From Cyclone Refugees to Climate Refugees

The catastrophic scenario may or may not happen, but the population must realize that climate change is the most important danger we face now and in the future

By Sada Reddi

The cyclones of 1892 and 1945 are remembered as mere historical events. cyclones Alix and Carol however have lingered in the collective memory of many people not only because they were amongst our worst cyclones, but they also significantly altered our physical landscape, affected the lives of future generations and created thousands of refugees. Due to lack of solidarity from those who owned so much land, the government was compelled to squeeze new settlements for the homeless on whatever crown lands were available in their respective localities.

Today we are faced with another big challenge: climate change, and in the next two or three decades, we could be confronted with the problem of climate refugees. It is quite possible that many would probably have to seek asylum in other countries or be relocated in other places. Climate change, as everybody knows, will bring in its wake a number of challenges and if we do not some hard thinking and take the necessary action, we will put future generations at risk.

At the moment the nation is worried about so many issues, namely low fertility rate, the risk of the disappearance of the Mauritian, food security, poverty, unemployment, drugs and climate change. On many of these issues, there is the nagging feeling that too little is being done and there is not enough sensitization about their implications for the present and the future. It is fair to say that the population is well aware of climate change and its consequences such as reef degradation, shrinking beaches, loss of livelihoods for coastal communities, and threats to our fisheries, tourism and agriculture sectors. However, most of the time these issues are being reduced to mere clichés and this is dangerous as they prevent some deep thinking and the search for long-lasting, sustainable solutions.

We have also been talking a lot about environmental protection and there have been laudable initiatives by numerous individuals and organisations that have put in a lot of effort to protect our beaches, to denounce encroachment on sand dunes and wetlands and to start projects aimed at growing more trees. During the last decade, governments have given important consideration within the framework of the ‘Maurice ile Durable’ programme to a number of projects to improve our sustainability and resilience with the help of international institutions and foreign assistance.

At the national and international levels, organisations have reminded us that rising sea level for Mauritius is about twice the average and that sea level may rise by 18 to 19 metres by 2100. It has fortunately dawned on many of us for some time now that our beaches are shrinking, by as much as 10 metres in some places. Ad hoc efforts have been made to prevent further beach erosion. Beach fences, walls and sand bags are currently being used to slow coastal erosion, and it is known that these can only be temporary measures and will eventually cause more erosion. The best alternative would have been to build further away from the coastline but this looks like an impossible task for many.

Our policy towards climate change is flawed in many ways. There is concern about the impact climate change will eventually have on the tourist industry yet we allow hotels to occupy sand dunes or encourage hotel construction to encroach on our Crown Lands. We are concerned about shrinking beaches but not so much about other coastal areas and villages which are equally affected and where livelihoods are being threatened and destroyed. In other words, not all our problems should be imputed to climate change. Short-termism, greed and self-interest also play their part.

If the flash floods of 2013 and the more recent heavy rainfalls in the north of the island have led the authorities to focus on the construction of drains, one can legitimately ask how effective will these drains be in the event of a fierce cyclone when people have been allowed to build their houses on wetlands or flood plains without any proper guidance. It was the lethal combination of torrential rains and the consequent rise of the sea and river levels which caused such havoc and fatalities in several places in the capital during the flash floods of 2013. Many were helpless because the rising sea level, the river nearby and the drains could not absorb the overspill of water. Recently in the north, a village located on the plains was flooded because of absence of a proper drainage system. If lack of preparedness has failed us in the past, we can draw lessons and plan better for the future.

There are at least two areas which require urgent consideration if we are to take climate change seriously: housing and food security. We have to reflect on the need for more high-rise buildings put up on proper sites, with the appropriate social infrastructure and especially adequate green space for the residents. It is no longer acceptable that official clearance be given to the parcelling of lands for VRS schemes or other ‘morcellements’ without proper consideration of the site and with indifference to the risks that future residents are likely to encounter.

We should revisit our construction, housing and land and environmental laws and their enforcement. For example, we cannot allow a 10-15 storey residential building without adequate and proper green space, as is the case at present. Without provision for the same, where would the residents and their children participate in some outdoor activities? If our children and grandchildren are cut off from nature and grow up in a jungle of concrete, how can we expect them to become socially responsible, healthy citizens and the future stewards of the environment?

Closely linked with climate change is the threat to our food security. Extreme weather, torrential rains, droughts, rising sea levels affect all communities in many ways and put our sources of water and foodstuff at risk. One can imagine the catastrophe that will ensue if nothing is done to prepare for such contingencies. Not only will the economy be on its knees, our island will be so threatened that one wonders who will be interested to invest in the country if they do not see the preparation and implementation of a credible plan to tackle climate change. We can even wonder whether we will have the money to even import our basic foods. This catastrophic scenario may or may not happen, but the population must realize that climate change is the most important danger we face now and in the future.

It should be the priority challenge for an island like Mauritius. We have to plan for future generations right now if we want to leave them a worthwhile legacy. There are many countries in the past and in the present that have taken measures successfully to deal with similar challenges. Holland, known as the low country because it is below sea level, has had to adapt itself to survive as a nation. Singapore has planned for the future keeping climate change in view. We could draw from their experience and that of many other islands that are actively combating climate change and learn from their achievements and mistakes. But such planning requires a judicious mix of the top-down and bottom-up approach; mere material and technical solutions are useless they also incorporate ideas from below and engage all communities in this endeavour.


* Published in print edition on 18 January 2019

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