Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever before, with those in developing countries particularly at risk.  This essay series is intended to explore measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...

Although floods have always been a part of life for most in the Pacific islands, some years see more dramatic outcomes than others; and in recent times the frequency and devastation of these floods has been greater, with increasing numbers of displacements. As Pacific countries urbanize, the possibilities for more deaths and destruction are obvious. Traditional means of flood prevention and protection are not necessarily forgotten, despite modern changes in living patterns and life styles. In this essay, taking Fiji as a case study, lessons learned from traditional lifestyles are analyzed in the light of new, urban settlement patterns.

Flooding in the Pacific Islands

Despite the current El Niño weather pattern, which has brought lengthy periods of drought, crop failure and starvation to parts of the Pacific, floods and other disasters are also becoming more common and more destructive. Impacts of long-term climate change include not only sea level rise and fiercer storms, but also growing vulnerability to the destructive force of floods, such as infrastructural damage, growing poverty and hardship, exposure to communicable diseases, as well as damage to economies.[1] Pacific countries have faced numerous floods in recent decades. Most recently, Honiara in Solomon Islands and Fiji (especially the towns of Nadi and Labasa) suffered massive deluges, resulting in the destruction of infrastructure, homes, agricultural land, not to mention a number of deaths and relocations, especially in urban areas.[2]

What is causing this increasing devastation? It is not possible to go into the details of climate change in this essay, but suffice it to say that the small, low lying islands, coastal areas and atolls of the Pacific, are very much in the frontline of climate change. Harsher weather patterns and growing numbers of deaths and devastation are increasingly common and so the dilemma becomes one of not only responding with emergency relief, but also of building up resilience, for both communities and formal structures. Learning, sharing and applying lessons from existing knowledge and practices has to be part of flood response and preparation in the hope that such sharing of information can help people globally to cope with more difficult weather patterns. In the 21st century it is clear that in the Pacific, as elsewhere, the synergy of “natural disasters, rapid urbanization, water scarcity, and climate change have emerged as a serious challenge for policy and planning.”[3]

Floods in Fiji

The impacts of cyclone-induced floods can be very severe, bringing widespread inundation in low-lying areas throughout the country with roads closed or difficult to use because of slips, downed power lines and debris. There are always deaths by drowning and long-term relocation of families to inadequate shelters can have ongoing impacts in terms of disease and loss of income. Rivers often break their banks and neighboring towns are flooded.

The case of the January 2009 flood was particularly damaging, with more than 400mm of rain falling over 48 hours, leaving a dozen people dead and more than 10,000 displaced. The impacts were severe in both rural and urban areas but for those in towns, particularly in marginal areas such as informal settlements, it was much harder to assess the extent of damage. Urban squatters, living on coastal, often degraded areas were particularly vulnerable, both physically and economically, to the floods that rushed through, and in some cases submerged their homes. Similar impacts were felt throughout the country.

Such flood-induced disasters inevitably have serious ongoing social and economic implications.[4] Relief and rehabilitation costs are high, with national GDP and government development plans and programs affected as financial and human resources earmarked for capital development works needed to be redirected.[5]

In modern times growing urbanization contributes to more devastation and loss. Fiji, like most of the Pacific (and indeed globally) is now more than 50 percent urban, and as is the case in many developing countries, a large proportion of these people (around 25 percent) live in informal housing on the banks of rivers, near swamps, coasts and rubbish dumps and are therefore vulnerable to unanticipated emergency situations, including floods. There is often little warning of floods, and when there is, people may not have access to working radios, power is cut and conditions are dangerous. Such situations remind us that there are many issues that need to be taken into account when attempting to build resilience towards floods. In all societies, settlement patterns, political affiliations, isolation, resilience and community structures need to be understood. Traditional practices and ways of coping with disasters are not wholly lost or forgotten in the Pacific, despite growing urbanization and changing settlement patterns.[6]

Dealing with Disaster Through Traditional Means

In a recent Working Paper by the World Bank (2014) on natural disasters in the Middle East and North Africa,[7] I was struck by the absence of any discussion of how people have traditionally prepared for and coped with disasters, and of how communities currently deal with such events. There were some references to integrating disaster preparedness with the climate change agenda and to the views of women; however, the only comments on using local expertise referred to a case in the Philippines where it was recognized that using local knowledge would build resilience (p. 66). It is highly unlikely that peoples in Middle Eastern countries do not have traditional ways of coping and preparing for disasters and building resilience, though here I shall take examples from the Pacific Islands in order to illustrate how national and regional responses can take these into account.

