The Geographical Journal

Planned relocation in low-lying coastal villages in Fiji

By Celia McMichael, The University of Melbourne, and Teresia Powell, University of the South Pacific

The global mean sea level has risen by  more than seven centimetres since 1993 due to melting ice sheets and glaciers, and the expansion of warming oceans. Sea levels could rise up to one metre by 2100 if atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rapidly increase. Planned relocation of low-lying populations is anticipated where sea level rise increases flooding, accelerates coastal erosion, reduces arable land, affects groundwater reserves, and damages infrastructure (Hino et al. 2017; Foresight 2011).

In many low-lying coastal sites that face these climate risks, relocation looms as a potential environmental future. In Fiji, planned relocation is already an emerging reality.

The Government of Fiji has stated that it will be difficult to protect low-lying villages and settlements from sea level rise, coastal erosion, flooding, and storm surges, ‘possibly making some of these settlements unsustainable over the long term’ (Republic of Fiji, 2017: 22). Fiji’s National Adaptation Plan Framework identifies planned relocation as a ‘last resort’ adaptive measure. The Government of Fiji has recently released Planned Relocation Guidelines for communities that experience the impact of adverse climate conditions, including those residing in low-lying coastal settlements.

Our paper in The Geographical Journal focuses on research conducted with residents of three low-lying coastal villages in Fiji: Vunidogoloa that relocated two kilometres inland in 2014; Vunisavisavi that completed partial retreat in 2015; and Narikoso that has initiated planning and major works for nearby relocation.

Each of these villages has experienced erosion, saltwater intrusion, and flooding over recent years. Many villagers attribute these environmental risks to climate change. As one man in Vunidogoloa explained to us, ‘we understand climate change because we live climate change, we experience . . . we live with it, it’s our daily lives, we walk through this’.

Impacts of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion in Vunisavisavi (Image: Celia McMichael, 2019)

Adaptive responses to these environmental changes have been implemented in each village including construction of wave breakers, sea-walls, and mangrove regeneration. However, these measures have not been effective: sea-walls have broken, mangrove seedlings have washed away. Villagers are now navigating emerging processes of planned relocation and retreat.

Planned relocation is not a bland technical intervention involving delivery of finances, technologies, infrastructure, technical skills and programmes to climate vulnerable peoples. Nor does it align with dramatic imagery suggested by phrases such as ‘climate refugees’ whereby vulnerable people seek refuge as their homelands ‘sink’ beneath the waves (Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012).

Our research finds that planned relocation and retreat are enmeshed with everyday lives and agency. In these three sites, villagers have been involved in decisions around the location of new sites, timing of relocation, and housing design. They have engaged with government ministries, international agencies and donors that are funding and supporting relocation initiatives. Relocation has been enabled through short-distance moves within customary land. These short-distance moves have allowed villagers to sustain place attachments and connections to their ancestors. Villagers have retained and adapted subsistence farming and livelihoods, ensuring their food security and income. And village leaders have played a crucial role in decision-making.

In Vunisavisavi, for example, short-distance retreat has allowed villagers to continue kava and crop production in nearby plantation land. And villagers have maintained their obligations to protect the ruins of the original home of their Paramount Chief, situated within their village.

Kava production in Vunisavisavi (Image: Celia McMichael 2019)

And while villagers in Vunidogoloa are farming new crops near the relocation site, including pineapples and bananas, they continue traditional farming and fishing practices. Through selective logging of trees from their customary land, they are raising funds to build a church in their new site. But many people miss the sea-breeze, swimming in the ocean, the sounds of the waves. Although their old homes are deteriorating, villagers sometimes return and sleep overnight in their original village site so that they might wake early to fish in their traditional fishing grounds.

Building the new church in Vunidogoloa relocation site (Image: Celia McMichael 2019)

Even as people spoke of local actions and experiences associated with planned relocation, discussions often turned to the global dimensions of climate change. Many said their environments, lives and futures were threatened by climatic changes created by activities elsewhere. They called on ‘big countries’ to take action and cut greenhouse gas emissions. As one villager said to us, ‘what is the cost of climate change? This question should be asked of the big countries, polluting. It’s not fair. They should stop all that pollution because we’re suffering here’.

Given the potential for relocation of low-lying coastal communities, it is critical to document and learn from early experiences of planned relocation. Our paper presents insight into some of the world’s first climate-related planned relocation initiatives. It highlights residents’ agency as they steer their way through the opportunities and challenges of planned relocation.

About the authors: Celia McMichael is Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, The University of Melbourne. The research discussed in this post provide a foundation for her Australian Research Council Linkage (2019-22) and Discovery (2019-22) research grants that focus on climate change, human mobility, and small island states. Teresia Powell is currently completing her Masters of Research at The University of the South Pacific. She was the Fiji Project Coordinator for the Integrated Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment project (IVA), provided technical advice to the Government of Fiji on the Planned Relocation Guideline and National Adaptation Plan, and has represented the Government of Fiji in National and International climate change meetings. Manasa Katonivualiku, the co-author of our paper in The Geographical Journal, passed away on 11 February 2019. He is much missed. The research and photographs presented in this post were funded in part by a National Geographic Research Grant (HJ2-194R-18).


Hino, M., Field, C.B., & Mach, K. (2017). Managed retreat as a response to natural hazard risk. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3252

Farbotko, C., & Lazrus, H. (2012). The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 22(2), 382–390.

Foresight, (2011). Migration and global environmental change: final project report. London: The Government Office for Science. Republic of Fiji, (2017b). 5-Year & 20-Year National Development Plan: Transforming Fiji. Suva, Fiji: Ministry of Economy. Retrieved from

McMichael, C, Katonivualiku, M, Powell, T. Planned relocation and everyday agency in low‐lying coastal villages in Fiji. Geogr J. 2019; 00: 1– 13.

Republic of Fiji, (2017).  Climate Vulnerability Assessment: Making Fiji Climate Resilient. Available at:

Caption for feature image: Vunidogoloa village, their new site of relocation (Image: Celia McMichael, 2019)

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