On the Waterfront

4 mins read

By Eric Axner-Norrman

Have a look at a map of the world, and soon you will discover that the large landmasses that constitute our continents are surrounded by even larger bodies of water. Dry land is an exception rather than rule on our planet. All along stretches of coasts, shorelines and in bays of varying seclusion, civilisations have forged their homes over millennia. 

Water is vital not only to quench our thirst and to grow our crops, but also, historically, as the quickest way to get about. If a village was not established directly by the sea, then it would likely have sprung up upstreams by a riverside, whose lifeblood is often provided by the open oceans. The necessity of water is no different for us contemporary humans and neither are the challenges we face. Places of habitation swept up and swallowed by the awesome power of untamed water has been an inevitably recurring dilemma. The magnitude of this issue however, has rapidly and forcefully increased due to our changing climate. Flooding is already one of the most common natural disasters to strike at human populations and as past extremes set new, worrying standards, the waters that encompass us will continue to wreak havoc beyond our control.

Even if we succeed in meeting the goals set by the Paris Agreement, the harsh truth is that the climate is irreversibly heading for the worse

Yet, rather counterintuitively, it would not take much for cities with countless millions of inhabitants, such as Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Cape Town, New York City or Rio de Janeiro to be engulfed or even wiped completely off the face of the earth. All it takes is for the glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctica, in Greenland and Patagonia to melt further. Scientists say that in the last two decades, the rate at which the glaciers are melting has doubled. Not only will global sea levels keep on rising, but also more unpredictable weather patterns and extreme phenomenon will come as a result. Violent storms of the kind we are beginning to see more and more of will cause unspeakable devastation.

Even if we succeed in meeting the goals set by the Paris Agreement, the harsh truth is that the climate is irreversibly heading for the worse. The inlands will not be entirely spared from water-related calamities, however coastal towns and cities will bear the lion share of the sea’s wrath if global warming exceeds the ominous 1.5 degrees. Scenes worthy of a disaster film straight out of Hollywood are yet to be witnessed in, say, Shanghai – a megacity of nearly 25 million people that is continuously ravaged by flooding which is only set to grow in intensity and destructiveness according to current climate trajectories and scenarios. 

But for tiny island nations in the South Pacific or the Caribbean’s (what at least used to be regarded as) tropic idyll, these unsettling scenarios are far from futuristic fiction. The many small Frisian Islands off the coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are equally poignant examples, just as historical fishing villages in England’s Cornwall or indeed any settlement built by the Baltic Sea. If the calculations made by researchers are correct, no matter how much is being made to protect particularly vulnerable locations, many of these places will in time belong to the sea and not us humans.

If living by the waterfront will prove at all possible, some deem it crucial that radical new ways of adapting are needed. Perceived as perhaps a staple of many science fiction stories, floating cities are fast becoming more widely accepted as investment-worthy options for future housing, as seen in Western Europe for instance. Academic research is currently being carried out at for example Kunsan National University in South Korea, and in Amsterdam there is already an entire floating district of houses, equipped with all the modern facilities expected of a modern family home.

Since there is no need for developers to purchase highly sought-after land, floating residences are also much cheaper to buy or rent, making for more affordable abodes in otherwise inflated housing markets in heavily developed urban areas. Ingenuity in combination with investment proves that while many challenges facing coastal urbanised communities are as of yet unsolvable, there are as mentioned above bright spots that can act as beacons of hope when most other adaptive challenges seem overwhelming or downright impossible.

Yet – as another glance at a world map will reveal – the vast majority of land has no direct border with the seven seas. Most countries in Europe for instance are landlocked. Traditionally, having access to a port that connects you with the waterways of the world has rightfully been regarded as a highly valuable resource. Now, the changing climate seems to be altering that. Besides, the urgent need for decarbonized  transportation might just prove to be a blessing for the world’s landlocked regions. 

Huge oceangoing vessels do much damage to the frail marine ecosystems, both by polluting the actual water and through noise and even light pollution. Many of the whales that end up stranded each year do so because noise emitted from human endeavours interferes with their echolocation. Therefore, to carry cargo by train is the cleanest and among the most efficient and effective ways to transport goods. With less need to construct lengthy and costly tunnels and bridges, countries cornered by land on all sides might see the advantages when new and improved railway lines need assembling. This also fits well in with the sustainable concept of more local and centralised production chains. Obviously, lots of factors have a part to play if any nation is to gain an upper hand in this unprecedented situation which we find ourselves forced to adapt to. Countries like Chad and the Czech Republic are starting out from two very different positions – sharing little similarity except their lack of contact with the oceans.

Who will be the winners and the losers (if one dares to be so categorical) are  as always based much on chance; chances taken and not taken. Life has always been a bit on edge when lived by the seaside or oceanside, as we are constantly reminded of our lack of control when encountering the forces and flows of nature. Hopefully we humans as a species will still be able to continue enjoying both the soothing calm and nervous thrill of living by the big blue, as long as we do not forget that old saying: “the sea is like a cruel mistress…”.

Cover: Kellie Churchman

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