using heat as an energy source. Once cyclones move over colder surfaces, such as colder water or land, they lose touch with their power source and weaken. As oceanic temperatures rise due to climate change, cyclones can grow larger and more powerful. Over the years, experts say cyclones have gotten stronger, and that stronger cyclones have become more frequent. 

Cyclones are measured according to their highest sustained wind speeds and then ranked between categories 1 (wind speeds and gusts of 90-125km/h) to 5 (wind speeds and gusts up to 280km/h). With wind speeds up to 345km/h, Yasa far exceeds the criteria for a category 5 cyclone. When developing the Australian tropical cyclone intensity scale in 1989, meteorologists and scientists never imagined the need to exceed a 5th category. By now, weather experts say that cyclones have, and will continue to, intensify as global temperatures rise. Some even suggest we need a brand new measuring system to accompany the change.

Just like cyclone Winston, Yasa is a manifestation of human induced climate change, and perhaps a sample of what can be expected as our oceanic temperatures continue to heat up. For an outsider, it is hard to imagine what life after a cyclone is like.

Living close to the waterfront makes it hard for coastal communities to seek protection from powerful winds and waves.

Life after the cyclone
While the initial strike of a cyclone is itself devastating, life after cyclones are tough. As of now, Yasa has forced 24,000 Fijians into evacuation centers as communities are cut from vital societal functions such as shelter, water, sanitation, and other infrastructure. For Fiji’s indigenous communities dependent on ecosystem services, a multitude of challenges await.

Architect and former Fijian resident Anna Sundman describes the aftermath as mentally straining; 

“When there are no fruits or vegetables left on the trees and bushes, when plantations are destroyed and soil has clouded all waterways, there is a heavy impact on the quality of living. After such extreme cyclones like Yasa, bridges often flood, paths erode, and plantations are torn and flooded. In addition, an increase in infectious diseases often follow… I remember the combination of eating a monotonous diet while facing the aftermath of a cyclone as being particularly challenging. Not only does it lead to malnutrition, having to eat the same root vegetable (often being the only crop to survive a cyclone as they grow underground) everyday for a long period of time is itself difficult”. 

A lack of vegetation also means a lack of protection from wind, rain, and sun. The impact of cyclones on the marine environment is also a great concern. The destruction of coastal vegetation and coral reefs make coastal villages vulnerable to wave action. Fishing, which is an important source of food for many Fijian communities, is usually not an option as it takes time for muddy waters to clear, and for fish to return. In some cases, it takes years for coral reefs to reconstruct a prosperous marine habitat.

What can we do? 
As global warming continues, climate induced transformations are likely to intensify. As they do, viable solutions must be found. AES aspires to be a part of the solution by providing development assistance anchored in the local context. In close collaboration with its local partners, AES makes use of local knowledge and materials in efforts to develop sustainable planning, architectural, and design solutions to current local challenges. So far, AES has designed and constructed dry toilets as well as guided the establishment of a local partnering NGO on Moturiki island, Fiji. However, more needs to be done. AES is currently working on a project to map Moturiki island. This will allow for a more comprehensive understanding of Moturiki, as well as assist with guiding sustainable planning decisions to withstand climatic transformations.

Learn more about AES
AES is a non-profit and idea driven organisation. Everyone in the team works during their spare time. If you are interested in helping us in any way, please do not hesitate to contact us. More information about AES and the work that we do can be found on our website, our Instagram, and our Facebook page 

If you found this article informative and want to read more about social aspects of storms, read AES member André Klaassen’s essay on Hurricane Sandy and social inequity.

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