Can humanity rise to the challenge of finding just solutions to the threat of coastal erosion?

The cliffside dotted with luxury homes in Carry-le-Rouet, in the south of France, is fast eroding. The local town council, arguing that fair use should be made of public money, is refusing to fund stabilisation works. (Benjamin Hourticq)

How long will the fight last? Water is eroding land all over the world, threatening people’s lives and livelihoods, especially those living along the coastline. According to the latestIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the oceans and cryosphere in a changing climate, sea levels, globally, are expected to rise by between 0.61 and 1.1 metres by 2100 – as a combined result of melting icecaps and waters expanding as their temperatures rise. In addition to the plight of the island nations disappearing beneath the waves, as in the Pacific, all low-lying communities near the sea are at risk, particularly from coastal flooding after major weather events.

Hurricane Katrina engulfed New Orleans in 2005; the streets and subways of New York were left flooded after Hurricane Sandy in 2012; Bangkok was knee-deep in water for months in 2011. With the rise in sea levels, events like these are set to multiply over the coming years. The IPPC report insists that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the current rate, extreme events of the kind usually experienced once a century could be seen every year. And the number of people affected is set to rise: 680 million people live in coastal areas less than 10 metres above sea level. According to the IPCC, that figure could rise to a billion by 2050.

The scientific community is unanimous in its assertion that climate change is a key factor in the escalation of coastal flooding. But it would be simplistic to attribute sole responsibility for this danger to the climate. “The spectre of climate change is very convenient,” says Cécilia Claeys, a sociologist at Aix-Marseille University in France.

“We do not necessarily try to see the anthropogenic factors aggravating the risks.” And yet, they are decisive in some parts of the world, as seen in Asia, for example.

Robert Nicholls, a coastal engineering researcher at the University of Southampton, haslisted 136 cities around the world that face significant risks from rising sea levels within the next 100 years. A quarter of them are in the process of sinking. Megalopolis such as Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, built at high speed on coastal areas, are suffering from subsidence: as a result of massive groundwater extraction, the land is now becoming submerged in water.

These megacities are constantly seeking ways to protect themselves. In Tokyo, sea walls and floodgates have been built along the sea and in streets to stop the water entering the city. An underground cathedral has also been built to take in excess water during floods. In Shanghai, a city under extreme threat from sea level rise (SLR), huge amounts are being invested into strengthening its dykes. A side effect of this strategy is, however, the shrinking of wetlands – reservoirs of biodiversity that also play a protective role against erosion and coastal flooding.

Aside from the collateral damage they cause, these defence structures are also limited in terms of their future effectiveness. In a study, published on 29 October, upwardly reassessing the estimated rise in sea level by 2050, researchers from Climate Central advise governments to also envisage “relocating or abandoning existing infrastructure and settlements”.

Climate risk versus the risk of injustice

Some of these relocations are already underway in several parts of the world (in Alaska, for example). The approaches taken to relocating people exposed to natural risks in both developed and developing countries highlight the social inequalities in the way land is distributed and how people are treated by the public authorities.

In the Global South, several retreat plans have already been launched in response to the risk of floods and subsidence. Idowu Ajibade, a geographer at the University of Portland in the US, has examined the cases of two cities: Lagos, in Nigeria, and Manila, in the Philippines. In both cases, although on different scales, the most vulnerable social groups are the focus of displacement policies based on environmental security concerns. At the same time, however, infrastructure fuelling economic growth is being developed along these same coastal areas.

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The case of Lagos is probably the most brutal. This city composed of mangroves, lagoons and islands, housing 20 million people, is at great risk from rising waters. The sea level could rise by one to two metres by 2100. Storms and floods have affected thousands of people over the last 20 years and have caused significant human and material losses, which is why retreat plans have been put in place to adapt to climate change and reduce the risks.

But as Ajibade explains in her research paper, in practice, these plans lead to the forced eviction of communities living in wooden huts and fishing for a living. The authorities have been engaging in such practices for some time, under the guise of urban renewal, public health, anti-pollution or crime prevention policies.

“However, since 2012, poor communities in waterfront areas have become the sustained target of retreat while claims about protection from coastal flooding, storm surges, and SLR are used as a new justification for their eviction,” the geographer explains.

This and the other pretexts mentioned above were used by the Nigerian authorities in 2017 to evict 30,000 people from the Otodo-Gbame informal community, whose homes were burnt down and bulldozed.

