Storms, floods and climate apartheid

An extreme city, according to Ashley Dawson, is a city in which extremes of rich and poor render it unable to deal with extreme weather events.

In case of storm and flood, the rich people on the high ground almost always get priority over the poor people down by the waterfront—what Dawson calls climate apartheid.

And the people who live in rich places, such as Houston, who are mostly lighter-skinned, get priority over the poorer places, such as Port-au-Prince or San Juan, who are mostly darker-skinned.

Beyond this, Dawson wrote, the incentives of a market economy will almost always favor real estate development over public safety.

The best way to protect cities from high water is to pull back from the shoreline and create or expand wetlands to sponge up the high water.

But property developers, not to mention individual homeowners, want seawalls to protect their investments and enable them to recover their sunk costs.  Our economic system is based on continued growth.  There is no incentive system for pulling back.

Dawson said this is as true of New York City, where he lives, as it is of any city in the world.

This is no small thing.  Nearly half the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities.  Virtually all of them are on ocean coastlines or other bodies of water.  In the Global South, drought is driving increasing numbers of poor people off the land and into urban slums.

Dawson does not view global warming as a doom we can avoid if we try hard enough.  He sees it as an emergency that is already upon us, and that most of us are unprepared for.

He does not view it as merely a scientific and technical problem.  He says it is a social justice issue—a question of who drowns (usually the poor and dark-skinned) and who is saved (usually the rich and light-skinned)

Click to enlarge

When Superstorm Sandy was about to hit New York City in 2012, the city government told residents of the potential flood areas to evacuate.  Soon after subway service was shut down, which meant that those without cars were stranded in their neighborhoods.  Soon after high water left thousands without access to electricity and heat, or to essential supplies.

The first responders were volunteers, including veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who reconstituted themselves as Occupy Sandy.  They did whatever it took to provide food and water and rescue stranded elderly and disabled people on upper floors of apartment buildings.

The official disaster relief agencies showed up only a few days date and, according to Dawson, were happy to make use of Occupy Sandy and other volunteers, but reluctant to help or share information.  The reason, he said, is that the official organizations are engaged in a dog-eat-dog competition for funding and don’t want any of their rivals to gain an advantage.

Dawson wrote that when Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up at the flood-stricken Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, the only people he wanted to talk to were the business owners.  They were the ones who got the funds to rebuild.  The neighborhood and Occupy Sandy leaders were brushed aside.

Click to enlarge.

After Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg commissioned a study on how the city could be made more resilient in the face of climate change.  At the same time, his administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lure real estate developers to construct luxury apartment buildings in waterfront zones.  He insisted there would be “no retreat” from the waterfront.

The winner of a design competition on protecting New York City from floods was the BIG U plan developed by Bjarke Ingels’ BIG architectural firm along with collaborators.  It called for a 10-mile-long, 15-foot high barrier around the southern tip of Manhattan.  It  would protect the financial district and prime real estate in mid-town Manhattan, including a Hudson Yards development, right in the middle of a flood plain.

The basic problem with the design, as Dawson sees it, is that it would divert water onto less wealthy, lower-priority communities—the Jersey shore, Brooklyn and Manhattan north of 42nd Street, which includes Harlem.  As of Extreme Cities’ publication, the BIG U is unlikely to be implemented as written.  The alternative plans, while better, are open to the same objection, he  wrote.

He noted that the city of Jakarta in Indonesia is 40 percent below sea level; by 2030, it is expected to be 80 percent below sea level.   In 2007, about half the city was inundated with up to 13 feet of water, with 340,000 made homeless.

To cope with this, Dawson reported, Jakarta is building the world’s largest sea wall.  It will be 80 feet high and extend for 25 miles.  Developers promise that the $40 billion project will pay for itself through sale of luxury homes on artificial islands, along with office towers and shopping malls.

Poor people’s houses will be demolished, and they’ll be removed to the hinterland—which may turn out to be a blessing in disguise in the long run.

In the flood-plagued Nigerian city of Lagos, an artificial barrier island called Eko Atlantic is being constructed.  It supposedly will house 250,000 people in luxury skyscrapers.  Meanwhile the servants and security guards who will serve the city’s elite lives in shacks erected on stilts.

Netherlands flood in 1953. Click to enlarge

The Dutch set the example of what a unified, rational and prosperous people can do about rising seas.  Most of the Netherlands is below sea level and owes its existence to dikes and reclamation.  As the saying goes: God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.

But in 1953, the Netherlands were devastated by floods.  Nearly 10 percent of the country’s farmland was under water—a foretaste of what Bangladesh, south Florida and other low-lying regions can expect in the 21st century

The Dutch began a decades-long project to create a new, flexible, high-tech system of dams, slouches, locks, dykes, levees and storm-surge barriers across estuaries, which was completed in 1998.  Many could be opened and closed, or raised and lowered, as needed.  It is a wonder of the world.

Netherlands today. Click to enlarge.

But now the Netherlands has a new threat—the increased danger of river flooding.  Some Dutch authorities think that engineering technology is not the whole answer, but rather to make “room for the river” in some cases rather than building levels.

Dawson thinks that evacuation of flood zones may be a better answer than building higher and stronger barriers.  He favors giving people money to relocate from flood zones when times are good rather than waiting for disaster.

He thinks that people should get used to the idea of tidal zones and flood zones rather than thinking map lines between land and water represent reality.

Beyond that, Dawson’s ideas are very familiar.  Phase out fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gasses.  Look out for everybody instead of just the governmental and moneyed elite.  Give people a voice in what affects them.  Very obvious when you think about it.  Very hard when you try to do it.  But it’s too late for anything easy.


Smoked Out by McKenzie Funk for the London Review of Books.  A review of Extreme Cities and three other climate change books.  Hat tip to Steve B for this.

The Global Calculus of Climate Disaster, an excerpt from Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson.

Economic Inequalities and Climate Apartheid: Ashley Dawson on “Extreme Cities” in an interview for Truthout.

After Superstorm Sandy’s Rain, Cooperatives Sprang Up Like Mushrooms by Laura Flanders for Truthout.

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2 Responses to “Storms, floods and climate apartheid”

  1. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27.


  2. Fred Says:

    “an emergency that is already upon us, and that most of us are unprepared for”

    Absolutely. And we aren’t going to get thru it with bullets and bunkers.


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