Deltas, save your lands

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The Third Pole, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Two out of every five persons in this world live in a delta. Cities from Rotterdam to Karachi, from New York to Alexandria, have grown up where a river meets the sea. Cities from Kolkata to Bangkok to London are still very much in the delta, though they may be just a little upstream. Now all these cradles of civilisation and their hinterlands are threatened as the sea level rises due to climate change.

In its latest report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said global sea level rose 0.19 metres from 1901 to 2010 as the concentration of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere kept rising due to industrial activities. Pointing out that the rate of increase has gone up in recent years, the scientists forecast that this level will go up further by anything between 0.26 and 0.98 metres by the end of the century, depending on the extent by which more greenhouse gases pollute the atmosphere.

People living in deltas are already facing higher tides and storm surges, their homes damaged, roads flooded, farms and wells ruined by sea water. More people are at risk all the time, and they have to adapt or move. To help them adapt, the Netherlands has started a dozen-country Delta Coalition — with Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Japan, Mozambique, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.

The launch was announced on May 10 at Rotterdam as the biennial Adaptation Futures conference started in the Dutch city famous for its coastal engineering, its centuries-old tradition of living below the sea level. Ministers from Bangladesh, Egypt, Japan, Mozambique and South Korea attended the launch, as did senior officials from the other countries. The hosts hope more countries will join the coalition; the US is reported to be keen.

Melanie Schultz van Haegen, Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Netherlands, told thethirdpole.net that the coalition would give a big push to save-delta programmes such as the Water Plan 2100 of Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta Plan of Vietnam, projects in which the Dutch government, universities and firms are already involved. The immediate goal would be to get water issues on the agenda in a bigger way at the next Habitat conference, scheduled in October.

Due to climate change, water issues — too much, too little or too dirty — would create the largest number of refugees, the World Economic Forum said earlier this year. Asked how urgent she thought the coalition’s work was, van Haegen said it already had an operational plan for 2016-17. She was also keen to stress that the Dutch government would not stay in the chair all the time. It had already been decided that Bangladesh would take over next.

“The goals of the coalition are knowledge exchange and implementation, and we’re going to meet at least once every six months,” van Haegen told thethirdpole.net. “Water is not usually a politically sexy subject. Politicians can’t see votes in strengthening of levees. We’re going to support every move to change that perception. We’re going to get finance ministries involved as well.”