As is often the case with poor communities, they were not told why they were being evicted. Another illustration of the contempt and the lack of consideration for these people is the authorities’ failure to resettle them in new, safe surroundings. And as a result, explains Ajibade, some of those evicted from Otodo-Gbame went back to the lagoon, where they now live on canoes, whilst others moved to nearby waterfront slums.

In the capital of the Philippines, the evictions are less violent, but the outcome is the same. In Manila, residents were able to retreat thanks to government-funded relocations, explains the researcher, but it was short-lived, as many families from the slums had to go back to the metropolitan area due to the lack of livelihood opportunities and social facilities at the resettlement sites. It is what Ajibade calls the “retreat and return” phenomenon.

The plans implemented in Lagos and Manila above all highlight similar political and social dynamics. In both countries, climate change is apparently being used to remove the most vulnerable social groups, not to restore the land they occupy to nature but to promote new urban development projects. “While SLR and other coastal risks are mobilised as justification to retreat the poor from waterfront areas, for wealthy communities such risks are downplayed or seen as fictitious,” says Ajibade. The irony, she points out, is that the increase in urbanisation and human activities associated with these mega-development projects leads to increased pollution, shoreline erosion, biodiversity loss and the depletion of fishery resources.

In the North, public money versus private property

In France, several plans to relocate urban developments have been formulated. Although far removed from the violence seen in the Philippines and Nigeria, they also raise questions in terms of social justice.

The most challenging case is that of the municipality of Lacanau (in the Gironde department of south-west France). Faced with the erosion of the sandy coast, which is being eaten away at a rate of one to two metres a year, the town council of this seaside resort on the Atlantic coast embarked on a major study into ways of tackling the problem. One of the solutions considered is to remove the homes and businesses currently on the seafront and to rebuild them further back from the coast. The relocation would affect 1200 homes by the year 2050. But the project is being held back by a range of issues, not least the cost the local authority would have to bear.

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Part of the problem faced by the French authorities having to deal with erosion is rooted in “the history of the French coastline, that of land grabbing by the wealthy,” says Claeys, who has studied the subject extensively in the south of the country. “The question raised is: should public money be used to protect the property of higher and wealthier social classes?” continues the sociologist.

“No,” seems to be the answer coming from Jean Montagnac, mayor of Carry-le-Rouet, a town in the north-west of Marseille, where luxury villas line the cliffside being nibbled away by the sea at a rate of one centimetre a year. “We are not doing any prevention work in the areas that may be affected,” said the mayor, because of the financial difficulties surrounding such operations, but also because “the other residents don’t want to see their tax money being spent in areas that don’t belong to them”.

But when people are in imminent danger, the local authorities are generally on the front line, and are forced to carry out protective work – as Carry-le-Rouet has already done to reinforce the cliffs – or have to expropriate privately-owned property. In France, expropriations linked to natural disasters are compensated based on the value of the property, through the fund for the prevention of major natural risks, or the ‘Barnier Fund’, set up in 1995. Risks such as coastal flooding, avalanche or torrential floods are covered but not “slow coastal erosion”, explains Marie-Laure Lambert, a lawyer specialising in environmental law.

The main problem is the compensation system, which is based on the value of the property. “If €2 million has to be given for a house with a sea view, it’s going to work out very expensive,” warns the lawyer. “We need to rethink the compensation system, basing it, rather, on people’s social need.” In other words, national solidarity should be focused on people in real need, rather than second homeowners, for example.

Marie-Laure Lambert also advocates regulating the real estate market to ensure that the risk to which residences are exposed is taken into account and the value of the property is reduced accordingly. This would not only help to improve the government’s financial capabilities but would also encourage more ambitious plans.

The lawyer has also been looking into ideas such as a gradual phase-out of the ownership of properties at risk. The local authorities could buy up the homes under threat and allow their former owners to live in them until the risk is critical. 
In both developed and developing countries, climate change is presenting humanity with a range of challenges, not only material but also political, economic and social.

Social relations within countries are already being affected by the rise in water levels. “The erosion we are currently experiencing is not yet linked to climate change,” warns François Sabatier, research geographer at the European Centre Research And Teaching In Geosciences De L’envi and head of the geography department at the University of Aix-Marseille. “We haven’t even seen the start of it yet.”

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