CDRRR investigates Cyclone Winston recovery efforts in Fiji

In July, members of the Centre for Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction (CDRRR) travelled to Fiji as part of a study focusing on the recovery from Cyclone Winston.

Members of the CDRRR in Fiji
Left to right: Mohamed Elkharboutly, Mitchell Mackay, Sandeeka Mannakkara, Harold Aquino, Kanito Lovobalavu, Rita Whitfield and Professor Suzanne Wilkinson

The study originally began in 2016, mainly looking at rebuilding housing. As new members joined the scope of the project grew, with this latest trip seeing six members head over for the eight-day trip. Each member has their own research aims within the investigation into Fiji’s recovery. The group for this trip was made up of:

Professor Suzanne Wilkinson: Founder and Leader of the CDRRR.
Sandeeka Mannakkara: Post-doctoral researcher working on developing and defining the concept of Building Back Better.
Mohamed Elkharboutly: PhD student conducting a comparative study between the modern reconstructed villages, the traditional reconstructed villages and those that are a mix of both practices.
Harold Aquino: PhD student looking at housing resilience and the various factors affecting people's abilities to build back better, such as socioeconomic factors and the types of policies being put in place.
Mitchell Mackay: Part IV student researching the communications side of the recovery for Cyclone Winston in Fiji, including the roles of the different stakeholders and if everyone was getting what they needed.
Rita Whitfield: Part IV student investigating who was the driving force behind village recovery, in terms of government or non-government officials or village leaders.

With the exception of Professor Wilkinson who was only able to accompany the team for the first few days, the team spent a busy eight days in Fiji. Their time was spent meeting with government and non-government officials as well as travelling to three remote villages on the mainland to get a balanced overview of the recovery efforts so far.

“This time we focused on what you can describe as remote villages, which are either geographically isolated or economically isolated - where they don't have the means to get everything they need,” Sandeeka said.

“We were looking at their recovery under the BBB framework and trying to evaluate how the different recovery components are progressing.”

This was not the first time members of the CDRRR had been to Fiji as part of their research into the recovery from Cyclone Winston. In previous trips, the team members built relationships with Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity Fiji which helped facilitate the research process.

“Habitat for Humanity is one of the main Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) that provides housing after disasters. They currently formulate their programmes based on their own knowledge and experience and they wanted us to provide some scientific input,” Sandeeka said.

“On this trip we were lucky to be accompanied by a representative from HFH named Kanito Matagasau Lovobalavu who joined us for our field visits, which actually helped us a lot. His presence and his connections with all the government and non-government officials really made them receptive to us.”

This latest trip was built around visits to three distinct villages which each had different approaches to the rebuild. After Cyclone Winston, the government gave villagers a grants in the form of vouchers to buy materials to rebuild their damaged homes, starting from FJ$1500 to FJ$7,000 per household based on the extent of damages. However, the effectiveness of the rebuild varied from village to village. One of the villages visited had an NGO had come in and take care of the entire rebuild process. In another example, the village had a really strong leader who was able to rally the community into helping out with the rebuild process. The leader combined the vouchers from the government and utilised his contacts to get a better deal on materials compared to individual homeowners buying products for themselves.

The final case study revealed an interesting result of the voucher system. The vouchers limited the type of materials villagers could use to rebuild and were suited to a modern style of housing. As a result, one of the last traditional villages left in Fiji now has a collection of modern temporary houses on its site, despite the fact the traditional houses were not damaged in a life-threatening way and could have been supported during the rebuild.

“We found out that they apparently spend the day in their traditional homes anyway, and just go to the new house to sleep,” Sandeeka said. “The wider perception amongst stakeholders was that no one wanted to rebuild traditional housing. That did not seem to be the case, they just didn’t have the resources or the assistance to do so.”

This raised questions about what Building Back Better really means, with the team mentioning it’s not just about building physical structures, but asking questions like:

  • How can we support the social, psychological and cultural recovery of people through the rebuild?
  • How do we get back them into their livelihoods? 
  • Are these houses actually safe and functional? 
  • Do locals know how to use them? 
  • Do they know how to maintain and prepare them for future events?

For Part IV Students Mitchell and Rita, the trip was a unique opportunity to bring their research project into a real-life context and get an idea of what postgraduate research opportunities might look like. Despite eight days of early starts and late nights debriefing, the pair took a lot away from the experience.

“A cool thing about the project for Mitch and I is seeing a project go from paper and research to real life. We got to see the people that were being affected, and what we are learning and reporting back can actually have an impact on their lives,” Rita said.

“They were long days that we loved every minute of. Coming back here was almost like a culture shock, because we were so immersed in what we were doing there,” Mitchell added. 

I feel very fortunate to have not seen the touristy side of Fiji, but actually being in and around the actual goings on, and being accepted into that as well, which was amazing.

For Harold and Mohamed who have been on multiple trips, this and another trip planned for the future represent a chance to continue building relationships and look at other aspects of the Cyclone Winston recovery efforts.

“Every trip there's a huge amount of learning, and you get to build your network,” Harold said. “I'm looking forward to visiting the villages in the outer islands. I've been to Fiji three times but only in the villages on the main island, and I'm hoping to have a look at the more remote side of it.”

“It's nice to do your research outside the lab or the confines of a room and just see the world out there. You get to see how your research can actually change things for people.”

“It’s getting much easier,” Mohamed added. “The first trip was really hard. Then the second one got a little bit easier. When people get to know you it facilitates a lot of things.”

“When I went to the villages, they were accepting of us. Before I went there I thought there would be some sort of resistance, but I found it completely different. I found that some of them really lack that basic knowledge, so all of us need to give them a hand and to share the knowledge to help better Fiji, and to help build much more resilient houses.”

The team would like to thank Habitat for Humanity Fiji, Red Cross Fiji, Fiji National University and the University of the South Pacific for supporting them in a number of different ways, from providing guides to opening up spaces for meetings.

The trip was funded with assistance from University of Auckland Construction Management Budget, PRESS accounts, and the Natural Hazards Research Platform fund run by Opus Research.