It’s 5:30am in Vunisavisavi, a small village on the coast of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second biggest island. The sun is starting to rise, birds are beginning to chirp, and Catalina, 11 years old, is awake. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, she’s up with a spring and heads to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

“Every morning, I wake up early, have my bath, put my uniform on and have breakfast. After breakfast, I walk up to the school bus stop and I wait for the [school] truck to come at 7:00am.”

The sight of the sea greets Catalina as she walks out her front door every day. Unlike other coastal villages across Fiji, Catalina’s village has been hit hard by the impacts of climate change. 

Catalina (11) stands in front of a huge uprooted Banyan tree on the shore of VuniSaviSavi, a coastal village on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island. Due to coastal erosion and rising sea levels (Vunisavisavi exists below sea level), trees along the shoreline (such as coconut palms and Banyan trees) struggle to survive or stay upright.

Unpredictability of the ocean

Sea water levels have risen rapidly in the last ten years, something only her parents and older siblings would’ve particularly recognised.  

The youngest of three, Catalina is often home alone with her mother. Her sister attends boarding school in a nearby town, and her brother is away with her father, a farmer, who has travelled to neighbouring island Viti Levu to work in sugarcane farms. The soil in their village has become too acidic for farming, due to rising sea levels.

“My father is a farmer, my mother stays at home doing mothers work, and I always go to school every morning. What I love most about my family is we talk about what’s happening – our timetable, family budget, family problems – and what will happen the next day.  I laugh the hardest when my father makes funny stories and does things that make me laugh. They [Catalina’s parents] always want us to be happy.”

Catalina (11) in class at Nakobo Primary School, close to Vunisavisavi, a coastal village on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu. When she grows up, Catalina would like to be a netball referee. She also wants to construct a sea wall for her village to protect the future generation from rising sea levels, and to stop her community from worrying.

Catalina’s parents are in their fifties, and despite having to spend significant time apart, they do their best to create a tight knit family unit. One of the brightest students in her class, Catalina’s mother smiles with quiet pride as she flicks through a folder of Catalina’s tests, showing average scores of 70% and above. An ambitious student, Catalina says that aside from school, her favourite time of the day is when she’s able to go fishing with her mother when returning home from school.

“After school, I sometimes go fishing with my mother for dinner. I like swimming with the fish because they make me laugh and happy.  I noticed the fish and turtles have declined. We just catch enough fish for us, and we leave some to grow. I love to see fish swimming around me. But during high tide we see some dangerous things. When the weather changes, then we see that the sea is scary.”

Catalina (middle), 11, her sister Meresiana (left) and mother Maria wait for fish off the coast of VuniSaviSavi, a small village along the coast of Vanua Levu, Fihi’s second largest island. Women fish for food to feed their families. They leave early in the morning and return around lunch time to prepare meals. The men tend to fish for commerical reasons, however low fish supply around Vunisavisavi means subsistance fishing is only possible.

Scares of the sudden change in weather

In the indigenous Fijian itaukei language, there is no word for climate change. Most people, including Catalina, refer to climate change as “visau ni draki”, directly translated to “a change in weather”. Unfortunately, Catalina knows all too well how devastating and how frequent a sudden change in weather can be.  

The impacts of climate change – the sudden storm surges, and devastating natural disasters like Tropical Cyclone Winston – are becoming more common, and more worrying, especially for someone like Catalina, one of the youngest members of her community.

“If you see the sea and there is bad weather, like when it rains the seawater pours out into the village, a lot of scary things happen. Questions come up in my mind, like what kind of accidents can happen?

When the weather is really bad, the seawater can reach my house [50 meters inland]. If the weather changes all of a sudden it can reach up to here [knee height] and past this house. I’m scared and worried because I don’t know what to do if this house is destroyed. I don’t know where we will go.”

Dreaming of a solution

Despite the devastating effects of climate change, Catalina has bright hopes for the future of her community. A forward thinker, she dreams of building a sea wall, something she believes will protect them from increasingly high tides, and sudden storm surges.

Catalina, 11, and friends from her village play in the water nearby their village during high tide. A few times a year, during king tides, the village of Vunisavisavi floods. River flooding is also faced in the community from poor drainage during heavy rains.

“I always think that when I’m older, I want to construct a sea wall for the village, to protect the future generation of Vunisavisavi, and also to make the people happy.

The sea wall will change the look of the village and make it look better. But right now I’m thinking, when younger ones are older they will follow my footsteps by building a seawall. Then [when it’s completed] we will have a big thanks giving celebration.  The seawall will stop the waves from entering the village. It will give peace and assurance to people and they will no longer worry about the waves.”

Catalina, 11, jumps from the bow of the village boat which anchors on the edge of ‘the tomb’ a deep hole in the coral reef. The tomb is an impotant part of the stories told about demigods from Vunisavisavi, it’s also the children’s favourite swimming hole. A place they can swim in deep water and look at fish through their snorkel and goggles.

*Name changed for child protection reasons. 

Our Home, Our People is a storytelling project produced by the Fijian Government, in partnership with the World Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the ACP-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction Program.

Encompassing a 360° virtual reality video and this siteOur Home, Our People explores climate change vulnerability and resilience in Fiji through the stories of our people. Combined with findings of the Climate Vulnerability Assessment 2017, the memories, hopes, fears of Asmita, Rai, Rupeni and Catalina show us how rising sea levels and extreme weather impact Fijian people today, and what support is required in the future. Photography and photo captions by Alana Holmberg, words and storytelling by Arieta Tora Rika.