Climate night

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors


`It not only happened sooner than expected, the consequences were larger than ever imagined as well. At 2 AM we finally managed to reach the first street. The water was so high that we were not able to reach any of the doors on the first floor, so we started knocking on the windows of the second floor. It was difficult to see where we were; the power was down and darkness had taken over. Everywhere around me I heard men shouting, women screaming, and children crying.’

Maya can’t stop turning. The whistling of the wind and sounds of drunken students are keeping her awake. Out of experience Maya knows the students pass by her house every Saturday. Usually they get bored after ringing the bell twice and move on to the next street in the neighbourhood. Tonight however, the students do not seem to be leaving. The ringing is replaced by knocking and the singing by shouting. Suddenly Maya remembers seeing something about a storm on the news earlier today. However, as an exchange student from Argentina, she does not really watch the Dutch news carefully, or actually any news for that matter. Out of experience she knows a change in the train timetables is the worst thing that happens during these storms. Tonight however, it seems different.

Suddenly Maya jumps out of bed. Adrenaline starts running through her body. It’s Wednesday! She runs into the hallway and sees flashlights mysteriously shining through the windows. Maya realises the knocking is not coming from the first floor, but from her windows on the second floor. After a short hesitation she decides to walk over to the window and to open the curtains. A feeling of fear takes hold of her. In front of her stands a soldier on a small boat. He urges her to open the window. After two attempts it opens slightly and when Maya steps back to open the curtains further the wind causes the window to blow out. Maya cautiously sticks her head out of the window and looks down; the ground has disappeared. There is no sign of the small porch or the recently planted flowers in the small communal garden. Instead, there is darkness and water.

`In the third house a girl opened the window. Her eyes were covered in fear. She did not speak the language and obviously was not aware of the severity of the storm. While I managed to avoid pieces of broken glass from the window, I shouted she had to come with me, because the storm had caused the dikes to break and the water was rising rapidly.’ He takes a break. He has to. Too many horrible things have happened in front of his eyes that night.

Maya is shocked. How could this be happening? How can she not have noticed the severity of the storm? The Netherlands was supposed to have the best flood protection in the world!

He continues: `She seemed in shock. I asked if she was okay and told her to come with me, there was simply no time. The water level had gone up 3 meters in only one hour and we had no idea of what was yet to come.’

Maya continues to gaze at the soldier. The boat looks almost full, the old lady from next door and her two grandchildren are already seated. Further away she hears women screaming and men shouting. The whole street is being evacuated.

He looks around. Hundreds of people are silently listening. Although it is almost thirty years after the first big storm hit, its consequences are still of enormous significance today. `Thirty years ago, no one had any idea this would be the first one of the `Big Five’: the five disastrous storms which took billions of lives. It caused an unknown global sea level rise due to which many coastal cities disappeared under water. Consequently, diseases spread and harvests failed, which led to a huge famine.’

Thirty years later Maya finds herself in a conference centre in South Germany. After the storm she was able to move to South Germany; one of the few `safe’ places in Europe: it was not swallowed by the water and there was a sufficient amount of food available. Returning to Argentina was not an option. The infrastructure, including transport routes, had been destroyed.

He looks at Maya, the girl he saved years ago. He knows she was one of many who were not fully aware of the consequences of climate change and how their behaviour contributed to that.

Maya sights, anthropogenic climate change turned out to be the major cause of the Big Five and all the disasters that followed. Back in the day she had heard of climate change, but did not really feel like it would be an issue for her. She was enjoying her studies abroad and did not feel the urge to take action herself. She looks down. She would give anything to travel back in time and alert people to take action. It would not have prevented any of the disasters, but it could have decreased its intensity.

He looks around. `Although the Big Five has destroyed our modern society, it has given us the chance to renew our system and learn to live in harmony with nature again. Today I am filled with feelings of hope and I am confident that we, if we hold on to our new way of living, never have to face such a disaster again. Today I would like to announce that, after restoring transport routes with North America and East Asia last year, we have been able to reach South America and we will start restoring transport routes to Buenos Aires soon.’

Maya feels tears glittering in her eyes; her exchange semester might finally come to an end.


Jorie Knook is a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Rural College and AgResearch. Her research focuses on the evaluation of advisory programs that focus on the voluntary uptake of environmental measures by farmers in both Scotland and New Zealand.

Joy in the Sundarbans*

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors


The sea was playing with Joy, gently lifting him, picking him up, and dropping him. Drops of water fell into his mouth. How sweet was the taste… the water trickled into his parched throat and Joy seemed to leap up as do the fast disappearing Gangetic porpoises, nose in the air, arms spread.

