Hundreds of millions of people may be at risk as sea levels rise worldwide.
Alisi Rabukawaqa, project liaison officer of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has considered this through. She doesn’t stop talking for about ten minutes when I ask her about the realities of climate change in what many perceive to be a tropical paradise – her native Fiji. She recalls a time when terrible cyclones happened “once in a lifetime.” Category 5 storms become a familiar and impending threat.
While relocation is still “far down the line” for most communities threatened by sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion, traditional property ownership regulations imply that you can’t just pack up and relocate anywhere you want, even if there is higher ground, as there is in the Maldives. The strategy was created a year after Tropical Cyclone Winston wreaked havoc on Fiji in February 2016, affecting around 350,000 people. The government’s National Development Plan identified over 830 vulnerable communities in 2017, 48 of which needed to be resettled immediately. By any measure, that’s a significant amount; in this case, it’s more than a third of the population.
“Because Fiji is such a small country, all of these factors have combined to make us more vulnerable,” Rabukawaqa says. “In the past, it was just a question of development, thinking about how to do things properly, like, How do we do this right?” How do you make sure it’ll last? Reforestation. “Those appear to have been simpler days.”
The coastal community of Barishal in Bangladesh, where Kathak Biswas Joy, district coordinator with Youth Net for Climate Justice, member of the advisory committee with Child Rights Connect, and founder of the non-profit Aranyak, lives, is suffering from saltwater intrusion. “In Bangladesh, everything is tied to climate change,” he realized due to his work on children’s rights. Child labor and child marriage are becoming more widespread as climate change exacerbates existing inequities by driving migration from the countryside to coastal towns, where salt and flooding are ruining farms.
Dengue fever, the “world’s fastest-spreading vector-borne viral disease” due to a warmer, wetter climate, has decimated Bangladesh with the COVID-19 epidemic. Increased salinity has been associated with various issues during pregnancy, including hair loss and skin illnesses, dysentery, hypertension, the chance of miscarriage, changes in menstrual cycles, and difficulty maintaining hygiene. The disease has the same effect. It appears to provide as little relief as it did to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s old mariner in a land where water abounds.
Rabukawaqa agrees. In a country that is almost wholly reliant on the sea, the historical and cultural relationship with it is shifting from “a lovely, loving, caring relationship… to one where the sea is suddenly becoming our enemy.” We don’t need it to be that way.
If you think Alisi Rabukawaqa and Kathak Biswas Joy’s troubles are unrelated to yours, you’re mistaken. While Asia is home to nine of the top ten large countries at risk from sea-level rise, no one is secure. Many of the world’s most populous cities are already at risk of flooding as early as 2030 – less than a decade from promptly. Climate Central, a non-profit, has mapped the locations most at danger over the next century using data from “peer-reviewed science in major journals.” While the developers warn that the mapping would inevitably contain inaccuracies, the extent of the catastrophe is terrifying.
Many countries adopt new technology to secure their future to stem the flood. In 2015, China launched its “sponge city” effort to absorb and reuse 70% of rainfall by 2030; the scheme already includes 30 cities, including Shanghai. Alexandria, Egypt’s historic city, has chosen to extend its canals and rehouse those living alongside them, even though landmarks such as Cleopatra’s palace and the iconic lighthouse are in danger of being flooded.