Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, the Category 5 storm that slammed into Fiji on February 20, was the strongest storm ever to make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere and the second strongest ever in the world, with wind speeds approaching 300 kilometres an hour. At least 44 people were killed, and thousands left homeless, deprived of livelihood and at risk of water- and mosquito-borne diseases.
Climate change brought on by carbon emissions has meant that extreme storms are occurring with increasing frequency. Six of the 12 strongest storms on record have occurred in the past 10 years. The only storm in history to hit land with higher wind-speeds, Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), devastated the Filipino islands of Samar and Leyte just two years and three months ago, in November 2013.
Meteorologists Bob Henson and Jeff Masters wrote in a February 22 blog post on Weather Underground: “Tropical cyclones are heat engines at heart: they transfer energy from low-latitude oceans to the higher-latitude atmosphere …
“As human-produced greenhouse gases continue to pump energy into Earth's oceans (where more than 90% of the excess heat from those greenhouse gases is stored), it is no surprise that some of that heat is being expressed in the form of record-setting typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones.”
The February 25 Fiji Times reported that 43 out of 91 villages in the worst affected province, Ra, had yet to establish contact. This means the death toll is likely to rise.
Storms hitting Pacific Island nations such as Fiji and Vanuatu, which was devastated by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, usually avoid the massive deaths tolls from those, like Yolanda, that make landfall in heavily-populated areas. But the damage caused to poor island nations is extreme.
“The coastal district of Nakorotubu, Ra, which includes more than 10 villages and a population of more than 5000 was completely flattened,” the Fiji Times said.
“Initial reports state that all homes were blown away,” Western Commissioner Manasa Tagicakibau said, describing the situation in the province as “ugly”.
The estimated cost of damage is about $1 billion, Attorney-General and Minister for Finance Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told a February 25 press conference.
The February 24 Fiji Times reported at least $83 million worth of damage to Fiji's sugar industry, on which 200,000 people depend for their livelihood. This includes crop damage worth $63 million, more than $10 million in destruction to infrastructure, and $10 million worth of damage to farmers' homes, Sugar Ministry acting permanent secretary Viliame Gucake said.
The Fiji Times reported that 13,000 people left homeless by the storm were also without access to food.
Tagicakibau told the February 25 Fiji Times that authorities were also concerned about lack of clean water carrying the risk of outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as leptospirosis and typhoid.
Flooding has also led to more breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
Like those of other Pacific Island nations severely threatened by climate change, Fijian leaders went to December's UN climate talks demanding action, although with little expectation that they would be heard.
“We in the Pacific are innocent bystanders in the greatest act of folly of any age,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in November.
“Unless the world acts decisively in the coming weeks to begin addressing the greatest challenge of our age, then the Pacific, as we know it, is doomed.
“The industrialised nations [are] putting the welfare of the entire planet at risk so that their economic growth is assured … All at the expense of those of us in low-lying areas of the Pacific and the rest of the world …
“I won't be going to Paris wearing the usual friendly, compliant Pacific smile. In fact, I won't be going to Paris in a Pacific frame of mind at all. I fear that our interests are about to be sacrificed.”
Predictably, the Pacific nations were indeed sacrificed, with Australia leading the charge of wealthy industrialised nations blocking any meaningful outcomes at the talk in favour of inadequate targets with non-binding mechanisms for achieving them.