One of the noteworthy issues in the Pacific is the fact that urban areas are sometimes missed from disaster planning yet they are the ones most severely impacted by floods. In particular, it is not only rural, traditional, and village people who have local knowledge and ways of coping, but many urban people also retain a number of strategies that enable them to survive a major disruption to their lives.

It is understood these days that people are more knowledgeable about their changing environments than previously known, and by examining wider aspects of peoples’ lives, particularly through broader “knowledge-practice-belief systems” applied for example in managing local biodiversity, adaptation to climate change disasters can be better understood.[8] Studies of practices such as food security through methods of storage of surpluses, preserving, protecting and preparing gardens and always ensuring diversity of production for example, along with an understanding of hierarchies, and inter and intra-community cooperation such as through practices of ceremony and exchange can assist in comprehending such knowledge-practice-belief systems.[9] Long-term resilience of communities can be better understood by looking at such practices and how they relate to flood responses in Fiji.

Early and Modern Examples of Traditional Knowledge and Resilience

In the 1970s a “hurricane-hazard study” was carried out as part of a Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) Project on rational use of island ecosystems. The responses of the people of Lakeba (a small island in the Lau group in the south of Fiji) to an approaching cyclone and potential damage were described. The paper outlined experiences and views of community as the cyclone approached.[10] The author described traditional and community strategies such as putting up shutters or boards on houses, cutting off high tops of root crops (to prevent complete destruction), moving to safer houses, cutting down threatening trees, getting in food supplies, water and cooking pots and bringing children home from school. These responses were based on observations of signs of the forthcoming cyclone (behavior of sea birds, increasing production of mango fruits and certain flowers) as well as knowledge of previous cyclones (even though Lakeba had not in fact faced a cyclone for almost three decades). The paper was useful in that it detailed peoples’ responses in some depth, including migration away out of fear, planning for the future, as well as a fatalistic acceptance of the will of God.[11]

Although much change occurred as a result of the cyclone, a positive impact was that many people took seriously the likelihood that cyclones would recur and began to note potential signs or predictors described earlier, especially the change in weather patterns, abundance of fruit, other crops and seafood and changes in the flight paths of sea birds. Such increased attention to environmental changes was a return to earlier times where people better understood the impact of natural disasters on local resources. In the 21st century in the Pacific, such knowledge can add to peoples’ resilience and adaptation.

Isolated people, far from assistance and communications, have to be self-reliant. In modern times, the question is how this self-reliance can be translated to urban areas, especially for those who are poor and marginal. These people often need to deal with disasters in situations where they have little access to central government and emergency services, few connections with people who can assist them, and often few personal resources that can be utilized during and after a major disaster.

Today, when planning for disasters, much of the emphasis is on relocation,[12] and likely impacts on tourism and loss of revenue. Attention to people’s own knowledge and experience of severe weather events is often overlooked, especially in urban areas. There appears to be a loss of transference of traditional knowledge systems (at least in the media), and so it may be time to resurrect a “combining of disaster research” with “participatory action,”[13] or at the very least, some recognition that local communities possess more knowledge of how to deal with disasters than planners give them credit for.

It should be obvious that in order to understand socio-ecological systems and their resilience to climate change, the interrelatedness of areas such as local expertise, customary resource management and practice, and the roles of leaders and institutions must be understood. Recognition of people’s existing knowledge systems (including voyaging, trading and exchange, adapting to marginal landscapes and maintaining wide geographic and cultural links, seasonal cycles and ecological processes) are highly relevant to understanding resilience and adaptation to climate change and hence the impacts of flooding.[14] In small societies people may be more in tune with changes and threats, but adaptation happens over time.[15] There are of course limitations to Indigenous Knowledge Systems (ILK), especially through globalization, language loss, migration, and loss of respect. However, as long as cultural values of sharing and valuing community remain and collaborations continue, then, as noted by McMillen et al., resilience, and thus the ability to adapt, will be maintained.[16]

