South Africa must start managing its retreat from the coast

With sea levels rising, a managed retreat from the coastline is necessary. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

In 2015 there may remain some small uncertainties about the pace and intensity of climate change, but the inevitability of storm surges and sea level rise is not one of them.

Due to the warming ocean’s thermal mass, thermal expansion, melting ice, and other complex interactions between air, land and water, the sea level will rise significantly over the next few centuries. Even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, this is inevitable.

We can’t fight climate change on the beaches

African cities and coastlines, like the rest of the world, absolutely need our natural coastal defences: dunes, estuaries, mangroves, reefs and coastal plains.

And we’ve messed with them royally, just when we can least afford it. Our dunes are bulldozed and mismanaged by developers, municipalities and transport authorities. Our beaches are crowded with hotels and lifestyle developments.

In areas vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges, these developments are at increasing risk of inundation and permanent damage over coming years.

A grim scenario of broken, rusting infrastructure littering our coasts is getting more likely around the globe each year that countries prevaricate about climate change and go about their business as though nothing’s happening.

In Nigeria and Senegal alone, more than 24.5 million people live and are part of local economies in coastal areas at high risk of inundation.

A managed retreat from the coast

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change it. There’s another film playing in the cinema next door. It’s called “a managed retreat from the coast”. It’s unlikely to draw teenaged Friday-night crowds, perhaps, but it’s a film we all need to watch.

A managed retreat is essential to minimise risk to coastal societies and maximise social and economic stability. And if planned properly, it can generate significant economic growth rather than chaos.

We have to face the reality of planning and implementing – globally and throughout Africa – a managed retreat from the coast.

The cities of Cape Town and Durban, progressively, have modelled areas where storm surges and sea level rise will inevitably start taking out infrastructure and homes in the next decade or two – electrical substations, sewerage infrastructure, roads, railway lines, homes, hotels, shops.

But like coastal local authorities everywhere, they have a daunting task in implementing the next crucial steps – removing vulnerable infrastructure, consulting with communities and property owners, leading discussions about how to finance the work and facilitating some form of compensatory regime.

After all, city planning departments worldwide have blithely allowed market-driven infrastructure development in the stupidest places. Cape Town and Durban are getting their acts together, but the damage of bad planning decisions has been done for decades, and in some places still continues.

Fortunately, South Africa has an important legal mechanism for coastal adaptation. The National Environmental Management: Integrated Coastal Management Act defines a basis for coastal set-back lines and provides for coastal management programmes at national, provincial and municipal levels. But tragically, it is not retroactive, and it contains loopholes.

Existing infrastructure, including housing, sewerage and electricity infrastructure, can generally stay where it is. And herein lies the rub. Local authorities must currently figure out the messy realities of implementing a managed retreat themselves. And political leaders find it easier to look the other way as long as possible.

Be prepared or caught unawares

Adaptation to climate change anywhere would be promoted, made much more orderly and much more cost-effective by a legislative, policy and financing framework to support this proactive retreat, and to protect and restore coastal “ecological infrastructure”.

The coastline and near-shore environment itself, with beaches, mangroves, reefs, fringing dunes, estuaries, cliffs and sandy plains, is all crucial ecological infrastructure. It’s also a complex, enormously powerful defence against the inexorable march inwards of stormy seas.

This coastal ecological infrastructure is among our most important assets, and normally completely “free” – preventing in many areas the need for expensive and ugly concrete sea walls, tidal barrages, and other hard infrastructure networks.

So where coastal ecological infrastructure remains, it must be protected. Where it is degraded – as in most cities – it must be actively restored to buffer communities from sea level rise and storm surges.

And where it has been lost altogether to rampant coastal development, we must bite the bullet and remove hard buildings, roads, and service infrastructure to restore it.

The alternative is a treacherous coastline, littered with rusting hulks of drowned and broken buildings, displaced coastal communities, and attendant impacts on health, food security, disaster risk management, and social and economic stability.

South Africa has a particularly progressive policy framework on climate change. That’s a real asset. But it’s time to grab the bull by the horns and get to grips with the reality of planning and implementing a proactive retreat from our coastlines.