Pacific academic researchers on climate change and the impacts to mental health

Six Pacific researchers from three different academic institutions in New Zealand arrived on the island last week, each with a similar mission to Niue on one main topic: climate change. 

Niue’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) coordinated various programmes for the researchers held throughout their one week visit to the island last week. 

One of the programmes included a Public Forum which took place last Sunday evening 21 May at the Aliutu community hall in Alofi South. 

The forum gave members of the community the opportunity to listen and hear from Pacific researchers from various Universities in New Zealand including the University of Canterbury, University of Waikato and the University of Auckland. 

There were also three academic professors in archaeology from the United Kingdom who spoke on climate change and the impacts to cultural heritage.

The Pacific researchers included Dr. Jemaima Tiatia on the impacts of climate change to Pacific mental health and Dr. Christina Newport on climate mobility from the University of Auckland. 

From the University of Waikato included Dr. Sione Vaka and Angeline Hekau on the impacts of climate change to mental health as well. And the University of Canterbury included Dr. Suliasi Vunibola and Dr. Christina Laalai-Tausa who presented on the Pacific Ocean Climate Crisis Assessment (POCCA Project). 

Director of the Niue Meteorological Services Rossy Mitiepo also presented a report of Niue’s Tropical Cyclone Season 2022/2023. 

The teams are now finalising their findings gathered from Niue and other Pacific communities, they are now at the stage where they have collaborated with their Pacific colleagues, have looked at all the available evidence and are grateful for the collaboration with Niueans like local consultant and researcher Jamal Talagi-Veidreyaki and MET Director Rossy Mitiepo and many others who contributed to this piece of research. 

BCN News spoke with researchers and prominent Samoan academic the Pro-Vice Chancellor Pasifika of Auckland university Dr. Jemima Tiatia last week. 

“In a nutshell, mental health and wellbeing and climate change has traditionally been seen as separate. It can’t be separated. We live, breathe the environment, our environment is in us and we’re the environment.”

The public forum last Sunday also gave clarity to the misconceived term ‘mental health.’ 

Researchers explained that more often than not, mental health is seen as negative, often mistaken with mental distress, mental illness and mental disorder. But mental health is much more positive, it is an identity, sense of belonging and indigenous way of knowing, doing and being. 

“We know that with climate change, people are impacted. It re-traumatizes people, we know that there is still a lot of hurt and pain and grief that is felt and our environment feels that and we feel that. So how can we release that healing, release that pain, release the grief? What are the solutions that are local solutions? How can we get the voices out there to start talking at those tables where others are making decisions for us? Because at the end of the day, our wellbeing cannot be separated from anything. The environment is us and we are the environment,” says Dr. Jemaima. 

Public Forum at Aliutu town hall in Alofi South

There was a great emphasis on research being Pacific led and centred, which was evidently expressed and seen through the six Pacific researchers at the public forum. 

Climate financing was also highlighted in the conversations.

For many years and decades, the Pacific has been calling for climate financing in the conferences of the parties especially for support of Pacific Small Island Developing States. But according to Dr. Christina Laalai-Tausa from the University of Canterbury, due to having less data to back up their claims, the Pacific is left to the decision-making of non-Pacific Island leaders who are unaware of the real issues faced in the Pacific Island communities. Once again, with no financial support and assistance to address the impacts of climate change the vulnerable islands of the Pacific. 

Hence, the University of Canterbury research academics are focused on developing a Pacific digital database for climate change as part of the POCCA project, where Pacific-based and researched data and information can be accessed by all Pacific Island nations. 

It was a very informative public forum with engaging questions and answers that followed at the end from those who attended. 

The researchers left the island on Monday this week, but it will not be their last visit to Niue as the work still continues for Niue and the Pacific region in addressing the world’s largest global issue of climate change.

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