My Friend the River



Posted on 12 August 2013  | 
Eminoni Limalevu the climate champion
© WWF South PacificEnlarge
Eminoni Limalevu’s life is closely tied to the Vunimoli River.

It’s where he spent countless hours as a child, playing, swimming and fishing. As a mature farmer, he uses the river to water his crops and livestock.

The river is a friend - ‘wekaqu voleka’ as he describes it.

But the day his friend the river turned monstrous, seizing all that he had built in a breath, robbing him and his fellow villagers of a lifetime of sweat and hard work, the 37 year-old father of four was devastated.

How could his friend turn so mean and nasty?

In 2003, after the ferocious winds of Cyclone Ami had died down, floodwaters rose unexpectedly and covered the land.

He vividly recalls clinging to a raft in the cold waters, the rancid smell of fear, his children’s cries, the vast water-logged land that once was his village, and when the flood waters had gone, picking up the pieces and trying to move on.

“Years of working hard to build my home, filling it with the comfortable things in life, clothes, food...even the crops, it all disappeared in the space of just a few hours,” he said.

The floods of 2003 that hit Labasa and her peripheries still stand out sharply in Limalevu’s memories.

He also remembers the family that lost their lives just up the river at Korotari.

But out of the floods, a new man was born.

With ‘new’ eyes, the village headman noticed the changes to his environment that in the past had eluded him. The Vunimoli River that meanders near his village home was shallower. He noticed that whenever it rained now, the river got muddy really quick. The riverbanks were ‘deformed’ by erosion. When it was supposed to be raining, the weather was unbearably dry and the seasons seemed out of sync.

Threats of flooding happened more often.

“It became difficult to plant crops because just before we could harvest, the floods come and we lose our cassava and dalo,” he said.

“Or the crops just didn’t grow well because when we felt it should be dry, it kept raining.”

He wanted to know what all these changes meant, why they were happening and what he could do to prevent a repetition of the 2003 tragedy..

In a nutshell, he wanted to adapt.

Even back then, climate change was not an uncommon term. He had heard about it everywhere he turned - in the papers, on the radio, and even on television. He just didn’t understand the mechanics of it. Back then, he believed it was a foreign concept, beyond the 'need to know' of a simple village headman.

But he knew he had to change.

“I got interested. I wanted to know what it all meant because I’m a father, I play an important leadership role and to be informed helps me make decisions that are good for us,” he said.

As a climate champion, village headman and representative of Labasa district to the Macuata Provincial Council, Limalevu encourages the three villages of Vunimoli, Korotari and Wasavulu to adopt practices that don’t degrade the environment.

One example is that these villages have decided to stop farming on their riverbanks or clearing away vegetation to reduce soil erosion. For the first time, riverbank cleanups were organised and replanting activities undertaken.

Vetiva grass along with short term cash crops like kumala, were also planted to erect a buffer zone along the river. A disaster preparedness committee was also set up. The village headman usually leads this committee in monitoring the river during flooding risk periods, and prepares exit strategies for villagers well before a flood strikes.

Erosion of riverbanks through bad farming practices is known to contribute to river siltation and frequent flooding.

Pig pens were also relocated from their once favorite spots on the riverbank and village laws passed that strictly prohibit the dumping of rubbish in the river. Instead a proper disposal system of pits and composts was set up.

All of these activities were valuable lessons Eminoni took from the waste management and river care workshops he had attended. The workshops were funded by the AusAID" Building Resilience to Climate Change" project and coordinated by project partner, Live and Learn Environmental Education.

And the awareness never ceases.

“The committee talks about it everywhere, in church, at village functions, and meetings,” he said.

“We share about climate change and the things that we can do to prevent it from having such a severe impact on our lives".

“It’s important that every one of us understands this because unless we adapt, we will continue to relive 2003.”

Limalevu said he changed his life from climate change victim to champion.

And through this process he understood the duality of life, our symbiotic tie to the environment.

“The river cared for me; I just took it for granted. But thank goodness I’ve finally woken up and seen the light, that I also owe a duty of care to the river!”
Eminoni Limalevu the climate champion
© WWF South Pacific Enlarge

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