In Fiji, Vunisavisavi on the Edge: How top-down adaptation to sea-level rise went over the top

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests that even if dramatic changes are made to our socio-economic system now, we will still face climatic uncertainty, with more frequent droughts, longer bushfire seasons and changes in the availability of habitable land. Regarding the latter, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and other small island developing states are especially confronted with dynamic coastal erosion. Major polluters are consuming the land of geographically and socially vulnerable coastal areas.

A 2020 article in Nature Climate Change, ‘Sandy Coastlines Under Threat of Erosion’cites Australia as the country that may be most affected by erosion by the year 2100.Already, sea-level rise around Australia has reached an average 2.1 millimetres a year over the last fifty years. Given major polluters’ reluctance and the lack of political will to mitigate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect sea levels to continue to rise at a steady, if not accelerated, pace.

Coastal areas are exposed to hazards that threaten property values, economic activity and populations. Around the world approximately 2.15 billion people live near the coast, and the number is growing, with little indication that this trend will subside. In developed countries people and developers continue to flock to beachfront properties. Sydney’s Bondi Beach, for instance, brings in millions of tourists a year, as well as potential homebuyers, who are drawn to the beach lifestyle and million-dollar homes. At the same time, the whole New South Wales coastline has been dramatically altered by storm events, putting thousands of beachfront properties at risk of coastal erosion. In some extreme cases, swathes of land have been consumed by large swells caused by episodic storm-driven disasters. But despite these warnings and visible environmental changes, banks keep lending for purchases in threatened waterfront areas, posing a high risk to both people and property.

Such environmental changes, visible and invisible, signal a greater need to adapt at a quicker rate to ensure that we keep pace with ever-changing coastal ecosystems. As seawalls, the go-to ‘solution’ in many places, are becoming ineffective and beach re-nourishment is unable to accommodate the scale of erosion, adaptation planners are having to be more creative regarding how to properly adapt to eroding coastlines. One coastal adaptation option, previously considered a failure, is now receiving global attention: planned relocation to higher ground. As relocation efforts are garnering interest across the South Pacific, not to mention in parts of Australia, it is imperative that we properly evaluate the processes involved to make sure this option does not become maladaptive.


Commonly used in IPCC circles, the term ‘maladaptation’ refers to an adaptation that increases vulnerability, now or in the future—or worse, shifts vulnerability onto a marginalised group. The IPCC notes that maladaptation is ‘usually an unintended consequence’; this caveat broadens the conception of maladaptation to include the consequences of intentional decisions that lead to failure, such as those that prioritise short-term economic gain over long-term adaptive capacity.

The world is riddled with disastrous adaptation projects—cracked water tanks in drought-prone areas, monstrous seawalls that have shifted sediment downstream, elite capture of resources—yet there is little recognition of this. Governments and communities expend energy, time and money on such projects, hoping for positive outcomes, but there is always the possibility of ‘failure’. Such failedoutcomes, when they occur, are often kept secret for fear of repercussions—for example, the withdrawal of funds for future projects or unemployment for project managers. However, we need to be transparent about failure and acknowledge the projects that ‘missed the mark’ if we are to understand which practices to avoid and which ones to endorse.

Are there ways to avoid maladaptation? This is the question I sought to answer with colleagues when I interviewed climate change adaptation practitioners from around the world—from Kenya, Fiji, Norway, Samoa, Sint Maarten, the United Kingdom, Sweden, South Africa, Colombia, the United States, Aotearoa New Zealand and Bangladesh. Practitioners agree that while maladaptation may be avoidable, it is impossible to predict. This puts people in a bind; we often do not know that something is maladaptive until it becomes maladaptive. As planned relocation is emerging as an adaptation to coastal erosion in the South Pacific and Australia, it is thus worth reflecting on relocations that have already taken place. One such famous one is in Fiji.

National Relocation Plans and Fiji

In March 2023, Fiji published its Standard Operating Procedures for Planned Relocation in the Republic of Fiji, a template for government and non-governmental agencies that outlines how to undertake relocation for coastal communities threatened by the impacts of climate change. Some years before, Fiji had begun relocating coastal communities impacted by coastal erosion. Three villages received national, and in some cases international, attention—Vunidogoloa, Vunisavisavi and Narikoso—for the apparently nuanced schemes that attempted to relocate partial and whole communities. These were depicted as fluid, bottom-up adaptation projects. In reality, however, the process and consequences were more complex, and the framework and practices led to contentious outcomes, with maladaptive results.

The outcomes here were not the result of nefarious individuals seeking to gain from the relocation efforts. Rather, the processes involved were (mis)guided, shaped by flawed policy logics that trickled down from outdated structural systems ill-equipped to address the new, uncertain climate reality.

Maladaptive outcomes

In our interviews four key issues emerged as shaping maladaptive responses.

