Costing the Impact of Cyclone Winston on Fiji’s Ecosystem Services

Tropical cyclone Winston hit Fiji in February 2016 devastating the island’s infrastructure, and leaving 43 people dead, and 120,000 without shelter.  As Fiji recovers, its government is working to document all the cost of this event to their economy.

Our Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) Working Group Ridge to Reef Fisheries is helping Fiji’s government document the economic costs of the cyclone to the services that Fiji’s ecosystems provide to people.

This is something of a new approach to post-storm assessments, not just in Fiji, but around the world as well. Typically, assessments of economic damage caused by natural disasters only include direct economic costs, like the cost of repairing damaged schools. Unfortunately, such costings underestimate the true cost of the disaster to society because they do not account for damage to ecosystems, or the goods and services they provide, many of which are foundational to people’s jobs and economic security.

To take just one example, coral reef ecosystems support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the globe. In Fiji, they support people by drawing tourists and providing for fisheries.

Coral reefs support fisheries that are vital to the livelihoods of people in tropical island nations. © Jeff Yonover
Coral reefs support fisheries that are vital to the livelihoods of people in tropical island nations. © Jeff Yonover


Reef ecosystems can be impacted by cyclones. The impacts can be direct: the cyclone can tear up the reef. They can also be indirect. Heavy rainfall on land carries sediment and pollutants into rivers which then flow out to sea. The turbid waters can smother corals, killing them. Fish in turn depend on habitat provided by the coral so the whole ecosystem – and the plants, animals and people that depend on it – may be affected.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has a strong partnership with Fiji’s government, and has been have been working closely with leaders to provide inputs into the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment to ensure that the assessment of the cyclone’s damage includes the economic costs of lost ecosystem services.

It can be challenging to mobilise a science team to document costs after a natural disaster like a cyclone. Fortunately, our SNAPP group, which includes members from WCS, The Nature Conservancy, the University of Queensland, Griffith University, and several other organizations, has already been working to document the value of Fiji’s ecosystem services on land and in the sea. The principle objective of our work – which began in 2015 — is to help plan land-use change to minimise the run-off of pollutants into the ocean, where they may impact fisheries.

Run-off of turbid water can be worsened by land-clearing. Loss of forest destablises the soil, so more soil runs into rivers with rain. Trees also break the energy of the rainfall and absorb some of the rain, so more trees mean less of the rainfall runs into rivers.

Our team has provided the Fiji government with some basic information about catchments and forest cover on the island of Vanua Levu, one of the most affected regions (see image).

Forest cover in Vanua Levu's major catchments, estimated as part of our SNAPP working group.
Forest cover in Vanua Levu’s major catchments, estimated as part of our SNAPP working group.


The information about catchments and landcover will be used by Fiji’s government to help document the cost of the cyclone to ecosystem services damaged in the storm. It will also  help formulate actions that can be taken as Fiji begins the earlier recovery phase, which includes better land-sea management.

The cyclone has also seen a shift in the science priorities for our working group. The Wildlife Conservation Society had been working towards an integrated coastal management planning meeting with government and Fijian communities in May. The meeting was to discuss the future of land-use change in parts of Fiji.

The SNAPP team had been working towards supporting the planning meeting by providing estimates for how much pollution may cost fisheries and associated livelihoods. However, this natural disaster has caused by people to take a wider view of the potential impacts of extreme run-off events.

Our SNAPP team is now working to incorporate extreme events into the scientific advice we provide. We hope that information about extreme events will resonate with local stakeholders and help to highlight the importance of protecting local ecosystem services for the direct and indirect value they provide.


Editor’s Note: In addition to the economic loss of ecosystem services associated with tourism and fisheries, damage to and loss of coral reefs and coastal forests also increases people’s vulnerability to sea level rise and future storm events. Another SNAPP Working Group – Coastal Defenses – has been working to show the economic and ecosystem values of healthy coastal habitats for reducing risk to lives, property, and making ecosystem services.  

Christopher Brown

Chris Brown, Research Fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute, works on the conservation of marine ecosystems and sustainable management of fisheries. His work brings ecological… Read More