Tropical Cyclone Yasa: Fiji’s Second Category 5 Cyclone in a Year

What Happened? 

The Scale of Impact 

Tropical Cyclone (TC) Yasa, the second-strongest cyclone on record to make landfall in Fiji, slammed into the island nation on December 17, 2020, leaving a trail of devastation likened to a war zone. Following TC Harold in 2020—which displaced 10,000 people and caused an estimated $100 million in damages—TC Yasa was the second Category 5 cyclone of 2020 in the South Pacific.  

The disaster left at least four people dead and one missing, destroyed more than 8,000 homes, and displaced tens of thousands in a country with a population of less than 1 million. Following the storm, 7,731 people remained in 183 evacuation centers. Several islands were left without power and running water. TC Yasa also triggered flash flooding, landslides, and severe coastal inundation of up to 33 feet. Furthermore, the cyclone ruined crops, exacerbating existing food insecurities. TC Yasa wiped out entire villages, leaving the government to declare Fiji’s Northern Division in a 60-day State of Natural Disaster. It has caused an estimated loss of nearly $250 million to infrastructure, livelihoods, and agriculture.  

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and magnified the impacts of the cyclone. Just as COVID-19 restricted humanitarian assistance following TC Harold, travel restrictions due to the pandemic have hindered foreign aid workers from bringing food and medicine to those affected by TC Yasa.  

Humanitarian Response 

Humanitarian assistance has been distributed by the Fiji government, nonprofit organizations, and the international community. As of January 6, 2021, only 803 people remain in 35 evacuation centers, 37,000 food ration packs have been delivered, and 900 households have been given seedlings to rehabilitate destroyed farms. 

International humanitarian groups and foreign governments are donating to support the response. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is working with the Fiji Red Cross Society (FRCS) to offer water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), shelter, health, and cash-based interventions. Many nations—including New Zealand, Australia, China, France, and India—have donated money towards relief or deployed teams to support on the ground.  

In December of 2020, the United States Ambassador to Fiji Joseph Cella announced that the United States would provide $100,000 in International Disaster Assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This relief funding supported efforts by IFRC and FRCS. A month later, the U.S. Embassy donated an additional $200,000, which is expected to assist 300 households. USAID also continues to support Fiji year-round through disaster risk reduction programs

What’s at Stake? 

Immediate Humanitarian Challenges Remain  

Despite these financial efforts, needs in Fiji remain unmet. As a result of limited humanitarian assistance—whether due to funding or COVID-19 barriers— many community members spent weeks unable to return to their villages. The United Nations Resident Coordinator for Fiji Sanaka Samarasinha says that support will be needed for months, particularly for those disproportionately harmed by the disaster. “There are some 10,000 subsistence farmers who have been impacted by this cyclone,” he states. In the country’s poorest areas, people have lost their farms, crops, livestock, and homes. For months after TC Yasa, challenges will remain in restoring livelihoods.  

Climate Change Undermines Longer-Term Recovery 

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has attributed TC Yasa to climate change. “This is not normal. This is a climate emergency,” he tweeted just before the storm struck. He noted that Fiji has been at the epicenter of more frequent and intense sudden-onset hazards over the last few years, weathering 12 storms since 2012. The country had just started recovering from 2016’s TC Winston when it was hit by TC Harold and Yasa. These severe disasters will only become more accelerated and intense in the future, due to climate change. 

What Must Be Done? 

Supporting Planned Relocation Efforts 

Fiji is already grappling with the existential crisis of sea-level rise. In fact, in 2014, Vunidogoloa became the first village in Fiji to be abandoned due to rising seas. The government of Fiji has responded to this challenge proactively, with plans to move over 80 additional villages to higher ground. Some of these decisions have been informed by the government’s visionary “Planned Relocation Guidelines.” These guidelines will only come into being with concerted support from high-income countries. In February, New Zealand pledged $2 million (as part of a $150 million climate change package) to support Fiji’s Climate Relocation and Displaced Peoples Trust Fund—the world’s first relocation fund for climate change displacement. This was a welcome first step; but others, including the United States, should also consider providing financing to ensure that the Fund is adequately supported. 

“Building Back Better” 

In the United States, building back better as a domestic policy integrates disaster risk reduction post-disaster in order to revitalize livelihoods, economies, and the environment. The United States should apply this approach internationally by utilizing traditional foreign assistance programs of USAID. Not only would this application of building back better promote green foreign infrastructure and promote climate resilience, but also, it could improve U.S. foreign relations. In Fiji, following TC Yasa, support still is needed to ensure food security and repair critical infrastructure, such as schools and homes. 

Disasters of the severity of TC Yasa will not be uncommon in the future. This event—as well as Fiji’s vulnerabilities and displacement response—serves as a reminder that “building back better” is not just a slogan but an imperative reality. 

PHOTO CAPTION: Residents are returning to their homes ahead of cyclone Yasa’s landfall in Fiji’s capital city of Suva on December 17, 2020. Super cyclone Yasa flattened entire villages as it tore through Fiji. Photo Credit: LICE MOVONO/AFP via Getty Images.