Despite the growing urbanization of the Pacific, urban dwellers are not as ignorant of their environment as planners sometimes seem to imagine. They also do not helplessly wait for assistance in the event of a disaster and may even welcome it as “God’s will.”[17] It is often assumed that informal settlers have limited social networks and lack cohesion. New migrants are often believed to have less understanding of local conditions, compounding the many inequalities faced by those on the margins. This is in many ways an external response to urban planning in the Pacific. Pacific urban dwellers do not necessarily fit the stereotypes portrayed of other “indigenous” communities where they are not the dominant group. They are not “fourth world.” Nor are they marginalized in terms of culture and language. Urban areas may have once been “colonial constructs” but since independence they are rapidly becoming “local” or indigenous. In most Pacific countries, governance at all levels is local and the everyday language is the dominant language of the country. Also, non-governmental organizations are increasingly home-grown and tend to work closely with communities, both urban and rural, offering alternatives and building upon what the people can, and do undertake for themselves.[18]

How People Deal with Flooding Disasters

In many informal settlements in Fiji, people have a variety of “traditional ways of coping,” including continuation of kinship networks, as well as the development of new communities. Levels of resilience clearly exist, just as one would expect to find in village communities.[19] It has also been noted elsewhere[20] that although networks and relationships are changing in urban areas what is “strongly important to the way the settlements develop is relationships between families.” Indigenous Fijians have a tauvu or sharing relationship,[21] and in an urban context these links may continue to be significant and widened with local knowledge shared with new migrants.[22] Even though migrants from across the country move into the informal settlements as well as villages not their own by descent, some have strong familial relationships, but in many with mixed membership both ethnically and from different areas, there are established settlement committees with wide group membership. These have most recently been encouraged by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but often they simply develop as people live together over a period of time. These are replicating through other urban settlements.

There is also evidence that before cyclones and floods people carry out much the same gardening practices that were practiced in rural areas (e.g., in Lakeba, described earlier). The cutting of cassava tops, collecting water, tying down roofs and moving to strong structures are all practiced. Similarly, people talk widely of observations warning of an impending cyclone such as seasonal changes. Although many urban dwellers may not openly admit to being prepared, or at least warned of impending disaster, many will discuss and act upon such signs.

Although it can be argued that people are losing traditional practices through urbanization there remains a sense of community in dealing with urban floods. The failure of institutions to see “community” in urban relationships and the constant portrayal of poor urbanites as victims is replicated in preparedness planning, or lack of it. In fact the majority of people, although they do suffer from loss and exposure to disease, never simply wait for assistance after a disaster. Urban people are not helpless, even in informal settlements and even when poor.

Planning for Flood Disasters[23]: Lessons for the Middle East

It is well known throughout the world that major flood disasters disproportionally affect the poor and marginal, especially in urban areas. Pacific nations have been slower to come to such recognition, largely because urbanization is more recent, but in some ways this has meant that traditional and community responses and understandings are still understood and practiced.[24] In the Pacific, as elsewhere, urban areas are increasingly the product of indigenous settlement and accompanying knowledge. Flooding disasters will most likely occur not because of a lack of knowledge, preparation, and coping strategies on the part of the settlers, but because the physical events will be so powerful in the urban context. People, both urban and rural, across the Pacific, are now taking extreme events more seriously and responding through education, sharing and historical knowledge. Urban and rural people are likely to be traumatized and to face extreme loss, but urban dwellers, and the poor, are no less vulnerable than rural and village dwellers.

Ways of dealing with disasters and a strengthening of the type of resilience that has always been in communities is a key to successful disaster response. This is not simply about coordinated institutional approaches but includes community cooperation and participation in decision-making. It is also about recognizing and promoting the types of resilience discussed earlier—having robust systems in place, recognizing and utilizing people’s resourcefulness, acting rapidly and not waiting for aid, and trying not to replicate assistance, instead building on what is already there. 

Globally, adaptation to disasters, such as floods, are almost a fact of life, but urbanization (no matter its form) and globalization are challenging people’s resilience. However, by understanding the interrelatedness of local expertise, customary resource management, knowledge and practice, as well as the roles of leaders and institutions, local “knowledge-practice-belief systems” can be used to inform adaptation to flood disasters.

[1] For example in Fiji, it was estimated that in 2012 one flood cost the country around F$71.3 (US$32) million, or 1.5 percent of GDP. See S. Chand, “Fiji’s Floods, and What Can Be Done About Them,” DevPolicy Blog, May 10, 2012, http://devpolicy.org/fiji-floods-and-what-can-be-done-about-them20120510/ DevPolicy Blog.

