Cyclone-hit Fiji faces long road back

·3-min read

Cyclone-ravaged communities in Fiji are benefiting from Australian support.

But business operators and families in the worst-hit area of Lekutu in Bua province, on the island of Vanua Levu, say they could be up to 10 years away from fully recovering.

An Australia parliamentary delegation was briefed by locals in Lekutu on Thursday, before attending the opening of a new secondary school with Australia's high commissioner John Feakes.

The school was built by Australian, French and Fijian defence forces as part of a broader $18.5 million federal government program to cyclone-proof nine Fiji schools and two hospitals.

The original secondary school, and the local primary school, were wiped out by tropical cyclone Yasa, a category five storm the likes of which the region has not seen in at least 50 years.

People were sheltering in the school when the storm hit.

Almost 200 homes were also destroyed, with many locals still living in tents or relocated to temporary settlements.

School head boy Sam Prasad, who plans to study medicine in Australia, said students were excited to have a new facility.

"There was nothing left - only a concrete floor," he said of seeing the cyclone damage in 2020.

At the community briefing, local farmers expressed their thanks for $300 individual cash payments provided via Save the Children under the Australian Humanitarian Project.

They spoke of sheep, chicken and goats dying in their hundreds, 80 per cent crop loss and children left traumatised by the cyclone.

Farmers said they would use the money to buy seedlings, while others will use it for schooling.

But one local innovator, 21-year-old Mohammed Shamil, has used his money to start a barber shop - given that the closest service is two hours' drive away.

The new secondary school buildings will ensure not only education can continue without disruption but provide a shelter for the community if another devastating storm hits.

The first part of the project involved building two triple-classroom blocks.

Other buildings are due to start construction later this year.

The broader program aims to rehabilitate nine schools on the island of Vanua Levu and two hospitals.

The delegation also visited the temporary camp of Nabavatu - meaning "orphan" - where 85 families have been relocated to Assembly of God church land.

Save the Children Fiji has provided cash assistance to many of the families through an anonymous philanthropic donor, among a total of 39,000 struggling households across the country.

Boniparte Vonuqaqa, who is in charge of the camp, said the 19 months spent at the temporary facility had been full of "daily challenges".

"When COVID hit, we were the most vulnerable ones due to sharing amenities," he said.

He said they had been informed by authorities their village was no longer safe to return to and permanent accommodation was three years away.

"I hope you have a fair idea of what climate change has done," he told the MPs and senators.

Nationals deputy leader Perin Davey said all Australian parliamentarians supported net zero emissions by 2050.

"It's vitally important," she said at the camp visit.

Villagers asked the delegation to consider donating solar lights, mattresses and more huts.

Asked about Australia's Pacific labour scheme, he said it would be a huge benefit for villagers to work overseas and remit money back home, but processing applications "take a long time".

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