For much of the past decade, Kadir van Lohuizen has been using photography to document the climate crisis and examine what it means for the future. Since a chance encounter in Panama during a reporting trip, the Dutch photojournalist has been documenting the effects of rising sea levels around the world. Working closely with scientists and while learning a lot about human migration and tides, van Lohuizen has succeeded in visually proving what so many experts have warned for years: Our coasts are in danger.
His work, which spans 11 countries, has been used in presentations for the United Nations and at the Paris Climate Summit, and has been turned into a television series, book and several exhibitions. One currently on display at the New York City Museum flood, highlights how the island city will be affected by the upcoming changes.
His book, After the floodoffers a comprehensive overview of climate change in slow motion that is happening on every continent – and how it affects the people who live there. While some countries have proven adept at adopting forward-looking measures, including relocation strategies, many refuse to recognize sea level rise as anything more than a regional problem. Van Lohuizen’s work clearly shows the close connection between civilization and the sea and challenges the viewer to think more critically about the future.
Did you know this project would cost so many lives?
I started this as a little story in 2011–2012. I studied contemporary migration in America, traveled overland for a year from the tip of Chile to the tip of northern Alaska, and investigated why people migrated.
When I interviewed people in the San Blas Islands, Panama, they said to me: “We are being evacuated because the sea level is rising. “I was a little confused because I talk to them from the bottom of the sea, about two meters below sea level. This was 10 years ago and I knew sea level rise was going to be a problem, but I didn’t know this was already a problem. I started exploring different regions of the world when there was an urgency elsewhere as well. The big challenge was how do you visualize something that is not yet visible?
How do you get that into a strong image that people will understand?
It took some research because I wanted to find regions where people could see that this was already a problem, like in the countries of the Pacific or Bangladesh. I really wanted to address this globally.
I actually thought that I would finish the project in 2015 because I felt like I was repeating myself. How many islands or how many eroded coastlines can you show? It was first a collaboration with the New York Times, and then it became an exhibition that traveled and went to the climate summit in Paris, and eventually I was approached by Dutch public television. It allowed me to go back to some of the places I’ve been and sometimes I found the same people.
I’ve worked a lot with scientists. I definitely had to adjust the way I work very early in the story because you normally work with light as a photographer. I realized very quickly that if I wanted to imagine it, I had to work with tides. When you see the land already flooding at high tide, it’s a little less difficult to imagine what it would mean if the sea came up three or six feet all the time. It is not much. And there is no question of whether the sea level is rising. The question is when.
When do people decide to move?
You would assume that if the water was in your house all the time, the problem would get really urgent, but it starts a lot sooner. If the sea water floods the land and then often does not recede, people can no longer grow plants because the soil becomes salty and the drinking water becomes brackish. Reason enough to move. Often this is not coordinated by the government; it is the people themselves who make this decision.
And where are people moving to? Are you going to the cities? Are you going to other countries?
It depends where you are, doesn’t it? If you are in the Pacific island nations like the Marshall Islands or Kiribati, there is nowhere to go as they are no more than three or five feet above sea level. Not only do people not know where to move to, but they also do not know where they are going to have the country to move to.
If you have to move, you actually become a climate refugee, especially if you have to cross the border. And that’s just not addressed internationally, which is kind of crazy. If you try to get asylum anywhere for climatic reasons, there is no chance that you will be granted it. This is usually seen as a national or local problem. So Bangladesh has a problem and the Netherlands has a problem, but it is not addressed internationally.
Rising sea levels are one aspect of the climate crisis, but obviously much broader. I don’t know to what extent this is being discussed in the US, but many people are fleeing Central America because there is no more water or they can no longer grow crops and lose their land.
By the way, these people are still there on these islands in Panama. It was the government’s program to be relocated and that money suddenly disappeared. They are local and not a top priority in the Panamanian government. So that was interesting to see.
I noticed that initially when I was there people said to me that they were moving and that they were reluctant to do it, which is obvious, right? It is a very difficult message for anyone to be told to leave the land of your ancestors: drop your life, go to a higher level where you have to learn to become a farmer, where you will always be a fisherman . When I returned [later]it seemed very complicated. People really wanted to leave because they felt it was going to be too dangerous.
You have worked a lot with conflict and migration and these really complex social problems over the years. Is that very different from reporting on the climate crisis?
I think they will be the same. We know that one of the main reasons for the conflict in Syria was originally the scarcity of water. When you see what is happening in the Sahel and elsewhere, it is often related to the climate crisis. And then when al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever steps in it changes history, but they are so often related.
Over the course of this project, have you seen solutions or strategies where you thought, OK, maybe we have passed that tipping point, but maybe all is not lost?
I hope I was able to convey a balanced point of view. A lot of people ask me that it must have been very depressing in Bangladesh, and you know it’s actually not because people take solutions into their own hands. They live with the water their whole life. They know what is happening and they adapt. I’ve met a lot of people who have moved five or nine times. And when it is no longer sustainable where it is, they will move to the big cities. There is resilience.
The rise in sea levels is nothing new. The big difference is that it used to take hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, and is now happening in two generations. That makes it very different.
Before the Dutch were so well protected by levees, people just built hills in the country to make sure their home was dry or they moved to another area. In western countries in particular, we have lost our ability to adapt. We consider a city like New York or Miami or Amsterdam that it has to stay where it is. And obviously we are dealing with a much larger population now.
The Delta Commissioner in the Netherlands asked one of the large engineering firms in 2018 to look at the worst-case scenario. And that worst-case scenario is basically if nothing is done and if we don’t achieve the lowering of global temperatures in the Paris Agreement, sea levels in the Netherlands could rise anywhere between three and nine feet by the end of the century.
That’s 80 years. If you were born today, you will likely see it happen. We in the Netherlands may be able to handle three feet, but we can’t handle six feet or nine feet. So there are very wild plans of what the Netherlands should do to protect itself, but it often seems that the most recent realistic plan is relocation.
To imagine that cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, could be abandoned is a very difficult concept.
I think it’s very problematic in New York too. It wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy that people began to look at sea levels and take them seriously, and the investment was still very slow. We are eight years, nine years after Sandy, and when it comes to something that really happens physically, there is almost nothing.
Of course, a lot can be done. The Dutch have proven that you can live below sea level in a country, but it was a very large investment and it took centuries to do it in what is still a very small country.
Most of the US east coast is exposed. Worse still, the people who live on barrier islands. There is very, very valuable real estate on a barrier island, but you shouldn’t live on the barrier because a barrier is meant to move, be hit by storms, and act as a buffer to protect the land.
The time factor is a big problem. Bangladesh is one of the few countries that has embarked on a huge master plan to protect its coastal regions, the Delta Plan 2100. It’s an interesting plan because it’s not just about building dykes and protecting the land, it’s also about that , where people may need to move and when they do need to move you need to provide them with new livelihoods. It’s very interesting.
I did not include the Netherlands in the project initially because I was looking for regions or countries in the world where it was urgent and the streets of Amsterdam will not be flooded. In the face of the climate crisis, we always think it won’t be as bad as predicted, but there’s no single reason why this is right because every scientific report that comes out actually paints a darker picture.
I often ask myself how is that possible? And one answer to that might be that we are in our comfort zone, right? We grew up with the fact that the economy is growing and your children are likely to have better lives than us. We have to make some sacrifices that neither of us likes. So take a step or two back and compromise to make sure the next generations are still okay, which is a whole different difficult concept for us.