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Climate chaos in home country inspires PhD



Growing up in the Ba Province of Fiji gave University of Auckland PhD student Sivendra Michael a first-hand appreciation of how climate change is destroying Pacific communities.

As a child his community was hit by a serious flood or cyclone once a year. Now it happens about three times a year. And the weather events are more devastating and crucially, happen faster, giving local businesses and households less time to prepare and react.

“I have grown up witnessing how the tides have changed and how my fellow people are fighting against the impacts of climate change,” Sivendra says.

“The devastation is getting is worse, however there is almost no media coverage of what is happening in the Ba Province and the climate change research seems to have overlooked this region, particularly when it comes to small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Which is why at 29, Sivendra has put a successful career where he oversaw development projects in Fiji and the Pacific on hold to pursue a PhD in the Department of Development Studies. His research explores disaster resiliency of SMEs specifically in the Ba Province.

Sivendra also holds a Masters of Economics degree from the University of Auckland and is the first Fijian to graduate with First Class Honours. He is also probably the only student who rushed home midway through his studies in 2016, fearing for the life of his family when super storm Cyclone Winston wreaked havoc on Fiji, killing 42 people. Many homes were destroyed, including ones he had lived in, and the impact on small business owners was severe.

At the time it was the worst tropical storm ever to hit Fiji. Then, in 2018, Ba was hit by four floods, one in January and three back-to-back in April. Sivendra says the waters were three times higher than any in the province’s history.

“My PhD is very personal. I fear for the future of my community but also my family’s own businesses. I am a son of micro-entrepreneurs whose automotive business has consistently been affected by natural disasters and witnessing them overcome these challenges gives me greater inspiration.

“SMEs make up 60 percent of employment in Fiji and play a sizeable role in socio-economic development, yet there has been very little research into how the brunt of impacts from natural disasters affect SMEs in the Pacific.

“My research therefore seeks to gather in-depth understanding on how SMEs have built disaster resilience so vulnerable groups are better prepared for coping with and recovering from natural calamities. But more importantly, I also want to share the concerns of my people and their experiences which remains largely unknown.”

Sivendra received a Doctoral Scholarship to complete his PhD, and lives in University accommodation with his young daughter, juggling his studies, being a single parent, and a climate activist.

Last year alongside his PhD, he managed the British Council youth-advocacy Valuing Voices project which initiates practical action on climate change in Fiji, including planting mangroves, building seawalls, and protesting against government activities around energy and fossil fuels. He is also active in the Alliance for Future Generation and Team 54 Global Climate Action Group.

Social media is key platform used by these groups given the current restrictive nature of Fiji’s media laws. For example, with the British Council, Sivendra helped kick-start innovative advocacy campaigns combining art and social media to raise the profile of climate change and other issues concerning marginalised groups in Fiji, and to provide a platform for their voices to be heard.

“The main mission of Valuing Voices is to amplify the voices of the voiceless, and to educate youth in what local actions or initiatives they can take to sustain their villages or urban areas for future generations,” he says.

Sivendra’s development work was recognised in March when he was named as a Pacific finalist for a coveted Commonwealth Youth Award, for his contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate action.

Locally in New Zealand, Sivendra also volunteers at Auckland-based charity Splice, working on social empowerment projects such as Active Citizens. Last year he was named the University of Auckland Māori and Pacific Arts Student of the Year for Community Service.

In September Sivendra will return to Fiji to conduct field research along with his supervisors Professor Andreas Neef and Dr Jesse Grayman from the Department of Development Studies in the Faculty of Arts. He says he is immensely grateful to them for their support and guidance.

“Without them I would have never embarked on this journey.”


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