A sudden loud crashing sound awoke him with a start. His little eight year old body shook in fear and he cried out ‘Ma!’

His mother awoke and said, it must be part of the embankment that had breached. ‘It’s been raining so hard for the last one week, it’s a wonder the embankment did not break earlier.’ Below, the waters noisily gurgled, greedily throwing fierce small waves against the low bamboo ladder that led up to their home. Joy heard the rustle of the plastic sheets that made his mother’s bed on the floor.

Joy shouted in the dark ‘Ma, I’m scared.’

His mother made some comforting sounds and asked him to come to her. The rains raged overhead and their fragile shelter shook. Looking at the empty bed beside him, he asked his mother when will his father return. And he knew from her silence that she did not know, or could not surmise.

Joy jumped to his feet as a sharp white lightening struck. At once, he felt his way in the dark to his mother. The second plank on the floor was loose and through the crack he could see the rising waters below, reaching for him. Terrified, he launched himself on his mother over the next two planks. He remembered his father had pulled out the two rotten planks from the wreck of their old home, disgustedly commenting that the wood was fit only for firewood and would not last them even a week. And yet, his father never changed the planks in the next three years.

His mother pulled him close, above them the rain sounded louder than the waters below.

Joy tried to swallow his own spit, but his dry throat hurt. He remembered seeing about an inch or so of of drinking water in the bucket. Joy reluctantly asked his mother for water. His mother tightened her hold on him. Then rocked him and whispered, ‘as soon as the rain stops I will fetch water.’ Neither of them admitted that the rain did not look like letting up. Ever. He knew his mother could not go through the knee-high muddy water in the dark to fetch drinking water. As the rains came and came he hated seeing her trudge through sea water just to fetch drinking water.

As it is, theirs was the only shelter by the embankment, the rest of the village had fled to the new Flood House built on pillars. Joy had once sneaked in there and was surprised to even see a water pump on the first floor.

Joy could never understand why his father had built a rickety precarious shelter beside the embankment, at the very edge of the village. He remembered no one had come to help his father as he built the ramshackle shelter on bamboo stilts for fear of the rising water. He remembered seeing his mother weeping. And then one morning, Joy learnt that his father was gone.

Now Joy’s eyes grew heavy, but every time he tried to sleep, his dry throat hurt. Joy must have drifted off when he heard the clatter of the pans where his mother stored the water downstairs, below their sleeping space. His mother softly called up ‘I will go and fetch some water for you’. Joy tried to protest but his tongue seemed to have thickened and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He lay flat and from the corner of the broken plank watched his mother go down into the darkness below their shelter. He heard her splash into the water. The waters had risen to her waist. He saw her struggle against the wind by the light of the zigzagging lightening. Then the darkness and the earsplitting sounds of the roaring sea, enveloped her. And for a long time the darkness remained. He was frightened for his mother.

If only he was big enough to fetch the water himself.

Joy did not know how much time had lapsed, but just when he felt there was no hope and his mother was lost forever, he saw a forking lightening that brought his mother in focus with a bucket. Soon, he felt his mother cup water into his mouth. Bliss!

Joy swallowed some more water and hoarsely asked ‘Ma why don’t we go and stay on the Roy house porch? Their house is so high the water won’t reach them ever.’

His mother pulled her wet sari around her to stay warm but the raging winds sent in fingers of cool through the gaps between the wooden planks and plastic sheets. She softly muttered, ‘we can’t go to the Roys. Your father… he stole from them…’

Joy felt a hollow fear in the pit of his stomach. But in a fit of bravado said, ‘They will let you and I stay in a corner… Ma we can’t stay here.’

As if the elements heard him, a sudden wind howled in through the planks of wood and carried away the overhead plastic sheet. The shelter creaked and shook. Joy pulled his mother up and shouted above the wind to run. As they clambered down the ladder a high wave of water roared above them and crashed on them.

When they reached the Roys, they turned to see their home floating away. The sea that had till then been some distance away, now seemed to pursue them. The first fingers of sea water lapped around the newest climate refugees ankles.


* One of the first areas to go under water in India is predicted to be the Sunderbans region of the Bay of Bengal.

Keya Dutt has written crime stories (with one novel and many short stories), translated Bengali to English, and has several publications of literary criticism. She is drawn to the issues of climate change and environmental devastations through the work of her husband, Ronodeb Paul, who has made a documentary on climate change in the Sunderbans.

The underpass

Joseph Cohn updates our visions of biblical floods.