Technological fixes versus holistic approaches

Too often, the guiding logic is that adaptation is a means to protect people and property against external threat, whether that be hurricanes, rising sea levels or drought. In response, technological approaches and engineering projects are implemented, but these reinforce techno-optimism. In interviews, practitioners stressed how infrastructural and geoengineering projects dominate the adaptation sphere, undermining the larger, transformational changes needed to adequately adapt to climate change. Large-scale projects are also often costly, irreversible, and incapable of being adapted to the unpredictable nature of socio-ecological systems.

In 2012, the Fiji military assisted with the Narikoso relocation. Because of the relatively secluded size and nature of Ono Island, on which Narikoso is located, the military transported excavators and bulldozers from the capital, Suva, to Narikoso via cargo ship. Docking the cargo ship resulted in extensive damage to the Great Astrolabe Reef that encompasses Ono Island. The soldiers then transported the equipment onto the island by chain-sawing the mangroves. The soldiers also dynamited three cliff-like bluffs into the side of the mountain to level the new village site, resulting in further ecological damage. The Fijian Ministry of Minerals and Resources quickly responded with a survey of the modified ecosystem which found that the domino effect had begun. Removal of the mangroves hastened the already occurring coastal erosion, and the dynamited bluffs created mountaintop erosion that muddied the shoreline, ruining the marine ecology on which the community relied for sustenance.

Superficial analyses of this failure would point to poor planning: if an environmental assessment had been conducted, might these bad outcomes have been avoided? But deeper reflection shows that Narikoso’s relocation was treated as a technological fix. The community was threatened with frequent flooding, so the reflex response was to move it to higher ground, without taking into consideration the intricacies of environmental systems or the community’s relationship with that environment.

This story points to a larger theme in adaptation planning that one interviewee eloquently elaborated:

What it [this kind of infrastructural project] ignores, and what it doesn’t take into account, is you are not just adapting to the physical impact of climate but you’re adapting a societal system. You’re adapting a governance system that has to deal with the changes that will lead to [the] predictions [the impacts forecast]…

Protective systems and technological buffers that focus solely on biophysical threats overlook the need to address the social and political contexts in which adaptation projects take place. Coordinated social and cultural efforts are imperative if we are to avoid the negative outcomes of purely technological interventions.

Adaptation or development?

Adaptation offers a unique opportunity to rectify past injustices that have resulted in poverty and inequality. This points up a paradox: bad development has led to underdevelopment, but further development is the solution to underdevelopment. Practitioners note that adaptation provides opportunities to create better development practices; some go so far as to argue that adaptation is nothing more than good development.

The degree to which development should be embedded in adaptation projects remains unclear. As a representative from a bilateral organisation pointed out:

We want to do climate change adaptation but at the end of the day the purpose of this really is to get people better public services and better incomes … We should not … spend so much time trying to write around the poverty issue when really, the poverty issue is at its core.

Oceans provide ecosystem services. Coastal Fijian communities rely on the ocean for economic resources and food. For the coastal village of Vunidogoloa, the ocean provided their main source of protein: fish. The Ministry of Fisheries was aware that food insecurity would be a possible consequence of Vunidogoloa relocating 2 kilometres inland, where it would not have the same access to the ocean, so fish-ponds were allocated to support food security upon relocation. These fish-ponds were also intended to serve as a small-scale income-generating project for the community, with villagers directed to sell the fish-pond harvest to households. However, this undermined the principles of subsistence communities, in which fish are considered a staple of life, shared among families, and not a money source. Maladaptation here meant that households which could afford to buy fish did so, while those that could not had to rely on farming, generating inter-household income inequality.

The impacts of climate change here were exacerbated by socio-economic vulnerabilities generated by policies that turned out to be exploitative. Some see separating climate change adaptation from socio-economic progress as counter-productive. But development typically prioritises short-term economic goals over long-term social concerns; the management of the fish-ponds in Vunidogoloa as an income-generating project prioritised economic gain for some households in the community over food security for all.

How to quantify non-quantifiable factors

Funding agencies require outcome reports to test the effectiveness of adaptation projects. These often rely on generalisable metrics. Such mechanisms usually assess how funds are used rather than the effectiveness of the adaptation project itself. This poses a challenge for planners who rely on non-quantifiable variables to assess resiliency:

It is quite difficult to determine statistically that some community is better able to adapt to climate change after a four-year project. What are the types of quantifiable indicators you’re going to be able to use if it’s quite difficult? And so, we often don’t.

Most planners thus avoid adaptation approaches that are transformative because their benefits cannot readily be measured, and thus do not align with funding agency requirements. Such narrow parameters reinforce technocratic solutions, as these are ‘tangible’ and ‘quantifiable’. And so adaptation projects typically remain short-sighted and incremental, undermining the transformational changes needed for adaptation to be successful.