[2] The location of these countries in the central south Pacific makes them particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones and the inevitable aftermath of high intensity rainfall and flooding. In Fiji for example, in the period 1875 to 1975 around 125 cyclones hit the wider Fiji group. See R. McLean, “The Hurricane Hazard in the Eastern Islands of Fiji: An Historical Analysis,” in R. McLean, T.P. Bayliss-Smith, M. Brookfield and J. Campbell, The Hurricane Hazard: Natural Disaster and Small Populations, ed., H.C. Brookfield, Population and Environment Project in the Eastern Islands of Fiji, Man and the Biosphere Programme Project 7: Ecology and Rational Use of Island Ecosystems (Canberra: ANU Development Studies Centre, 1977) 12. Of course there were periods with no cyclones, but in other years there were several. On average, around 12 cyclones affect Fiji each decade. [See S. Yeo and R.J. Blong, “Fiji’s Worst Natural Disaster: The 1931 Hurricane and Flood,” Disaster 34, 3 (2010): 657-683.] Records dating back to the late nineteenth century and early twentieth show floods and devastation not only to outlying islands but also to fledgling towns.

[3] The World Bank, Natural Disasters in the Middle East and North Africa: A Regional Overview. Working Paper 81658 (2014).

[4] In some areas (such as in Rewa with its wide flood plain), floods can also be viewed as propitious, bringing fertile soil from the interior and even floating animals. See E. Nolet, “‘Are you prepared?’ Representations and Management of Floods in Lomanikoro, Rewa (Fiji),” Disasters (January 2016).

[5] See R. Raj, Integrated Flood Management. Case Study 1. Fiji Islands: Flood Management – Rewa River Basin. Edited by Technical Support Unit World Meteorological Organization/Global Water Partnership. The Associated Programme on Flood Management (2004) and J. Bryant-Tokalau and J. Campbell, “Coping with Floods in Urban Fiji: Responses and Resilience of the Poor,” in E. Jurriens, ed., Disaster Relief in the Asia Pacific Region: Capacity Building and Community Resilience (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2014) 132-146.

[6] In addition, Pacific countries have a number of regional organizations, working collectively to share approaches to disaster management. Apart from the global UN and other agencies such as UNOCHA, ESCAP and the World Bank, organizations such as SPREP, SPC and the Pacific Island Forum[6] all have programs dealing with disaster responsiveness.

[7] The World Bank, “Natural Disasters in the Middle East and North Africa: A Regional Overview.” Working Paper 81658 (2014).

[8] H.L. McMillen, H. L., T. Ticktin, A. Friedlander, S. D. Jupiter, R. Thaman, J. Campbell, J. Veitayaki, T. Giambelluca, S. Nihmei, E. Rupeni, L. Apis-Overhoff, W. Aalbersberg, and D. F. Orcherton, “Small Islands, Valuable Insights: Systems of Customary Resource Use and Resilience to Climate Change in the Pacific,” Ecology and Society 19, 4 (2014): 44.

[9] A. Ravuvu, Development or Dependence: The Pattern of Change in a Fijian Village (Suva: The University of the South Pacific, 1988).

[10] M. Brookfield, “Hurricane Val and Its Aftermath: Report on an Inquiry Among the People of Lakeba in 1976,” in R. McLean, T.P. Bayliss-Smith, M. Brookfield, and J.R. Campbell, The Hurricane Hazard: Natural Disaster and Small Population. Population and environment project in the eastern islands of Fiji. Island Reports 1. Man and the Biosphere Programme Project 7: Rational use of island ecosystems, Canberra (1977) 99-147.

[11] It should be noted that in the mid-1970s, communications with outer islands were poor and people were informed of the change in track of the cyclone almost too late to do much to ameliorate any damage. Despite people preparing as best they could, there was massive destruction with loss of livestock, homes, boats and food gardens, but fortunately no deaths. On other islands damage was more severe [T.P. Bayliss-Smith, “Hurricane Val in North Lakeba: The View from 1975,” in R. McLean, T.P. Bayliss-Smith, M. Brookfield, and J.R. Campbell, The Hurricane Hazard: Natural Disaster and Small Population. Population and environment project in the eastern islands of Fiji. Island Reports 1. Man and the Biosphere Programme Project 7: Rational use of island ecosystems, Canberra (1977), pp. 65-98], especially where households were very dependent upon income from copra. Brookfield commented on the role of emergency services in the days following the cyclone, and how, apart from the partial and often absent communication, those from EMSEC (National Emergency Service Committee) had difficulty in reaching many parts of the Lau group, and of course they needed to prioritize relief provisions, assisting firstly those most badly hit. For the rest, self-help was seen to be something to be encouraged at least in the short term but there was no doubt that peoples’ resilience was sorely tested.

