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Sea Level Rise Requires ‘Equitable Retreat’ from Coastal Communities

As rising seas and fiercer storms make the coast an ever more tenuous place to live, policy-makers all over the world need to plan and fund a managed retreat to ensure that under-resourced populations are not forced to forfeit what little security and agency they possessed in their former homes.

Such is the urgent advice from urban geographer and political ecologist Jola Ajibade in a recent interview with Yale Environment 360. The assistant professor at Portland State University warns past efforts at relocating populations away from coastlines have tended to focus on the removal of low-income and minority communities, while at the same time paying very little regard to the economic, cultural, and psychological well-being of those being moved—either before or after resettlement.

“I will start with one that I don’t think is acceptable—what happened in Lagos in 2017, where about 30,000 people living in Otodo-Gbame were forcefully kicked out,” she said. That decision was driven by a local climate change policy intended to resettle people and infrastructure at risk of flooding.

“The reality of who has been relocated and who has been moved, it was just the poor. And they were not given any support, not even given a place to relocate to.”

Even in cases where effort has been put into resettlement planning, policy-makers are still failing, abjectly, to care for their most vulnerable, she added. During a 2013 effort by the Philippine government to resettle some 100,000 residents of Manila away from low-lying coastal zones, US$1 million was spent to build new houses for the migrants. But in the end, those houses were “just a shell, just a structure,” with no furnishings, and were set in undeveloped areas with no hospitals, schools, or even, in some cases, electricity. Perhaps worst of all, no effort was made to provide the new arrivals with livelihoods.

That treatment stands in sharp contrast to the care taken to ensure no loss in quality of life for the wealthy Manileños who were relocated to the new development of New Clark City, noted Ajibade. Arrivals to that community found it replete with train service and sports centres.

After some of the newly-built areas designated for poor migrants in Manila went on to suffer the same kind of flooding, Ajibade surmised that the relocation was never about protecting people. “I would say retreat in Manila was the way to decongest the city,” she said.

Such a trajectory, she added, creates a “retreat and return cycle” that is destined to fail. Many slum dwellers coming to the city from rural areas are desperately seeking work, food, and security. If relocation brings nothing but more misery, they will return to the slums, however dangerous or disastrous.

With such a history of unjust relocations, especially among Indigenous people, communities of colour, and the poor, policy-makers are going to need to work very hard to rebuild trust. “We need specific guidelines, we need specific institutions and consistent policy on how to retreat and who should retreat and when,” said Ajibade.

Also imperative: making sure that those “at the table discussing retreat” from sea level rise are not just white and wealthy—both populations that already have majority command, creating a conflict of self-interest in ensuring that their share of resources is not eroded along with the rising seas. Failing to ask a key question—“who is losing the generational wealth that they might have had but now have lost because they’ve been asked to move?”—is an act of complicity, she said, a 21st-century form of colonialism with climate change as the proximate driver.

With up to 340 million coastal-dwelling people facing displacement by 2050—and close to double that figure by 2100—a fair system is urgently needed. That begins with policy-makers remembering that the trade-offs go both ways.

“When you receive people into your city or into your community, you gain something, right?” Ajibade said. “Those communities, they bring not just their bodies, they bring all of the skills and resources they have, as well.”