Rusi's story: turning the tides

Nukui community sits on the edge of the Rewa Delta, a vast sprawling area of waterways that empties out into the sea just north of Fiji’s capital, Suva. There are no roads leading to Nukui — only a small boat from Suva.
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Rusi with Savu Tawake from pacific Community Network

Access through the intricate channels of coral is dependent on the tides. It is a beautiful, wild place where its people have lived for many generations, relying on the sea for food, transport and spirit.

Rusiate Gonelevu, known as Rusi, is the Headman of the community, the Turaga ni Koro. He was born in Nukui — his grandparents moved here in the early 1960s to help set up a new community with better access to health and education services. The old community was located in a mangrove forest, where the ground was always wet from the tides. Mosquitoes were plentiful and illness was common. Present-day Nukui is the only high land the community owns amongst many acres of mangroves.

Seawall extended

A seawll in Fiji

But now Rusi is worried about the sea. Over the last 30 years, he has seen the ocean creep closer to his community. About 10 years ago, the high tide reached the line of coconuts that separates the beach from the houses, and a whole stretch of sand and trees was washed away. By then Rusi had already started building a sea wall to keep back the hungry tide; he has been extending this along the beach ever since.

Salinity affects soil and crops

As the storms and cyclones in the Pacific intensify, the tide is marching steadily closer. The last few cyclone seasons have seen the waves washing over the top of the sea wall and into the community. Nukui is being inundated with more and more sea water, eating away at the beach. The homes and gardens closest to the ocean are being flooded, and the soils are turning salty so that people can’t grow their own fruit and vegetables — so vital in such a remote community.

Caritas Australia’s partner organisation, People’s Community Network, is working with the Nukui community to extend the sea wall and strengthen emergency preparedness in this cyclone- and tsunami-vulnerable community. Through participation in workshops that help communities prepare for disasters and reduce their risks, Nukui’s disaster committee has been able to expand its activities. Evacuation plans are now in place, focusing on the less mobile, children, and the elderly. Work is planned with the Fiji Government to build a school on a reinforced, raised platform that can withstand tsunamis and cyclones.

Turning the tide?

While the community faces an uncertain future, its people are turning the tide on the sea’s encroachment. As well as expanding the sea wall, they are planting more mangroves to protect the shoreline from future erosion and reduce the impact of storms.

“This is our home and our way of life” says Rusi. “We will continue to make our home safe for as long as we can.”

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