Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Getting Washed Away by Climate Change 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, November 19 / 12

Zack Gross

We seem to have learned something in the past couple of weeks about one possible future for our planet and its islands, cities and people. 

New Jersey and New York literally sank beneath the waves due to a storm surge that actually wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and that is the scary part! 

Estimates of property damage are in the $20 billion range and deaths approach 100.  People are still living without power, heat and water and whole neighbourhoods are now unlivable.

The incidence of natural disasters in our world today is increasing noticeably.  This is not a fictional doomsday scenario but a record in the past ten years of tornadoes, tsunamis and the opposite: drought.  While this article doesn’t deal with drought, the current food crisis situation in Central, East and the Horn of Africa is also caused by climate change.

United Nations statistics show that Asia has been worst hit by water disasters as the home of 80% of deaths related to such natural occurrences.

Canadian NGO representatives report that increasing amounts of their overseas work is directed toward disaster relief rather than long-term development strategies.  They feel that they are, in many cases, having to substitute short-term coping strategies, and no longer making progress on fighting poverty in sustainable ways.

An unanswered question is who will disappear beneath the waves first?  Some areas will be more prone to flooding as ocean levels rise and storms increase, however for some places that can be found on our maps today, they will soon be gone. 

The first is the Maldives, a series of atolls spread over 90,000 square kilometres in the Indian Ocean.  On average, this island nation stands just four feet above sea level and is looking at losing its tourist industry via beach erosion before it loses itself!  To highlight their plight, President Nasheed recently held a cabinet meeting – underwater!

Next to go might be Tuvalu, a low-lying island nation in the South Pacific between Hawaii and Australia.  Rising sea levels over the past twenty years have created floods and destroyed agricultural land.  Coconuts are the main crop but ocean salinity will end soil fertility. 

Already, many “climate refugees” from Tuvalu are being accepted by New Zealand. And then there is Kiribati near Tuvalu.  Some of its islands are already under water and this poor nation is experiencing the same fate as Tuvalu. Vanuatu, Tonga and the Marshall Islands, three more Pacific Ocean nations, are also on the list of endangered countries.

    In recent days, we’ve seen the effect of major rainstorms in Italy on the news.  Venice has particularly been swamped as it sits on a series of islands and pilings over a lagoon.  This fabulous city of historical art and culture slides four inches per year into the mud of that lagoon.  Whereas Venice used to flood every ten years on average, now there is flooding almost weekly.  The Italian government is working to raise the level of the city using a variety of engineering initiatives, but it is at great risk as sea levels rise.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It has over two hundred rivers running through it that are rising and becoming swifter and more dangerous, fed by the melting Himalayan glaciers. 

As well, the Bay of Bengal is slowly reclaiming good agricultural delta land displacing the peasants who farm and live there.  Half a million people were left landless when half the island of Bhola was lost to erosion.  As with other countries, the land is becoming salinated by ocean water, decreasing food production in a hungry country, while land is disappearing in a crowded country! 

While scientific measures are being taken in Bangladesh to cut down on greenhouse gases, find ways to shore up land, and carry on research into new crops – as is being done in these other instances – one question is “Will there be time?”

Cutting back on industries that create greenhouse gases would seem to be a “no-brainer
” However, global negotiations have been inconclusive and individual countries and companies continue to play a game of chicken with our planet. 

Many are now setting target dates to reach reduced levels of emissions.  What can’t be ignored is the effect of the storms, floods and high winds that now sweep across all continents, including our own country and province.

Part of the solution is retrofitting the way we’ve built cities, towns and resorts:  creating barriers against the seas, lakes and rivers, not building close to the water we have always enjoyed so much.

Part of it is the responsibility of nations and corporations to keep our economic engines running but in new, clean ways - not at the expense of our world.  And part of it is up to us and our consumer lifestyle – putting aside that SUV for an electric car – or, in a larger sense, expecting less and seeing what is important.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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