In Fiji, most coastal relocation efforts will be from flat areas to higher ground. Vunidogoloa, Vunisavisavi and Narikoso all relocated to hillside terrain, but for Vunidogoloa elders this was highly problematic. Vunidogoloa village moved to a hillside along the main road that runs through Vanua Levu, and families did not get to choose where they would live, but were placed in houses without consideration of the terrain or their physical ability. When the relocation took place in 2014 the village was unfinished; by 2016 the Fijian government still had not returned to complete the pathways that ran through the village site. When it rained, the steep hillside thus would become muddied and slippery. Most elders had been relocated to houses at the top of the hill, but because of their restricted physical mobility and the lack of paths they became increasingly housebound. In a deeply religious community, the elders suffered the most. They spoke of sadness and feelings of alienation because they could not congregate for prayer or go to their neighbours’ homes. Most elders said that the flatness of the old coastal site, even with its eroding coastline, brought more freedom and a greater sense of community than the relocation.

Accountability requires more than a tick-box mechanism. Qualitative assessments to gauge the just and equitable effectiveness of adaptation projects are costly and time-consuming, and where budget considerations are paramount, effective evaluation is sacrificed. What cannot be counted is not accounted for; concerns around justice and equity are not taken into full consideration, or are given low priority. As in the case of the elders of Vunidogoloa, this can lead to the further marginalisation of already vulnerable groups.

Competing problems and mainstreaming adaptation

Adaptation practitioners emphasise the importance of mainstreaming adaptation to get better results and maximise the benefits of adaptation. If adaptation plans are not implemented across the board in other spheres of society, communities have to ‘choose’ their priorities, and climate change appears to be just one concern among many. A practitioner in South Africa emphasised this point: ‘Climate change just isn’t the priority [for people]. It’s about putting food on the table. You have to make the link between climate change and people’s daily worries’. Such sentiments follow the widely circulating assumption among planners that environmental concerns are confined to affluent countries. All the same, environmental concerns are clearly registered elsewhere, although how they are interpreted in a key question. One interviewee noted:

There have been hurricanes for … 500 years, so these communities may have already started thinking about adaptation, they just didn’t call it climate change adaptation. They were just talking about trying to survive the hurricane.

Unlike Vunidogoloa and Narikoso, the Fijian village of Vunisavisavi was relocated with the assistance of USAID. Vunisavisavi was confronted with two environmental issues: water scarcity and coastal erosion. When USAID arrived in the community, representatives informed villagers that they could only afford to fund projects related to one of the environmental issues. Households closest to the shore opted for relocation while those further away voted to address water scarcity. With more people concerned about erosion, USAID invested in the relocation of four households that were geographically and socially vulnerable. As the new houses were being completed, the spring the community relied on for water went dry, and villagers were forced to go to a neighbouring village to ask for water.

Competing priorities are often depicted as economic versus environmental. In the case of Vunisavisavi, however, it was two environmental issues which were of concern to the community. Although aid from USAID was welcome and alleviated financial pressures for some households, the community was confronted with a decision that pitted two equally important concerns against each other. The relocation effort risked being abandoned because it did not adequately address water scarcity. As a village headman stated, ‘We can live with sea-level rise, but we cannot live without water’.

* * *

With uncertainty increasing as our climate changes, it is imperative that we adapt. Climate adaptation investment gained momentum in the period 2015 to 2018, with a 35 per cent increase in investment. In 2019, climate finance reached US$46 billion. However, this falls well below what is needed to adequately adapt to climate change. The Climate Policy Initiative, for one, estimates that an increase in annual climate finance of 590 per cent is needed to avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change: storms, heatwaves, droughts and sea-level rise.

Substantial growth in adaptation monies does indicate awareness of the need for, and some commitment to, adaptation, but as well as a further increase in funds we need to address our knowledge base and moral commitment to adaptation. The maladaptive pathways and outcomes described above illustrate shortcomings in understanding how adaptation works. More holistic models are needed so that adaptation becomes more than just protecting a road from sea-level rise or a coastal village against storm surges. We are adapting to a fundamentally different set of living conditions. We need to fully comprehend that we are increasingly living in an uncertain world.

Uncertainty can be intimidating, but it does not have to be. Considered differently, adaptation offers a second chance to make the world more just. Nature does not discriminate: the air does not care if you are rich or poor; the land does not see your political stance; and the water could not care less about your ethnicity. Yet social systems do discriminate. Inequality is not ‘natural’; rather, it is socially constructed and reproduced. Climate change adaptation in its more transformative and holistic forms can help to address existing social, political and economic inequalities while addressing valued cultures and life-ways. These holistic approaches give us the opportunity to reflect on what we want our communities and our world to look like.

About the author

Amanda Bertana

Amanda Bertana is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. Her primary area of research investigates the human dimensions of global environmental change and its effects (flooding, coastal erosion, more frequent and intense storm surges) on local communities. Recently, she has studied climate adaptation efforts with an emphasis on structural processes that lead to adaptive and maladaptive outcomes. She has published articles in Environmental Sociology, Environment and Planning C, The Geographical Journal Anthropological Forum, Rural Connections, Climate and Development and Case Studies in the Environment.

More articles by Amanda Bertana

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