The heartbreaking devastation of the latest floods in Fiji masks a deeper concern – that human activity may be making the situation a lot worse. As the western town of Nadi was submerged for the second time this year, some difficult questions are being asked about whether developments both upstream and downstream have made Nadi more flood prone. Some locals even wonder whether the town – the third largest population centre in Fiji – should be relocated. Three separate events in three years that have destroyed or severely damaged homes and businesses are being regarded as no coincidence. And it seems only a matter of time before the tragedy is repeated.
Upstream, deforestation in the Nausori Highlands above Nadi is being blamed for a big increase in the amount of silt being carried by waters down the Nadi River to the sea. Some locals are alleging that this silt is forming a barrier at the mouth of the river, acting as an underwater dam to push water back towards Nadi. This theory has it that when the river is in flood, it no longer has the same ability to discharge the excess into the sea.
And downstream, say the critics, the river’s ability to discharge water is being hampered by human activity, in particular, the two big tourism and residential developments that have turned the Nadi area into the biggest draw card in the country. The first of these, Denarau Island, was established in the 1970s with one hotel – the Regent – yet now boasts a string of resorts and residential complexes including some of the world’s biggest brands – Hilton, Sofitel, Westin, Sheraton and Wyndham.The second, Naisoso, is currently under construction and already boasts one hotel -Peppers – and yet another string of luxury residences. Is all this development having a negative impact on the environment and more pertinently, river and creek discharges? Is this what happens when tidal mangrove flats give way to reclamation and concrete? It’s an issue that’s bound to come to the forefront once the immediate flood emergency is dealt with.
Certainly, the thoughts of Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, have already turned to the future and what measures the country has to take to deal with what seems to be a recurring problem rather than an isolated event. “Hard and fast decisions have to be made about our infrastructure so we don’t get bogged down every time there’s heavy rain”, Bainimarama said. Does that include a hard decision on the future of Nadi town? That’s certainly the view of some of Nadi’s residents. In truth, the town has always sat on a flood plain yet flood waters have only reached the commercial centre once in a decade at most. But three times in three years and with such ferocity?
Local businesses are in a state of shock, having to rebuild and restock also for the third time in three years. They’ll have to find all of the money themselves. For when it comes to insurance, Nadi has long been a “no- go” area. On its streets are two of Fiji’s biggest commercial houses – Tappoos and Prouds – both of which suffered heavy losses and not just from the flood waters. Looting has also been a major problem in Nadi during the latest crisis. In some of the media coverage, people were depicted wading through neck-high waters carrying their personal possessions. The truth is that some of it appears to be stolen property.
With more than 14- thousand people in 152 evacuations centres in the west and central divisions of the country, getting emergency assistance to them is, of course, the main priority. Down the track comes the tallying up of both the crippling personal cost and the cost to Fiji’s fragile economy. Before these floods, the economic outlook seemed reasonably bright, with the ANZ, among others, predicting modest growth and an optimistic future. But with all that washed away in recent days, Fiji and its people will need all the help they can get.