[12] People generally prefer not to relocate, due to traditional land and family connections, and even when urbanized will maintain those structures, indigenous or otherwise.

[13] Ilan Kelman et al., “Participatory Action Research for Dealing with Disasters on Islands,” Island Studies Journal 6, 1 (2011): 59.

[14] H.L. McMillen et al., “Small Islands, Valuable Insights: Systems of Customary Resource Use and Resilience to Climate Change in the Pacific,” Ecology and Society 19, 4 (2014): 44.

[15] An understanding of such knowledge held by the peoples of the Pacific can be used in current adaptation projects to climate change. Leadership, both customary and modern, is another key area and even where weakened and challenged leadership is an issue, alternatives (such as the churches which can mobilize large group activities), new leaders (not necessarily chiefs) and community groups that include women and youth can provide continuation.

[16] The failure to recognize that people in urban areas also have indigenous knowledge, is a key oversight in disaster management. See J. Bryant-Tokalau, “Handling Weather Disasters: the Resilience and Adaptive Capacity of Communities in Fiji,” Chapter 4 in L. Carter and J. Bryant-Tokalau, Aotearoa New Zealand and Climate Change: Lessons from the Pacific (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016).

[17] E. Nolet, “‘Are you prepared?’ Representations and Management of Floods in Lomanikoro, Rewa (Fiji),” Disasters (January 2016). DOI:10.1111/disa.12175.

[18] Why urban settlements in the Pacific have been more affected by floods than rural areas is a matter of great concern. The growing number of people living in difficult circumstances close to towns, rapid deforestation upstream and abandonment of sustainable farming practices like contour farming, have resulted in increased erosion and siltation of water bodies. In addition, complex and fragmented institutional and arrangements can impede flood risk reduction efforts. In Nadi for example, the Town Council and Rural Local Authority are responsible for land‐use planning, but much inappropriate and unplanned development has taken place. Often government agencies are working under several institutional regimes and the lack of harmonization can lead to confusion and lack of enforcement meaning an increase in watershed degradation and contributing to the excessive flooding that happened lately. See A. Chandra and J.A. Dalton, “Managing Watersheds for Urban Resilience,” 8, 10. Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR). Policy Brief Presented at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. Roundtable on “Managing watersheds for urban resilience.” Geneva, Switzerland, May 12, 2011.

[19] Of course some of the “urban” settlements are in fact traditional, village communities, the towns having grown around existing villages.

[20] J. Bryant-Tokalau, “The Changing Face of the Urban Pacific,” in D. Dussy and E. Wittersheim, eds., Villes invisibles: anthropologie urbaine dans le Pacifique  (Paris : L’Harmattan Publishers, 2013).

[21] Tauvu refers to indigenous Fijians where people have reciprocal and joking rights with one another in certain parts of Fiji.

[22] J.R. Campbell, Traditional Disaster Reduction in Pacific Island Communities. GNS Science Report 2006/038. Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Lower Hutt, New Zealand (2016).

[23] Gero et al. 2015 comment that while Fiji has “generic policies [for disaster response] ... these needed to be clearly defined for specific disasters” (p. 41). Interestingly, in this study, while Samoa ranked traditional and social practices as a key determinant of adaptive capacity in dealing with disasters, Fiji did not acknowledge this as a determinant, focusing more on information, perception and leadership. This is most likely a result of an absence of understanding of the Fiji situation. See A. Gero et al., “Disasters and Climate Change in the Pacific: Adaptive Capacity of humanitarian response organizations, Climate and Development, 7, 1 (2015): 35-46.

[24] E. Nolet, “‘Are you prepared?’ Representations and Management of Floods in Lomanikoro, Rewa (Fiji),” Disasters (January 2016); and S. Yeo and R.J. Blong, “Fiji’s Worst Natural Disaster: The 1931 Hurricane and Flood,” Disaster 34, 3 (2010): 657-683.


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