World: that sinking feeling...

What will be the fate of nations disappearing under rising seas?

According to The Mirror,“scientists predict seas could be 1.5 metres higher by the end of the century, sparking massive flood around Britain’s coastline, especially in flat eastern areas.  A rise of two metres would leave Cambridge on the edge of a large inland lake and large parts of the Wash swamped.”  Dire predictions indeed for the East Anglian counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. 

In America, Huffington Post reported that “rising seas spurred by climate change could threaten 180 U.S. coastal cities by 2100, a new study says, with Miami, New Orleans and Virginia Beach among those most severely affected.

For thirty years, India and Bangladesh squabbled over ownership of uninhabited 10,000 sq meter New Moore Island in the Bay of Bengal. “Now rising sea levels have resolved the dispute for them: the island has gone” noted The Guardian in March 2010.

As is widely known, Bangladesh is vulnerable. Back in 1996, A. Ali wrote in SpringerLink: “Most parts of Bangladesh are less than 12 meters above the sea level, and it is believed that about 10% of the land would be flooded if the sea level were to rise by 1 meter.”  Up to 20 million Bangladeshi climate refugees could be created by rising sea levels alone. Yet climate change is making Bangladesh suffer from increases in rainfall leading to extra flooding, as well as more frequent and violent tropical cyclones and tornados. India's reaction to all this has been to construct a pre-emptive 4,000 km (2,500 mile) barrier along its border with Bangladesh, to keep out refugees and smugglers. 

Barbados is in a precarious state too, along with other islands in the West Indies. In December 2010, the New Zealand Herald wrote: “Rising sea levels caused by climate change are set to cause billions of dollars of damage to the island states of the Caribbean by the middle of the century, including wiping out more than 300 premium tourist resorts, according to a remarkable new report.”

Liane Hansen, writing in April 2008 in NPR (formerly National Public Radio) in the US, warned: “In Egypt's ancient city of Alexandria, waves from the Mediterranean Sea send foam crashing over the sea wall and onto hundreds of concrete barriers built to protect the city from the rising waters.  The crumbling barriers of Alexandria's Eastern Harbor, however, are no match for a sea that scientists say will rise between one and three feet by the end of this century. They predict that rural towns and urban areas along Egypt's northern coast will be flooded, turning millions of people into environmental refugees and threatening some of the country's ancient landmarks.” History threatens history, it appears.

In Kiribati the highest point of land is a mere two meters above sea level. President Anote Tong has said that climate change “is not an issue of economic development; it’s an issue of human survival.” According to reports, some of Kiribati’s 94,000 mainly Melanesian people, living in shoreline village communities, have already been relocated away from century-old sites. With few natural resources, this is a desperately poor country.

In 2009, the government of The Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting as President Mohamed Nasheed sought to draw attention to the issues of rising seas. Asia's smallest country, both in terms of population and land area, has land a mere 1.5 meters above current sea levels on average. Over the past century waters have risen by 20 cm. The highest points on these islands are 2.3 meters and, with waters continuing to rise, it is estimated that sea levels will be 59 cm higher by 2100. Action is being taken by the Maldivians, with a proportion of the US$1bn of annual government receipts being set aside to buy land overseas. "We do not want to end up in refugee tents if the worst happens” Nasheed is quoted by CNN to have said. The question is, having acquired property abroad, will this land accommodate 400,000 Maldivians, and would a host-nation accept onto its sovereign territory such a significant influx of immigrant refugees? 

Australia News Network reported in September 2010 The Cartaret Islands in Papua New Guinea are facing inundation from rising sea levels.” It's estimated these islands will be totally submerged by 2015. The thousand inhabitants have already been evacuated. 

Areas of The Philippines are gradually falling beneath rising waters too. According to a 2009 report from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, “most recent satellite and ground observations show the sea level is continuing to rise and would be subject to impacts such as flooding, storm surges and severe wave conditions. The Philippines is at risk of being swamped by rising levels of seawater as a result of global warming.” The SIIA continue “according to Greenpeace Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, a one-meter rise in sea level, for example, is projected to affect 64 out of 81 provinces. From 1961 to 2003, the waters around the archipelago rose by 1.8 mm every year. A Pagasa study also showed that coastal areas in Navotas, Malabon, Cavite, Davao City and Legazpi City sank by 15 centimeters from 1970 to 1999.” 

Tuvalu is home to 10,000 people, yet these atolls and reefs are barely two meters above sea level. A 1989 U.N. report predicted Tuvalu could be underwater in under 50 years. Damaged coral reefs are producing less stocks of fish, Tuvalu's main protein source and its coastline is being eroded by dying coral reefs. New Zealand may accept Tuvaluan refugees; some two thousand already reside there. Reuters reported Tuvalu's former Deputy Prime Minister Tavau has indicated that Australia won't commit, a stance appearing true to form. 

As polar ice-caps melt, in particular the 1,710,000 sq km Greenland Ice Sheet, the dangers are obvious. The Economist reckons that we have to live with the effects of climate change, claiming in an article in November 2010: “It won’t be stopped, but its effects can be made less bad.”  So much damage has already been done. 

The Cancun Agreement hammered out last year at the UN conference in Mexico strode forward to some extent as did a follow-up June meeting in Bonn in Germany, but the wasteful way the world lives these days cannot be changed overnight. Talks continue in Durban in South Africa, in November 2011. But time is running out fast, and perhaps The Economist's call for preparedness for the inevitable is wise. 

What will we do with the millions on the move? And what will we do to offset the unbearable environmental consequences of gluttony, overproduction and delay?  One nation which anticipates profiting from this global phenomenon is Russia, where Siberia is foreseen as a safe-haven.  Maybe the Russians are right, for in Greenland, with a similar latitude, the Danes and Greenlanders are growing vegetables and planting forests for the first time since Vikings arrived in the early middle ages.  Perhaps places like the Falklands, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia will be preferred homelands in future. Whatever the outcome of all of this, the world will be a very different place indeed.

We ought to be learning from the Dutch, clear world-leaders in sea-defence systems, living as they on land below sea-level.  The BBC reported in 2009 that:

"Hurricane Katrina - which wreaked havoc on New Orleans in 2005 - was a clarion call against complacency" says Piet Dircke, professor of Urban Water Management at Rotterdam University and director of Water Programmes at Arcadis, a global engineering firm.

The BBC continued, "The Netherlands has established a plan to bolster its flood protection system by making it:
  • bigger, with higher sea barriers; 
  • more natural, through schemes to widen rivers, reinforce the coastline with sand and start building floating homes; 
  • smarter, using technology to provide an early warning system and evacuation plan."
The port city of Rotterdam is promoting its knowledge and experience internationally and was already advising Mozambique two years ago.  Many nations might be advised to make contact with Dutch experts too.

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