The storm raged all night. The refugees trembled as the wind howled beneath the bridge. Soon the water rose. For two hours it roared through the underpass. Along the concrete walls black shapes writhed in the primordial darkness. The underpass became a vault of screams to echo the agony of the dying earth. By dawn the flooding had ended and thirty-three people had died.

In the morning the refugees climbed down to scavenge and search for the dead. They cleared the ground and sent the dead into the sea, and then they gathered to eat out of cold, dented cans. Afterward they rested against the walls and watched the world with mute eyes. Their figures faded into the gloom, until they were no more than shadows of anguish. No one spoke, and no children ran at play. The last child living beneath the bridge had died three weeks ago.

Around midday a wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair stood at the center of the underpass. From a ragged book he read to the refugees of prophets and dead kings and a time when the earth burned. But above all else he spoke of an empire called Babylon. Of how it fell at the height of glory, its towers and walls crumbling to the earth. The refugees heard him, but they did not listen.

A month later the underpass was silent and the people were gone. Whether they fled to some distant Elysian field or perished beneath the bridge was unknown. Their fates like their origins were lost, their existences forgotten. All was still but for the ocean. It loomed just beyond the bridge, gray and calm and ever shifting. A mercurial plain beneath whose surface lay the ruins of Babylon. A sepulcher fit to house all human folly.


Joseph Cohn [email] is a high school student from Southern California. Growing up close to the ocean, he has seen how all human activities —ranging from fishing to littering — can have harm our oceans.

A family farm in the future

Kai Olson-Sawyer channels a farmer’s experience in adaptation.

NB: Bill Mattson, a Minnesota farm owner-operator, sent this letter to his children when he passed along the family farm.

September 6, 2052

Dear Liz, Dean and Mary,

As I near retirement in my 74th year (not soon enough for you worrying about Dad’s old bones), I wanted to offer a brief history of Mattson Acres Farm. Although you always laugh at me when I do it, I dusted off my trusty keyboard to give you a sense of the changes that have befallen our farm over the last 40 years. While I know that Dean is wavering on farming and Mary is off to other things, I want you all, not just Liz, to understand this land’s past because it’s also our family’s past. You also know how much I love keeping records for posterity’s sake (and to tell a good story).

It starts in 2011 when your mom and I were able to save the money to buy that parcel of Nordinger’s land and make it our own after leasing it for years. Besides marrying your mom and witnessing your births, that was the proudest day of my life. Mom always said that Good Thunder was a good luck place to farm.

The first 451 acres was about split between corn and soybean. We were fairly profitable with the high commodity prices in the years before and after acquiring that land. Although prices softened later in the teens, the Big Dry really hurt.

I’m sure you all remember how stressful that time was with record-low rain and unbearable heat from 2021-2025. Those wilted fields left us just eking out an existence with terrible yields that put us in the red. Mom was wise to keep pushing us towards more crop insurance. We also decided to adjust our crop mix, which was our first step down that road.

We were hoping for rain, and eventually it arrived. Once that rain began to fall in February 2026, it never seemed to stop. At first the Big Wet was a boon and made up for the moisture loss and increased crop yields. That year was decent, but the problems were soon rising with the Cobb River. Never will I forget when the Cobb and Maple Rivers met on our land. In all, we saw a record 70 inches of rain in 2027. Over half of our crops were lost to flood and much of the rest succumbed to root rot and fungus.

sunk_tractor_usdaThe amount of water we saw on our land was staggering and something I never could have imagined. The nub of it is that we’re lucky our farm survived. With insurance, your mom’s job at the library and a little luck, we made it.

Water is always a problem, but we knew we had to act in a big way. After all those years of loading up our soil with fertilizers, baked in by the Big Dry, the torrential runoff from our fields picked up that pollution and put it right back into the rivers and groundwater. Good thing I’ve always been adamant about regularly testing our well water because in 2028 and 2029 the nitrate levels were sky high. If we weren’t aware of those toxins and fortunate to afford that reverse osmosis filtration, who knows how badly we could’ve been sickened.

Between our fouled water and the erratic weather, we knew we had to act on what Charlie at extension services called “drought and deluge.” Even though the weather is always changing, it was evident that we couldn’t count on the past for any indication of the extreme weather or precipitation that could strike. Climate change was tearing us up and we decided we were going to fight back (and hard).

Despite uncertainty, we worked with extension to come up with a solid plan. At the time we bought our final thousand acres I’d been playing with different crop mixes. I made a commitment then to see it through. Corn, yellow pea, alfalfa, soy, lentil—I tried it all and more to varying success. Continuous tinkering with the mix and rotation of the crops became so integrated into the health and well-being of our crop yields, our soil’s water and nutrient retention, and the farm’s economic viability, that it’s of the utmost importance for the farm’s resilience. Not only does this fine-tuning concern our cash crops, but it turns out that finding the right mix for our cover crops is just as essential. The diversity of crops that we produce has enabled our farm to withstand the higher temperatures, pests and the whipsaw dry and wet times we experience. Our farm has worked with Mother Nature to adapt to whatever is thrown our way.

