www.fijitimes.com - By Theresa Ralogaivau, Sunday, April 26, 2009
THE Wairiki-i-Cake that snakes its way from the Cakaudrove hills was once an abundant source of life for the people at Suweni, a little slice of heaven at the end of 20 kilometres of a dusty, gravelled track from Labasa Town.
It all dramatically changed when the life-giving river became a deadly monster in the early hours of January 14, 2003.
The date is drummed into villagers' memories and wove a common thread of fear in their very lives.
That morning the Wairiki-i-Cake rose more than 10 feet high and swallowed whole six homes within a matter of seconds.
She then set a radical new course directly hitting the village, eroding the embankment.
Overnight, Suweni villagers were under siege.
Entwined with the river
For centuries, since the days their forefather Lele dispersed his four children from Nukubolu Village which lies within Koroalau district in a "go forth and multiply" kind of way, the people of Suweni have lived a life entwined with the river.
It's their source of food like the sweetest prawns you'll ever taste, freshwater eels and fish.
And then there's the daily laundry and washing sessions marked by talanoa and interjections of laughter as the village women congregate to clean and socially interact.
Children splashing, bathing and swimming while men scrub down horses downstream and vegetable farms are watered.
From daybreak to when the sun sinks over the mountain range the Wairiki-i-Cake plays a major role in their lives, a bond that links them.
Even the odd traveller pops in to enjoy a dip in the cool streams branching off down to the Korotari River and it is common knowledge in town those are some of the best swimming spots to be found around the place.
January 14, 2003
Tropical Cyclone Ami pummelled many parts of Fiji with tidal waves, floodwater and wind gusting up to 115mph on January 13, 2003.
Early the next morning (between 3am and 4am), village elder Jovilisi Bolamasei, 64, like everyone else, sat and listened in the seeming security of their homes to the constant roaring sound from the enraged Wairiki-i-Cake.
The sound was really the deafening sound of huge rocks colliding as they were swept downstream from the mountains.
"The wind had been really strong and then it subsided and the sound from the river was so loud we couldn't sleep," he said.
"And the rain was like no other I had experienced because it was like a big bucket of water was being poured on us.
"Suddenly we could hear screams as some families that lived on the river bank ran away from their homes which were under water.
"The men moved their families to other homes on higher ground but when they went back to recover some stuff their homes were no longer there."
One of the village youths, Jone, managed to jump out of a window and seconds after he escaped, his home was swallowed by the angry river.
"When it was daybreak we all came out of our homes and were shocked and speechless at what we saw."
A sickening feeling of dread that lives could have been lost and fear rooted most to the now empty spots where six homes once stood.
Not a shred of the homes were ever recovered.
The duna feast
Struggling to find proper drinking water and rebuild lives villagers made an interesting discovery as the day wore on.
Littered on the village ground were hundreds of freshwater eel which the Wairiki-i-Cake had spewed forth as she unleashed her power.
According to village headman Pita Mira the duna also slithered in suitcases of clothes that had been inundated with floodwater and this managed to bring a smile or two to sad faces.
"E ka lasa ni keimami raica na vanua sa ra davo tu kina o ira na duna," he said.
They feasted for two months on the mana from the river but it would be the last blessing she was going to give for some years.
The three year drought
For three years after Wairiki-i-Cake's night of fury, drought struck the village.
"When we went looking we couldn't find the prawns, duna or fish," Mr Bolamasei related.
Processed food overtook the daily diet and for those who could not afford it, it was "rourou nikua" and "waci ni mataka" which basically is their light-hearted way of saying rourou every day.
"Those were very difficult times for us because we largely lived off the land and the river.
"We couldn't find them because the river had become very shallow.
"Before January 14, it was about 20 feet deep but now it is just waist-high and parts of the river have dried up because it's now on a new path."
"Before the river was about 100 metres away from the village yet now it's eating into the village."
Gone forever with the homes of six families were the centuries old hardwood trees like vesi that once lined the river banks, uprooted by flood waters.
Their outspread branches provided the river with a green shelter protecting it from the harsh glare of the sun.
"That's why we had an abundant source of fresh water food and the river was deep and cold but now its mostly dry and warm," Mr Bolamasei said.
The constant threat and fear
Top on the list of things to pray for during 'masumasu' time morning and evening is divine intervention to rescue them from the devil and the deep blue sea situation they are stuck in.
Right now part of the soil foundation of a home is gone while four others are in imminent danger of losing theirs.
"We are all in danger because if January 14 happens again and it's only a matter of time when considering the changes in the weather, most of this village will be gone," Mr Bolamasei said.
They want to relocate to higher ground but at the same time worry about being trapped in landslides which now happen often during periods of heavy rain.
Suweni as Reverend Neumi Vunileba described, sits in a 'lovo pit' with mountain ranges on either side.
"So if we run away from the river and go up hill we face the landslides.
"Every time it rains heavily and floodwater rises as it happens often now we are truly afraid of the consequences."
Mr Bolamasei said they want help from above and the government.
What's going to happen
Government officials from the Department of Land and Water Resource management surveyed the erosion problem and the new course chartered by the Wairiki-i-Cake early this year.
The 'Saving Suweni' plan involves a $.5million project that would include the construction of a 50-metre retainer wall and diverting the Wairiki-i-Cake back to its original course.
Work is expected to start next month.
Making a change for nature, Suweni villagers have decided not to allow commercial logging to be carried out in their forests located upstream.
"We realise that logging also had a major role to play in the flood," said Mr Bolamasei.
"When we weighed the monetary benefit we got from it in terms of royalty and premium it was peanuts compared to the loss of food source, the destruction of our homes and constant fear we live in.
"We will only cut enough trees to build our homes."
Suweni's experience is not an isolated one as villagers of Korotasere and Navatukuca at Vaturova can easily testify.
These villages may be hundreds of miles apart but the common bond that they share is living in fear for their lives and that one day their village will be gone in the rising tide of floodwater.
They are the victims of climate change and man's own doing.