OPINION: Sea level rise does not flood everyone equally
Yanina Paula Nemirovsky, Fundación Avina and Action LAC, describes how sharp socioeconomic inequalities in Buenos Aires, Argentina will worsen the suffering of urban inhabitants in the face of sea level rise and other climate change impacts. Public policies are urgently needed to address these issues.
The IPCC’s new Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate has provided new reason to spark alarm. The report extensively documents the impacts of climate change on oceans and glaciers: from rising sea levels, ocean acidification and the loss of marine species, to an increase in the frequency and intensity of ocean-based extreme events, such as marine heat waves and type 4 and 5 cyclones. And all these risks promise to be exacerbated if we do not take urgent action to mitigate climate change. The Special Report also emphasises a fundamental question: those who suffer these impacts the most are the least prepared to deal with them. They are the peopl who live in the most vulnerable conditions.
In South America, one in four people in the region lives less than 50 kilometres from the coast. One of the main impacts of climate change on the oceans highlighted by the report is the increase in average sea level: an increase of between 29-59cm (under the lowest scenario) to 61-110 cm (the highest scenario) is projected towards the end of this century. And this would have devastating consequences on the coastal regions of Latin America.
The city of Buenos Aires and the Conurbano Bonaerense are cases in point: demonstrating communities’ vulnerabilities and how the ability to respond to the flood crisis depends to a large extent on people’s socioeconomic status.
Those who are falling behind
The coast of the Río de la Plata (including the area of the Conurbano bonaerense) has about 14 million inhabitants. According to the study Climate Change in the Río de la Plata, the main cause of the floods are the sudestadas, weather phenomena common to the region that are characterised by strong winds coming from the southeast and very high tides. The sea level rise associated with climate change generates an increase in the level of the estuary that can already be observed: in the last century, the average level of the Río de la Plata in the Puerto de Buenos Aires area increased by 17 cm.
One of the areas most exposed to recurrent flooding is the southern coast of Greater Buenos Aires, on the banks of the Matanza-Riachuelo rivers, where 5.8 million inhabitants live. There, precarious settlements are inhabited by people with a high level of unmet basic needs, without access to housing, services or decent housing conditions. It is the most urbanised and industrialised area of the country.
The Plan of Urbanization of Villages and Precarious Settlements at Environmental Risk of the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin provides for the relocation of 17,771 families who are at highest environmental risk, not only because of flooding, but because they are in contact with pollution that has affected water and soil quality for decades. Ten years after the plan was launched, only 20% of beneficiary families have been assisted.
Families like these are extremely vulnerable and unable to cope with flooding that affects the basin and promise to worsen. This is not only due to socio-economic status, but also to the lack of public policies to adapt to climate change of the various state authorities that administer the basin. As the IPCC report states, the rise in average sea level hits the most vulnerable people.
The danger of slums
The other area most at risk of recurrent flooding in Buenos Aires, also associated with the sudestadas and aggravated by the ocean impacts of climate change, is the Tigre area in the Reconquista River basin. This time, we move to the northern tip of Buenos Aires, where population growth in coastal areas is increasing. In the Tigre area, the population exceeds 420,000 people and recorded a 12% increase between 2010 and 2015. And by 2025, it is expected to reach half a million.
Here, as in many other parts of the city, urban development has been influenced by swings in the real estate market and private residential neighbourhoods are an expression of this. These neighbourhoods began to proliferate in Tigre from the 1990s; today they occupy 40% of the land area and are home to about 5% of the area’s population.
The construction of these enclosed neighbourhoods implies a dramatic transformation of the land. The vast majority of these neighbourhoods were built on elevated ground, to prevent flooding in historically flooded areas. But, paradoxically, this aggravated the problem. To build at height, natural drainage courses were altered, increasing the flood risk for people living on the periphery of these neighbourhoods. But in fact, the height is no longer enough: changes in the climate and the average level of the oceans indicate that the height of these neighbourhoods can already be exceeded. Thus, the enclosed neighbourhoods not only endanger the population that lives outside, who often live in very precarious conditions, but also the population that inhabits them.
Social inequality as climate change hits
Diametrically opposed realities converge at the same point. The climate crisis is the same, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally. The case of Buenos Aires illustrates how two extremes suffer the same problem, but some will have a better chance of confronting it than others. Climate change crudely exhibits not only social inequalities, but also the lack of public policies that would reduce them.
The issue of urbanisation in coastal areas is a central issue for thinking about urban planning and infrastructure. It would be nice to be able to add “towards the future.” But no: the sudestadas boosted by climate change and rising sea levels are already hitting the coasts of Buenos Aires. And, if public policy does not address social inequalities, especially in urban spaces, water will cover it all.