For most of the last decade, Kadir van Lohuizen he used photography to try to document the climate crisis and explore what it means for the future. After a chance encounter in Panama during a signaling trip, the Dutch photojournalist documents the effects of rising sea levels on the globe. Working closely with scientists, and also learning a lot about human migration and tides, van Lohuizen has been able to visually demonstrate what so many experts have observed over the years: Our costs are in jeopardy.
His work, which spans 11 countries, has been featured in presentations at the UN and at the Paris climate summit, and has been transformed into a television series, a book, and several exhibitions. One currently on display at the New York City Museum, Rising Tide, highlights how the island city will be influenced by the changes to come.
In his book, After the Flood, offers a comprehensive look at the slowing climate change that is happening on all continents – and how it affects the people who live there. While some countries have demonstrated ability to adopt advanced policies, including transfer strategies, many refuse to recognize sea level rise as anything more than a regional problem. Van Lohuizen’s work highlights the intimate connection between civilization and the sea, challenging the viewer to think more critically about the future.
Did you know that this project will take many lives?
I started this in 2011-2012, as a short story. He looked at contemporary migration in America, traveling by land for a year from the tip of Chile to the northern tip of Alaska, watching as people migrated.
While I was interviewing people on San Blas Island in Panama, they told me, “We were evacuated because sea level was rising. “I was a little perplexed because, you know, I talk to them from the bottom of the sea, like six meters below sea level. That was 10 years ago, and I knew that rising sea level was a problem. that was about to come out, but I didn’t realize it was a problem already.I started looking for different regions in the world if there was an emergency elsewhere.The big challenge was, how to visualize something that isn’t also visible?
So how do you put yourself in a strong picture that people understand?
It involved a bit of research, because I wanted to find regions beyond where people could understand that this is a problem already, like in the Pacific or Bangladesh nations. I really wanted to touch on this global.
I actually thought I was closing the project in 2015, so I felt like I was starting to repeat myself. How many islands, or how many eroded coasts, can you see? It was a collaboration initially with the New York Times, and then it became an exhibition, which traveled and went to the climate summit in Paris, and finally I was approached by Dutch public television. This allowed me to go back to some of the places I had been, and sometimes I found the same people.
I worked a lot with scientists. I definitely had to adapt my working methods very early in history, because you know, normally, as a photographer, you work with light. I discovered very quickly that if I wanted to visualize it, I had to work with the tides. If you see that the land is already flooded when there is high tide, it makes it a little less difficult to imagine what it would mean if the sea finally rose to three meters or six meters. It’s not much. And it’s not a question of whether sea level rises. It’s the question of when.
When do people decide to move?
You may assume that the problem becomes really urgent when water is permanently in your home, but it starts much earlier. If sea water floods the land, and then often does not recede, people can no longer cultivate it, because the land becomes saline and drinking water becomes brackish. It’s enough of a reason to transfer. Often this is not coordinated by the government, but it is the people themselves who make this decision.
And where are the people moving? Are they going to town? Will they go to other countries?
It depends on where you are, right? If you’re in island states in the Pacific, such as Marshall Islands or Kiribati, there’s nowhere to go because it’s no more than three or five feet above sea level. Not only do people not know where to move, but they do not know where they will have the country to move.
If you have to relocate, you become, in fact, a climate refugee, especially if you have to cross the border. And this is just not an international treat, which is kind of crazy. If you are looking for asylum somewhere for climatic reasons, there is no chance that you will be granted it. This is generally considered as a national or local issue. So Bangladesh has a problem and the Netherlands has a problem, but it is not an international treaty.
Sea level rise is an aspect of the climate crisis, but obviously, it is much broader. I don’t know to what extent it is discussed in the United States, but many people flee Central America because there is no more water, or they can no longer cultivate it, they lose their lands.
By the way, these people on these islands in Panama are still here. It was the government’s program to be transferred, and that money suddenly disappeared. They are indigenous, and do not have the highest priority in the Panamanian government. Then it was interesting to see.
I noticed that initially, when I was here, people were telling me that they were moving and that they were reluctant to do it, which is obvious, right? It is a very harsh message for anyone, if they tell you that you must leave the land of your ancestors: Leave your life, go to a higher ground where you must learn to become a farmer, where you are still a fisherman. When I come back [later], seemed very complicated. People were a little anxious to leave then, because they felt it was becoming too dangerous.
I had worked a lot with conflict and migration and these really complex social issues over the years. Is it very different to cover the climate crisis?
I think they become the same. We know that one of the main reasons for the Syrian conflict was initially, the lack of water. If you look at what is happening in the Sahel, and elsewhere, it is often linked to the climate crisis. And then whether al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever intervenes, history changes, but they are so often linked to each other.
During the course of this project, you have seen solutions or strategies put in place, where you thought, OK, maybe we have passed this tipping point, but maybe it is not all lost?
I hope I was able to give you some kind of balanced view. Many people ask me, it must have been very depressing in Bangladesh, and you know, it really isn’t, because people take solutions into their own hands. They lived with water all their lives. They know what’s going on, and they adapt. I have met many people who have moved there already five or nine times. And then, if it’s no longer sustainable where they are, they’re going to the big cities. There is resilience.
There is nothing new in rising sea levels. The big difference is that it first took hundreds of years, or even thousands of years, and now it happens in two generations. This makes it very different.
Before the Dutch were so well protected by dams, people only had to build hills in the ground to make sure their house was dry, or they moved to another area. Especially in Western countries, we have lost our ability to adapt. Think of a city like New York or Miami or Amsterdam, which should stay where it is. And of course, we’re dealing with a much larger population now.
The Delta Commissioner in the Netherlands has asked one of the largest engineering companies in 2018 to look at the scenario. And that worst-case scenario, after all, is if nothing is done, and if we don’t reach the reduction of global temperatures in the Paris Agreement, sea levels can rise in the Netherlands anywhere between three and nine feet at the end of the century.
He is 80 years old. If you were born today, it’s something you’ll probably witness. We in the Netherlands may perhaps deal with three feet, but we cannot deal with six feet or nine feet. So there are a lot of wild plans on 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, which is the largest port in Europe, could be abandoned is a very difficult concept.
I think it’s very problematic even in New York. It wasn’t really until Hurricane Sandy that people even started to consider sea level and take it seriously, and investment has always been very slow. We’re eight years, nine years after Sandy, and in terms of something really happening physically, there’s almost nothing.
A lot can be done, of course. The Dutch have shown that you can live in a country below sea level, but it has been a very high investment, and it took centuries to create this, in what is still a very small country.
Most of the East Coast of the United States is unprotected. Even worse, people living on barrier islands. A very valuable property exists on a barrier island, but it should not live on the barrier, because a barrier is supposed to move, be touched by storms, and form a buffer to protect the earth.
The time factor is a huge problem. Bangladesh is one of the few countries that has launched a huge master plan to protect its coastal regions, which is called Delta Plan 2100. It is an interesting plan because it talks not only about building dams and protecting land, but also seeks where people may have to relocate, and if they have to relocate, you have to provide them with new means of subsistence. 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 there was an emergency, and the streets of Amsterdam are not flooded. With the climate crisis, we still think it won’t be as bad as expected, but there’s only one reason why it’s correct, because every scientific report that comes out actually depends on a darker picture.
I often wonder, how is that possible? And one answer to that is perhaps that we are in our comfort zone, right? We grew up with the fact that the economy is growing and that your children will probably have a better life than we do. We need to make some sacrifices, which none of us like. So, you know, take a step or two back and commit to making sure the next generations are always OK, which is a very different difficult concept for us.