The other major undertaking on our farm was taking the land out of production through buffers and the conservation easement in the early 2030s. It was a hard choice and a burden even with USDA grants, but preserving those 300 acres for wetlands helped clean up nitrate pollution from our water and our neighbors’ water downstream. We had the foresight to head off the federal 2041 Green Waters Act and get a handle on our pollution numbers before we had to report them, and as you know, we’ve always beat the nutrient diet standards. It was heartening when the Garcia’s joined our easement, which really started a trend around here. (We’re trendsetters!) Opening that land to duck hunting with assistance from the Waterfowl Association has been a real economic win.

All I can say is that we’ve worked hard to sustain this farm now and into the future. To keep the farm going under constantly changing conditions, we need to watch, learn, act, repeat: It never ends. That’s all we can do to deliver the best possible outcomes. I hope you keep farming to the end of the century.

Love always,
Dad


beach4_twt Kai Olson-Sawyer [email twitter] is a writer and senior research and policy analyst for GRACE Communications Foundation.

Jakarta’s sinking, filthy future

Roanne van Voorst looks deeper into Jakarta’s “revitalization”.

According to the politicians working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s megacity capital, this city is turning into `the place to be’. By 2018, they promise that a city known for its slums, floods and garbage will be `100% slum free, flood free and garbage free’. It will thus be clean, modern and attractive for both inhabitants and visitors, who might especially enjoy the green running tracks that will have been developed alongside formarly clogged rivers, and the seaside residential neighbourhoods in the North, where one can shop and live in style. Ideally, Jakarta’s great transformation will be complete by 2018 (when the Asia Games take place in the city), but there may be some work left to do.

As unrealistic as these announcements may seem to people who have visited Jakarta, they should by no means be considered hollow phrases. The current generation of politicians in Jakarta don’t just talk; they are actually getting things done. Everybody who has recently visited the city will have noticed that politicians, advisors and developers are making  enormous efforts to change Jakarta’s negative image. Slums have been torn down; roads have been constructed; Dutch water experts are building a 32 km-long wall to protect the Northern coast from a rising sea;  programmes have been initiated to dredge garbage from canals; parks have been created; and run-down colonial houses are being demolished and replaced by Grande Plazas.

So the problem is not that nothing happens in Jakarta. The problem is that what is happening is of no use because none of these programs address the root causes of Jakarta’s challenges. The sad fact is that Jakarta’s future is more likely to include more, larger floods, deeper poverty for slum residents, and tides of feces flowing past seaside villas. The impacts of climate changes — more rainfall and rising sea levels — might make you think of Jakarta as `the city you definitely want to avoid’ in the future.

Let me give some context to that rather gloomy vision. Jakarta’s already serious flooding problems are caused by multiple factors, of which urban mismanagament is perhaps most important. For decades, politicians have prioritized commercial developments over public services. The lack of an effective garbage collection system means that most households dump their rubbish in the rivers. Affordable housing shortages have led the city’s poor to build their houses in the river’s flood plains. Only half of households receive piped water, so everyone else pumps groundwater. The resulting land subsidence means the city is sinking by 3 to 20 cm per year — a problematic trend even before considering the additional danger of sea  levels that are rising by 6 mm per year in Jakarta Bay. Finally, remember that falling groundwater and land elevations are damaging the city’s drainage, drinking water and sewerage systems.

The current trend towards short-term, superficial solutions might seem to be improving the city’s livability, but they are merely sweeping real problems under the carpet. These problems can be solved, but solutions demand long-term political commitments to providing piped water, sewerage, and social housing.

Building a wall to protect from sea level rise will not help if the land continues to subside. Dredging canals will not protect the city from  flooding if people continue to live where the river needs to flood and dump their garbage in canals. New villas will not provide safe and glamorous lifestyles if rising rivers dump faeces and garbage on their lawns.


marijn-smuldersRoanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Sciences, Erasmus University, The Hague, the Netherlands. In 2014 she obtained her PhD (with distinction) at the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research on responses of slum dwellers in Jakarta, Indonesia to the risks of recurrent floods and evictions. She has also done research on the social effects of climate changes in Greenland. Currently Roanne is involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios”.

Addendum (8 June 2017): “Understanding the allure of big infrastructure: Jakarta’s Great Garuda Sea Wall Project