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Island nation leads the way in climate resilience

By Melissa Lyne

July 24, 2018

tropical island beach
The Kingdom of Tonga is made up of 169 islands and is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

EARLIER this year, Tropical Cyclone Gita hit the Kingdom of Tonga with winds howling at 230kms per hour. The category 4 cyclone was one of the strongest ever recorded in the nation’s history. It caused severe damage to the main island of Tongatapu and destroyed almost 2,000 homes, forcing the evacuation of more than 4,500 people.

News reporter Ms Salamo Fulivai reads the nightly English and Tongan news. She recalls being at home with her family when TC Gita made landfall. “Strong winds ripped the roof of my house off, and for the first time our home flooded. It was also the first time we had to evacuate.”

“The destruction inflicted by TC Gita not only tore homes apart, but damaged essential services such as power and electricity,” Fulivai says.

“Agricultural crops and livelihood, community water supplies, school buildings and government offices were all severely devastated.”

satellite photo of cylcone
NASA image of Tropical Cylcone Gita.

TC Gita was not the only challenge facing Tongans at the time. They are confronted with an increasing number of climate change impacts that can seem complex and difficult to tackle.

But, the resilient South Pacific ‘Friendly Islands’ is learning, adapting and transforming in the face of rapidly advancing hazards and risks.

Six months earlier Fulivai was a participant in an Australian-led program that explored options to help Tonga build climate resilience around food security, reduced reliance on imported food, and improved protein production in local agricultural systems. Its additional focus on disaster preparedness, Fulivai says, contributed significantly to an effective local response to TC Gita.

A changing climate

The Kingdom of Tonga has 169 islands, scattered across 700,000 km² of the tropical South Pacific. Overlaying coral reefs and ancient volcanic rock, it is home to more than 109,000 people whose history dates back more than 3,000 years.

However, Tonga’s temperatures are rising and its seas are warming. Coral bleaching is becoming more frequent, as are heatwaves. In drier times Tonga suffers from the effects of El Niño and severe drought. But it is also headed for more extreme rain events, which will bring flooding and the prolonged ponding of water.

These combined trends pose health risks, limit primary produce from both land and sea, damage infrastructure, and pollute nearby coastal areas and lagoons.

In addition, sea level rise affects groundwater and also causes more flooding, which, when combined with coastal erosion, results in localised loss of land, housing, and other infrastructure.

Though Tonga still produces around half its own food, these changes in climate have seen the nation increasingly relying on imported food—which also has wide-ranging impacts.

Taking action

When the Government of Tonga recognised the need to mainstream its climate resilience, a grant from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) allowed its staff to receive climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction training.

three people at a workshop
Salamo Fulivai, centre, took part in the climate resilience training months before TC Gita affected many lives and livelihoods in Tonga, including her own.

The participants, many with post-graduate qualifications, were drawn from across the Tongan Government, from executive leadership to recent recruits. The participants represented both frontline personnel—such as police and media—and central budget agencies, including treasury and planning,

Dr Deborah O’Connell from CSIRO’s Climate Risk and Resilience group and Mr John Clarke from CSIRO’s Climate Science Centre were invited to run part of the course.

What did the course cover?

Sustainably, under the direction of Fabian Sack and Judy Turnbull, was the head contractor, developer and facilitator of the TAFE NSW-accredited training program: Climate Resilient Tonga professional development.

Sack says the Tongan Government set the training agenda, informed through the Pacific Climate Futures work carried out by CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

“Data like this help to set a capacity building agenda for adaptation and resilience,” says Sack. “Which was the brief for our course.”

“A critical enabler of resilience is the development of capacity to effectively engage with international issues and institutions, to understand the climate science and frameworks for adaptation and resilience, to engage the local community in action, and to manage the risk of emergencies and disasters.”

Clarke ran the climate modelling part of the course, which included hands-on exercises around CSIRO’s climate projection tools. He says: “At the end of the training participants had an understanding of fundamental climate change science concepts and were proficient in using the Pacific Climate Futures web-tool to develop tailored climate projection information.”

group of people around a table workshopping
Participants in the course included frontline staff including police and media, as well as central government staff.

O’Connell ran the Resilience, Adaptation Pathways and Transformation Approach (RAPT Approach) aspects of the course.

“This is a comprehensive approach to understanding risk in a systemic way, looking at the linked human-ecological systems which are so critical in Tonga,” says O’Connell.

She took the participants through a number of exercises including imagining the futures they wanted for their grandchildren compared to the future they might be on track for, based on the climate projections.

“We focused on the high-level goal of a more progressive Tonga supporting quality of life for all,” says O’Connell. “And together developed a ‘Theory of Change’, exploring all of the things that would need to be in place to deliver this goal, and working out some of the potential pathways to get there.”

O’Connell says while the group focused on disaster preparedness and food security, stakeholder engagement and governance were also covered in detail, “because all of these things require strong partnerships.”

“We also talked about the importance of a structured approach to monitoring and learning, because in times of rapid change, where there are no ‘off the shelf’ solutions, it’s important to try new approaches and monitor and rapidly learn from whether they are working as they were intended to—or not.”

O’Connell says the course participants collaborated using their real-life jobs and roles as examples to make the experience one they could translate back to their regular work places.

Tongan produce at market stall
Tongan staple produce is important during disruptions caused by climate events like cyclones.

Sack adds that the course ended with a simulated disaster where participants worked on emergency risk management and incident control skills.

“What particularly stood out for me in all of this was the inherent resilience of the traditional Tongan agricultural system,” says Sack.

“Though local systems don’t grow much protein—and this was identified as an issue to consider from the analysis in the RAPT Approach —many of the crops do provide food long after a natural disaster has hit: taro keeps in the ground, coconuts and breadfruit can be kept for some time after they have fallen. And these crops are widely distributed across the Tongan landscape.”

What now?

Tonga will continue to see climate change impacts in the future. Clarke says while Tropical Cyclones are rare events, the occurrence of TC Gita is in line with what climate projections tell us to expect.

“While Tropical Cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere are expected to become less frequent, when they do occur they’re increasingly likely to be category 4 or category 5,” says Clarke.

“Actually, some researchers have suggested we need to make a sixth category in recognition of the increasing intensity.”

Fulivai says there is a need for more climate resilience awareness in communities. “We need to integrate and identify, or provide a profile of, the risks we face due to climate change in Tonga and its implications to various sectors.”

“If people in the community are well informed of the threats of climate change in Tonga, they would expedite efforts and maximise every resource they have to reduce their risks associated with disasters and climate change.”

Sack agrees that this is certainly something to work towards, and not just in Tonga. “This has been a terrific opportunity to bring together expertise from different sectors across Australia, including TAFE, universities and CSIRO to deliver a capacity building program tailored to Tonga’s expressed needs.”

“In doing this it’s not just Tongans that can benefit; there is also much that Australia can learn from the way Tonga is developing its resilience to disasters and climate change.”

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