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Adapt to survive: the places on the front line of climate change

Workers build a semipermeable sea dam from bamboo poles and brushwood Workers build a semipermeable sea dam from bamboo poles and brushwood Nanang Sujana
12 Jan
While the world debates the best ways to reduce emissions and hold global temperature rise below 2°C, the heat is already on for countries facing the greatest threats from climate change.

All around the world, nations are already preparing for, and adapting to, climate change and its impacts, be it extreme-weather events, higher temperatures or sea-level rise.

While reducing emissions remains the most important goal of any climate plan, this type of adaptation is also hugely important given that atmospheric changes are already baked-in; even if we slammed the brakes on emissions tomorrow, we would continue to see the impact of the CO2 already released since industrial times, with scientists predicting that global warming would continue for around 40 years. In the meantime, icecaps would continue to melt and sea levels rise. In any case, emissions are certainly not about to plunge off a cliff. Some countries and regions will suffer more extreme impacts from these changes than others. It’s in these places that innovation is thriving.


Raised roads 2 Credit City of Miami BeachIn some areas of Miami Beach, roads have been raised to protect against the floods that are bound to come. Image: City of Miami Beach

In Miami Beach, an island-city in southern Florida, rising seawater isn’t just breaching the island’s walls, it’s seeping up through the ground beneath its streets. ‘What makes our situation here unique is that the foundation of Florida is actually porous limestone rock,’ says Yanira Pineda, senior sustainability coordinator of the city’s Rising Above stormwater and climate-resilience programmes. Growing problems with groundwater infiltration mean that dams and barriers alone aren’t enough – the only way to save Miami Beach is to lift it up above sea level.

In 2014, the city began to do just that. Starting in the lowest and most vulnerable neighbourhoods, where exceptionally high seasonal tides, or ‘king tides’, were causing floods even on cloudless days, roads have been raised – in areas most at risk, such as Sunset Harbour, by as much as 61 centimetres.

The elevation work was carried out as part of Miami Beach’s ambitious but much-needed stormwater-management programme, which, by 2017, had already become a US$650 million project. In addition to the road adaptations, the city installed new pumps that Pineda says can remove up to 75,000 litres of water per minute. It also implemented new minimum heights for seawalls.

In the face of floods, climate-mitigation strategies have often been overlooked, but Pineda knows that they’re essential and that the work is far from over. ‘We know that in 20, 30, 40 years, we’ll need to go back in there and adjust to the changing environment,’ she says.

E. By Kuswantoro 1Nature-based solutions can often deliver more benefits than traditional infrastructure. Image: Kuswantoro


Seawalls are a staple strategy for many coastal communities, but on the soft, muddy northern shores of Java, Indonesia, they frequently collapse, further exacerbating coastal erosion. In the Demak district, which has already lost three kilometres of land and whole villages to the sea, a different approach has taken shape.

In 2015, Wetlands International and Ecoshape, in collaboration with the Indonesian government and international partners, launched a project to restore the island’s coastal mangrove ecosystems, 78 per cent of which have been cleared to make room for urban development and aquaculture, particularly the shrimp farming that sustains much of the local community. Mangroves can help protect coastal areas from rising seas by trapping sediment in their net-like root systems, elevating the sea bed and dampening the energy of waves and tidal currents. Research by Wetlands International shows that a 100-metre-wide belt of mangrove forest can reduce the height of a wave by half.

Susanna Tol, senior communications and advocacy officer at Wetlands International, says that, while hugely popular, the majority of mangrove-planting projects fail. To combat this, they started out with a different approach, building nine kilometres of semi-permeable sea dams, made from bamboo poles and brushwood, to mimic the role of mangrove roots and create favourable conditions for the trees to grow back naturally.

Within the first year, sediment built up by 45 centimetres and new trees appeared. Coastal erosion stalled and local shrimp farmers, who were taught sustainable aquaculture methods that would support mangrove regeneration, saw their income triple. The results encouraged the Indonesian government to replicate the approach in 13 other districts. However, despite the initial success, some land was later lost again to subsidence, largely caused by groundwater extraction for nearby cities.

Nevertheless, Tol says that the approach works in areas with less subsidence. ‘Unfortunately, traditional infrastructure is often single-solution focused and has caused increasingly devastating impacts on vital natural resources,’ she says. ‘For long-term success it’s critical that we transition towards multifunctional approaches that embed natural processes and that engage and benefit communities and local decision makers.

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South Africa Khomanisan house pilot credit PEER AfricaAt a pilot project in Khomani San, South Africa, solar-reflective paint is applied to the roof of a building. Image: PEER Africa

Houses in ‘informal settlements’, such as the one in !Kheis, a municipality in South Africa’s Northern Cape, are often built using repurposed materials such as corrugated iron. This contributes to extremes: at night, the temperature indoors can be as high as 40°C. ‘People were sleeping in the streets. It was a huge problem,’ says Karen Surridge, project manager at the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI). In 2013, SANEDI launched a pilot programme to test the application of solar-reflective ‘cool’ paints to the exterior of buildings in !Kheis. The improvement was almost instantaneous, she says.

