Negotiating a just retreat from rising seas

As cities begin planning for coastal erosion, relocating residents has paved the way for land grabs, forced evictions and a new wave of climate-driven gentrification. Jennifer Johnson reports.

Fort Jefferson is one of the many coastal historic sites along the Gulf Coast being threatened by rising sea levels  (US National park Service 2010)

For many residents of Lagos, Africa’s largest city, wading through dirty water has become a fact of life. Earlier this week, three days of continuous rainfall resulted in flooding that closed roads and toppled homes across the metropolis of more than 20 million people. Local media outlets reported that many of the city’s motorcycle couriers – who ferry food and mail through its ubiquitous traffic jams – had to cease deliveries because of flood damage to their bikes.

Longtime Lagos residents will no doubt be accustomed to encroachments by the water. The city’s low-lying topography and proximity to the Atlantic have left it prone to inundation. But as climate change strengthens storms and drives sea-level rise, the city has had to contend with new levels of destruction – and the urban poor have borne the brunt.

It’s almost universally acknowledged among scientists and environmentalists that the people least responsible for global heating will feel its impacts most acutely. Nowhere is this more evident than in the coastal megacities of the Global South. In Lagos, it’s estimated that almost two in three people live in a slum, with a large number of these communities situated in dangerous proximity to the shoreline.

With the threat of climate change becoming clearer all the time, researchers are urging governments to help vulnerable populations such as these stage a ‘managed retreat’ from rising seas. If executed incorrectly, these relocation efforts will only further entrench inequality in some of the world’s poorest communities.

Back in Lagos, climate change has been used as a justification for the eviction of poor populations from desirable waterfront land. 

‘Underwater by 2050’

Until recently, retreat has been seen as a kind of last resort, not unlike a forced evacuation ahead of a violent storm. However, policymakers in major cities are increasingly unveiling strategic plans to move businesses and infrastructure out of harm’s way. This summer, Indonesian President Joko Widodo asked the country’s parliament to sign off on proposals to relocate its capital to Borneo island. Scientists have warned that a combination of sea level rise and sinking land could leave large swathes of the city underwater by 2050.

The national government of the Philippines also intends to move its own administrative offices from the Metro Manila area to New Clark City, a planned community under construction some 100 kilometres to the north. While this retreat is partly designed to relieve traffic congestion in Manila, it’s also meant to ensure effective responses from government agencies during natural disasters in the region, including ever-stronger typhoons.

But moving offices is a lot easier than moving people – many of whom have social and cultural ties to the areas they call home. The government of the Philippines has also been pushing the managed relocation of Manila’s urban poor for the better part of a decade, with very limited success. In the aftermath of 2009’s Tropical Storm Ondoy, then-President Gloria Arroyo offered the equivalent of 60 days minimum wage to poor families in Metro Manila in exchange for leaving the city. This policy was based on the belief that informal settlements were keeping rainwater from washing out to Manila Bay.

Retreat and return

Under Arroyo’s plan, more than 1,500 families were moved to outlying suburbs and villages. Three years later, her successor Benigno Aquino III would move 120,000 families from urban waterways using the same logic and incentives. However, Idowu Ajibade, a Professor of Geography at Portland State University who has studied retreat in Lagos and Manila, found that many of these families ultimately chose to go back to the city. This is a cycle known as ‘retreat and return’ – and it shows that simply transplanting people to higher ground isn’t good enough.

‘One of the arguments I heard from the people I spoke to was that they would rather live in the slums of Manila, where they have lives and social ties, than live in a remote place where they have nothing,’ Ajibade says. ‘People move from the provinces to cities in search of opportunities, so if you’re going to move people away from the city because of threats or risks, you have to move them to places where there are opportunities.’

In a context where people are in growing danger, it’s also dangerous to suggest that we shouldn’t attempt a retreat because we can’t get it right

Many of the government-mandated climate retreats that have been undertaken to date have been myopically top-down. Governments that push people out of their homes and away from their livelihoods risk damaging social cohesion in the name of climate resilience. This is why Stanford postdoctoral researcher Miyuki Hino, co-author of the recent paper ‘The case for strategic and managed climate retreat, emphasizes the need to consult populations in the retreat process. Crucially, she argues, many support measures  do not require massive capital investment.

‘Being safe from floods or tropical cyclones is just one element of a community’s overall wellbeing,’ she says. ‘Whether it’s helping a cluster of neighbours move together to preserve social ties, or taking steps to make sure that vacated land is preserved for cultural purposes, there are things that can be done to embed equity into these efforts.’

Climate gentrification

Back in Lagos, climate change has been used as a justification for the eviction of poor populations from desirable waterfront land. In 2016, for instance, the Lagos State Governor issued a seven-day eviction notice to residents of many of the city’s shoreside slum communities. Eventually some 30,000 people were violently forced into retreating from Otodo Gbame, a fishing community on the Lagos Lagoon. Land grabs like this, Ajibade explains, are often a symptom of ’climate gentrification’, in which poor communities are made to vacate land that could be safely settled by the rich.

‘Most land in Nigeria is supposedly owned by the government and people are meant to have a certificate of occupancy to show they have a right over that land,’ she says. ‘Many poor people don’t have these certificates. What you find is that the government uses climate change language to justify kicking them out to lease the land to wealthier people.’

At worst, poorly executed retreats will result in widespread displacement and homelessness. The situation in Lagos underscores the importance of a retreat that is managed compassionately, rather than forced upon communities at risk of climate devastation. The reality is, there is no blueprint for managing a retreat from rising waters. But Hino believes the greatest risks come from refusing to manage the situation at all.

‘In a context where people are in growing danger, it’s also dangerous to suggest that we shouldn’t attempt a retreat because we can’t get it right,’ she says. ‘I don’t think we can be paralyzed by this goal of perfection. No matter what, we are able to reduce the threat to health and safety when we put people in a different place.’

Half of the world’s megacities are situated along coastlines, and for good reason: Proximity to the ocean historically meant being close to both natural resources and trade hubs. Now the ocean is imperiling the lives and livelihoods of many communities constructed along it. Even if global warming is kept to 2°C, scientists still expect sea-level rise to create millions of migrants and incur trillions of dollars in damage each year. Retreat is inevitable. To make it equitable, communities must be involved in determining how these relocations take shape.

‘Bring representatives from poor urban communities to the table,’ Ajibade urges. ‘Ask them what they need in the areas they’re relocating to, and find out how to work with them to provide those things so that they will stay.’