Will architecture save populations forced out by sea level rise?


Climate change has many effects on our environment and habitats, and one of them is sea level rise. Soon, vast numbers of people might be forced out of their homeland and become “environmental migrants”. The most effective way to help them is to stop global warming, but more urgent solutions will likely be needed.


In October 2009, Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Republic of the Maldives, held the first underwater Council of Ministers ever: the ministers all dived under the sea to sign a common declaration. The aim of this unusual and widely reported event was to urge the world’s major powers to take drastic action to curb global warming. The Maldives is the flattest country on Earth (80% of its surface is less than 1 meter above sea level) and climate change and sea level rise are dramatically threatening it: by 2050, 80% of the island nation’s territory might be absorbed by the Indian Ocean. The Maldivians have thus already started a twofold process: firstly, they are trying to protect their country from the effects of global warming (by building dykes and calling for international action), and secondly, they are also getting ready to leave the Maldives if flooding becomes inevitable. A large part of the revenues generated by tourism is for instance transferred to a sovereign fund, so that the country can buy a piece of land (maybe in India) where people can start anew.


The rise of environmental migrants


If the Maldivians are forced to leave their drowning islands, they will officially become what are called “environmental migrants”: “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their territory or abroad”, as defined by the International Organisation for Migration (for a detailed focus on the diverse kinds of environmental migrants, see this 2011 work by Bogumil Terminski). These people are forced out of their homeland by not only floods, but also deforestation, desertification, monsoons, air, soil or water toxicity, droughts, dried-out lakes or interior seas, etc. The United Nations estimates that 20 million people have already been forced to migrate for environmental reasons, and that around 50 million might have to do so in the future. If we focus on sea level rise, there are populations that are more at risk than others, of course. First, the inhabitants of island nations, who are more vulnerable to floods: 100% of Maldivians live less than 1 km away from the shore, for instance. There are officially 46 island nations, and some have already proclaimed themselves more vulnerable to climate change: in July 2010, Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, the Marshall Islands and the Samoan Islands, along with the Maldives, thus made a commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, hoping to set an example for larger and more influential countries (the United States, China, European States, etc.). At the Durban Summit in November 2011, island States jointly asserted that, because of their reluctance to act, these major powers were guilty of “treason” towards the populations most vulnerable to climate change.

These populations, in fact, do not exclusively live on islands. According to the United Nations Development Programme, people living in poor and developing countries are 80 times more vulnerable to climate change. The UNDP gives a detailed definition of vulnerability: it depends firstly on the country’s exposure to the impacts of climate change (environmental vulnerability), and secondly on the socio-economic factors that determine its ability to handle these impacts (socio-economic vulnerability). In other words, the poorest populations lack the means to efficiently tackle extreme climatic events and recover from them; they are thus in an extremely weak position compared to developed countries that are facing the same challenges but can actually handle them. The Netherlands, for instance, is also the victim of sea level rise, losing

large portions of land every year to it. But it has the resources to deal with these issues, i.e. insuring its citizens against flooding, rebuilding, designing floating houses or artificial islands, erecting dykes, etc.

The poorest regions on Earth are already places with an increasing number of emigrants who strive to try their luck in wealthier countries. If global warming progresses as expected, and other environmental disasters take place, more and more people will actually see their homeland submerged, and will have no choice but to flee. The American Department of Defence, along with federal intelligence agencies like the CIA, already take this perspective into account when forecasting the biggest challenges to come for national security. As American military strategy expert Jean-Michel Valantin says,  the United States used to define its strategy around the concept of “threat” (from the Nazis, the Soviets, the communists, and now terrorists); but now it works on the concept of “risk”, and risks connected with climate change and subsequent population displacements are taken very seriously.


Tackling the cause and the symptoms


So what can be done? How will these environmental migrants be taken care of and relocated? Will new kinds of habitat emerge? And, above all, how can this process be fought?

The Maldives and other island nations have undertaken to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions, because they believe that it is the most urgent and important thing to do. And of course it is. Sea level rise is a consequence of global warming, and global warming must first and foremost be curbed. This will be achieved through political willpower and collective effort from citizens, governments, companies, everywhere in the world, and especially in the largest and most influential countries.

The fight against vulnerability to climate change is also an important one. At international level, several funds have thus been created over the past decades to help developing countries face climate change – on broader issues than “just” sea level rise. In 1992, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was created to support and fund sustainable development initiatives in these countries. It now operates two other funds: the Special Climate Change Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund, whose mission is to help the latter reduce their vulnerability to climate change. According to the terms of the Kyoto Protocol to the Climate Change Convention (1997), an Adaptation Fund was also created, while the World Bank also came up with two Climate Investment Funds in 2008. Finally, the Cancun 2010 agreements set the ground for the Green Climate Fund, which aims to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 for the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. (You can read more about the various funds and their interconnections here.) To sum up, these funds intend to help developing countries curb their contribution to global warming, deal better with its effects, and become less vulnerable. The general idea is thus to attack the cause and the symptoms of climate change.


Floating cities for climate refugees


And it is the symptoms, and especially sea level rise, that make the matter so urgent. Just as the Maldivians are already planning their move out, immediate solutions might have to be found to help and even rescue populations whose habitat is invaded by water. In this respect, architecture may provide some answers – and the sea is generally also part of the solution. French architect Vincent Caillebaut has for instance designed a floating city called Lilypad, a “floating ecopolis for climate refugees”, a “prototype of the self-sufficient amphibious city” , which can harbour 50,000 people and re-create biodiversity (and the ability to provide fresh water) on board. (Have a look at the detailed project: it is stunning).Even though none has yet been designed with the specific aim of receiving environmental migrants, artificial islands might also be a solution. Although most are built on existing reefs, the term “artificial island” could refer to islets comparable to oil rigs, which would by definition be permeable to floods – but might also sink… Other projects are being developed on the sea, but still with a link to the land. Each year, the Fondation Jacques Rougerie (named after the French architect who has made a specialty of marine habitats) awards a Prize for the best project in “Architecture & Sea level rise”. In 2012, it went to Koen Olthuis, Mahtab Akhavan, Laura Weiss and Alexandre Voegelé for the project Thalassophilantropy: “floating urban components to address rising water challenges threatening communities in need”, mainly people living in slums by the shore. As the Foundation says on its website, “this project aims to rethink the poor urban neighbourhoods of seaside cities.”

All these projects, and many others, are driven by the urgent necessity to tackle the effects of sea level rise on human – and animal – populations. They all say that to them, this is the greatest challenge for tomorrow. But even though their ideas are breath-taking, clever and innovative, we hope that no one will ever have to live on a Lilypad or an oil rig adapted to human life. So we’d better get started on cutting our greenhouse gases emissions for good.

(Photo from: http://vincent.callebaut.org ©Vincent Callebaut Architectures: Lilypad, a floating ecopolis for climate refugees – 2008)