Urgent Plea From the Pacific

Fiji came to the first UN World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul with an urgent plea from all Pacific peoples and the citizens of vulnerable low lying nations around the world. We desperately need the global community to assist us to adapt to the greatest humanitarian challenge we have ever faced - the threat to our very existence brought about by the extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by climate change.

The nations of the world recognised the urgent need to tackle this issue when we all gathered for the UN Climate Summit in Paris last November. On behalf of every Fijian, I urge those nations that have yet to ratify the Paris Agreement to do so as a matter of urgency. Fiji is proud to have been the first country in the world to formally approve the Agreement and lodge the ratification instruments. Because we are acutely aware of the existential threat that this global challenge poses to our way of life in Small Island Developing States the world over.

That threat is ever present. Three months ago, on February 20th, 2016, the biggest cyclone ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere slammed into Fiji with winds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour. Tropical Cyclone Winston killed 44 Fijians and left a trail of destruction in its wake. Up to 40,000 homes were damaged and destroyed, along with 229 schools and other public buildings and infrastructure.

We were fortunate that Winston spared our main tourism areas, our international visitors kept coming and the overall impact on the wider economy wasn't as great as we first feared. But it has reminded us all of our acute vulnerability to the more frequent and more severe extreme weather events that the scientists tell us will accompany climate change. Our close neighbor, Vanuatu, had a similar experience in 2015 with Tropical Cyclone Pam, which killed more than 20 people. But every Pacific nation is now in a position in which a single event scoring a direct hit on the entire country could devastate our economies for many years to come and reverse all of our hard-won development gains.

In addition, the sea level rises caused by global warming have already forced us in Fiji to begin relocating 45 communities and we have so far identified 830 that are at risk. Yet our own challenge as a nation made up of mountainous volcanic islands pales into insignificance compared with some of our low lying neighbours that are coral atolls. Three of these - Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands - will disappear beneath the waves altogether on current projections.

Fiji has offered permanent refuge in a worst case scenario to the people Kiribati and Tuvalu - our closest neighbours. But Pacific island nations want the world to embrace a lower cap on global temperatures than the two degrees celsius, compared to the pre-industrial age, that was agreed to in Paris. Under the terms of the Suva Declaration at the last meeting in the Fijian capital of the Pacific Islands Development Forum, we are pressing for that cap to be lowered to 1.5 degrees. And I appeal to you all to support this proposal.

Small and vulnerable nations such as Fiji make a negligible contribution to global warming. Our own carbon emissions are 0.004% of the global total and the average Fijian generates almost five times less carbon than the average person in the rest of the world. Nonetheless, we recognise our collective responsibility to humanity and have committed to reduce our own carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 by increasing our use of renewable energy sources.

For countries with low carbon footprints such as Fiji, climate change adaptation is naturally an infinitely more pressing issue than mitigation. We must urgently build our resilience across the board to withstand the frightening new era that is already upon us. And that means persuading the global community to provide us with immediate access to the finance we need to build that resilience.

There are currently far too many impediments to gaining access to finance. For instance, while Fiji is a developing country, it has been designated a middle-income nation and is denied the ability to pursue certain avenues of financial assistance. This clearly needs to change. In a very real sense, we are being punished for our success. And I appeal for a concerted effort to make the finance we need for climate resilience building more available.

Fiji is gratified that the global community is recognising the need for a more proactive approach to disaster management, included pre-committed finance to bolster our capacity to respond to individual events such as Winston. So I am especially looking forward to the Disasters Roundtable in Istanbul and the launch of the Global Preparedness Partnership, which I hope will reverse the current underinvestment in our collective response to disasters, wherever they occur.

The world must put climate change adaptation for vulnerable nations at the top of the global agenda, including at the World Humanitarian Summit. I want to warmly thank all the UN member countries that came to Fiji's assistance in the wake of Cyclone Winston. And I look forward to a productive summit and to meeting as many of you as possible in Istanbul.