On an island: coping with sea level rise

By Bryan Walker 09/03/2011


A recent Rowntree Foundation report on the vulnerability to the effects of climate change by mid-century of Britain’s coastal communities has attracted some media attention. It struck me as underlining the relevance of one of the chapters in the book Adapting to Climate Change which I recently reviewed on Hot Topic. The chapter, on adaptive governance for a changing coastline, noted a strategic shift in national coastal management policy in England away from investing in expensive ‘hard’ engineered defence towards designing a more naturally functioning coastline. This means that many coastal communities now face great unease and anxiety about their future, since the new policy preferences for retreat and realignment mean no future guarantees for protection.

[See end for comments by Gareth.]

Although Adapting to Climate Change focuses on the British situation there is obvious relevance for many countries where rising sea level and storm surge will affect existing coastal communities and I thought it worth traversing more fully than was possible in my review the governance issues raised by the authors, Sophie Nicholson-Cole and Tim O’Riordan.

They regard governance as dysfunctional at present and failing to create the conditions for adaptation. There is need for improved basic scientific knowledge to begin with, relating to specific communities facing serious impacts. But sensitive social and economic factors also contribute to the vulnerability of the communities and their uncertain futures. Many English coastal towns are marked by physical isolation, high deprivation levels, poor quality housing, an imbalance of older people and fragile economies.

The change in national coastal defence policy does not entertain compensation for people whose homes, lands and businesses may soon be lost to the sea. Additionally, there is no adaptation strategy, policy, funding or mechanisms to enable a transition to a different coastline by supporting people whose lives and properties will be affected by coastal change. The prospect is frightening for residents and has led to much local uncertainty, mistrust, anger and anxiety.

Current coastal management is extremely complex and fragmented, with many bodies having functions not coordinated or integrated. Sectoral fragmentation is also rife. Longer term planning is extremely difficult under those circumstances. The authors stress the need for a mechanism which will connect currently disjointed stakeholders and address common concerns. Efforts are being made in that direction but have serious resistance to overcome.

Local communities, unsurprisingly, often express strong wishes to see the status quo maintained and coastal protection continued. This underlines the need for community involvement in the development of options for future management of the coast. Coastal retreat and realignment is a serious matter. Such options challenge people’s powerful identities, senses of place and their attachments to their surroundings and the places in which they presently live. The alternatives are unfamiliar and even considering them can bring about extreme anxiety as well as an aggressive fighting spirit.

The authors observe that communities cannot be expected to adapt to a very different coastline until there is fair treatment and a supported transition by way of a comprehensive and trustworthy adaptation process.  This means planning for both the short and long term. For this planning the authors look to a partnership model of governance combining public, private and civil society into coordinating arrangements which will help address the tension between national strategic frameworks and local flexibility for delivery.

It all looks obvious enough when explained, but the UK won’t be the only country in the world that isn’t ready with governance structures adequate to the magnitude of the task of coastal adaptation. In many countries politicians have hardly come to terms with climate change itself let alone the massive adaptive strategies that are now unavoidable. Indeed, one wonders whether it will take the obvious necessity of adaptation planning to finally bring home to some the unpleasant reality of climate change, and hopefully to jolt them into mitigation policies which may yet stave off the worst impacts.

Gareth adds: The Rowntree Foundation report, Impacts of climate change on disadvantaged UK coastal communities, by Mary Zsamboky, Amalia Fernández-Bilbao, David Smith, Jasper Knight and James Allan [summary, full report] caught my attention because by some strange serendipity two of the four case studies in the report are of parts of the UK that I know well. I spent a couple of childhood years on Benbecula, a flat island sandwiched between North & South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and my mother’s family comes from Llanelli in South Wales. When the report talks about the beaches retreating on the western shores of Benbecula, I can picture those dazzling white sands backed by high dunes, lapped by azure water. And the Loughor estuary between Llanelli and the Gower peninsula was where my father went fishing while we were on holiday with my grandparents, where cockles were harvested at low tide for sale in the markets of Swansea and Cardiff (cue Dylan Thomas). It too is threatened by the loss of beaches and dunes, vulnerable to storm damage, and with little active planning for a future where sea level rise by 2080 is expected to “exceed 1 m and a rise of 2 m cannot be excluded”, and intense storms are expected to become more common. As Bryan points out, planning for and coping with these sorts of issues is not going to be easy, especially in vulnerable communities where resources are limited. Well worth a read.

Key points (from the summary):

Coastal areas are vulnerable to climate change because of rising sea levels and wave heights and accelerated coastal erosion — especially communities relying on the immediate coastal area for their residence, communications and economic and social activities.

Many are also vulnerable to climate change because of socio-economic issues such as high proportions of older residents and transient populations, low employment levels and high seasonality of work, physical isolation and poor transport links.

There was a lack of understanding in disadvantaged coastal communities of the range of possible climate change impacts they face and how to respond appropriately. They were more concerned about pressing day-to-day issues such as their income or employment. Residents who had experienced severe events (storms, flooding) had greater awareness of climate change.

Actions needed for coastal communities to adapt to climate change include:

  • improved communication of risks and impacts;
  • more adaptive local and national institutions;
  • ensuring that new development and infrastructure planning takes climate change into account to avoid putting more people at risk;
  • increasing capacity to prepare for climate risks and recover from specific events;
  • developing better targeted support for those most vulnerable.
  • The new localism agenda puts an onus on communities and local areas to lead on tackling issues affecting them. But the study found that disadvantaged coastal communities and their local authorities may not be well equipped to do so without considerable support, including funding, from central government.

[David Gilmour]