In a thatched-roof fale, a traditional Samoan open house, the sound produced by a cyclone is harsh, raw and frightening.
In the modern version of a fale, an open rectangular structure with a corrugated iron roof and no ceiling, it is also noisy, and even scarier, as the roar of the wind pushes the roof upwards, constantly banging metal on the wooden frame, causing you to be vigilant – because at any time the roof can be completely blown off.
I have experienced many cyclones with my mother, siblings and extended family in our village of Safua in Savai’i.
My mother had lived over, on the coastal village of Fagamalo. She had known cyclones on thatched roofs and houses with corrugated iron roofs. During the last cyclone we experienced, she was my home in town, a modern elevated cyclone-proof property, sheltered from the elements.
On the first day, as we sat in the living room, we watched the wind through the sliding glass doors, protected by mesh wiring. She said, “It’s quiet.” The cyclone was in full swing outside, trees were uprooted, houses were destroyed before our eyes, and the river running through the land was overflowing into people’s houses. I looked at her and we sat there for what seemed like an eternity, struggling to listen to the sounds of the cyclone.
It was then that I realized that in moving from traditional life in Savai’i to the city of Apia, in modern dwellings, we had experienced the disparity of the impact of the climate crisis and had it lived.
She was right: in an open area, even barricaded, one is barely protected from winds and rain, and especially not from flying debris. In a modern home, all you have to worry about is losing electricity and water, and even then these problems can be solved with a generator and a water tank.
The climate crisis is hitting those who cannot afford it the hardest, because when their homes are destroyed, they lack the resources to rebuild without state or outside help. It’s the same all over the world: those without means, who live in structures that cannot survive cyclones, are the first and hardest hit. Slums, rural areas, coastal areas, affordable housing structures and multi-generational homes, whether in India, Sri Lanka, UK, US or elsewhere, the climate crisis is hitting the hardest marginalized communities.
When a cyclone hits a Pacific island, in addition to the direct impact on key infrastructure and services, it destroys banana crops and uproots breadfruit from trees, and overnight stables and means of livelihood of thousands of islanders are wiped out. These can take years to recover. Sometimes there can be no recovery. The aftermath of cyclones is felt for years, depending on the severity.
As COP27 continues in Egypt, this issue of the disparity between rich and poor and their experience of the climate crisis deserves more attention and goes to the very heart of the discussion on loss and damage.
Those responsible for high emissions also continue to be the most influential voices at the top, but those bearing the most direct impacts of the climate emergency, who are not as influential, also continue to call for more urgent action. in the face of the global crisis.
But when marginalized communities in high-emitting countries suffer the worst of the climate crisis, does that change the dynamics of loss and damage, when the offender becomes the injured, would that make the issue more relevant to the north overall ?
As Pacific Islanders continue to experience more extreme and frequent cyclones, what happens to those in thatched-roof cliffs? How will the global community address the persistent disparity between climate impact on those who can afford it and those who cannot?
The conference in Egypt is the 27th summit and continues to engage in pre-existing discussions on the global climate crisis. But what happens if it fails? Where do those who live in thatched-roof fales take refuge?
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