Cool coatings are increasingly being adopted as a lowtech, low-maintenance method for reducing temperatures in hot countries. They are typically designed to reflect a higher percentage of the sun’s energy than white paint; according to Surridge, the paint currently being used by SANEDI reflects around 94 per cent. Coatings come in other forms, such as tiles, but paints are one of the cheapest and easiest ways to make low-income housing more resilient to heat.

SANEDI has since partnered with the South African Department of Defence to develop a project that would paint 1.3 million square metres of cool coatings, so far with similarly positive results. At the newly painted Department of Defence health training facility in Lephalale, Limpopo, the interior temperature was recorded at 29°C, while outside it was 47°C. Kurt Shickman, executive director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance, a key partner in the initiative, stresses that this technology also has a place in temperate countries, especially ones that aren’t adapted to heat. ‘Solar-reflective surfaces are optimal in hot climates, but they also have substantial benefits much further north than you might think,’ he says.

Amphibious house Vietnam 2 Credit the Buoyant Foundation 1An amphibious house floats on a base of flotation blocks. Image: The Buoyant Foundation


As the floodwaters rose in the rice fields of the Mekong Delta in September 2018, four small houses rose with them. Homes in this part of Vietnam are traditionally built on stilts but these ones had been built to float. The modifications were made by the Buoyant Foundation Project, a not-for-profit that has been researching and retrofitting amphibious houses since 2006. ‘When I started this,’ explains founder Elizabeth English, ‘climate change was not on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but this technology is becoming necessary in places that didn’t previously need it.’ 

The Mekong Delta is home to more than 17 million people who have adapted to life near the floodplains. But sea level rise and flooding caused by storms and dam construction means that the current elevation of homes may no longer be enough. English, who came to work in flood mitigation from a background in wind research, says that, after hurricane Katrina, ‘it became clearer to me that the big issue was not the wind, but the water’. Her solution was simple: flotation blocks are placed under the house while a structural frame distributes the uplift they produce on water. Telescopic poles, which English calls the ‘vertical guidance system’, secure the house to the ground and resist the forces from wind and flowing water.

It’s much cheaper than permanently elevating houses, English explains – about a third of what it would cost to completely replace a building’s foundations. It also avoids the problem of taller houses being at greater risk from wind damage. Another plus comes from the fact that amphibious structures, which are much less obtrusive, can be sensitively adapted to meet cultural needs and match the kind of houses that are already common in a community. ‘It allows people to have the house they want,’ says English, ‘I’m just making it flood-resilient.’

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

ICCO part of Cordaid FrameIn Productions 2Project participants test the salinity of soil. Image: ICCO part of Cordaid/FrameIn Productions

Worldwide, salt is threatening our increasing demand for food. As sea levels rise, so does the salinity in rivers and groundwater. To date, more than one fifth of the world’s agricultural land has been degraded by salt.

Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to climate change. Most of the country is less than a metre above sea level and 80 per cent of its land lies on floodplains. ‘Almost 35 million people living on the coastal belt of Bangladesh are currently affected by soil and water salinity,’ says Raisa Chowdhury, senior regional communications manager at ICCO Cooperation – part of Cordaid, a Netherlands-based international-development organisation.

Salt damages plant tissues and prevents them from taking up the nutrients they need from the soil, decreasing crop yields by as much as a third. Desalination is expensive, energy intensive and a short-term solution in the face of ever more frequent flooding.

Rather than fighting against it, one project is helping communities adapt to salt-affected soils. Since 2017, ICCO Cooperation has been working with 10,000 farmers in Bangladesh to introduce naturally salt-tolerant crop varieties into the region. Certain varieties of carrot, potato, kohlrabi, cabbage and beetroot have all been found to be better suited to the salty soil than the rice and wheat that is typically grown there. 

Chowdhury says that the results are very visible, comparing a barren plot of land to the ‘beautiful, lush green vegetable garden’ sitting beside it, in which he and his team have been working with the farmers. Since the project began, farmers trained in saline agriculture have reported increases of two to three more harvests per year.

Different parts of Bangladesh, even on the same land, have different levels of salinity, ‘so salinity-level tests to select the right crops need to be done to expand this project,’ explains Chowdhury. For now, the project has set itself the goal of ensuring seeds can be made widely accessible to farmers and of transforming a further 5,000 hectares of fallow fields into productive land.

Cool pavement 2 Credit StreetsLA Workers apply a coat of CoolSeal to a road in an LA neighbourhood. Image: StreetsLA


On summer nights in Los Angeles, when the surrounding land has already cooled off , there’s still enough heat radiating from the black asphalt of the city’s roads to make them visible from space. In a study using a thermal infrared sensor on the International Space Station (ISS), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory revealed that, at 4am, the city’s car parks and airport runways were sometimes as warm as 23°C. This urban heat island effect – where cities get hotter, and stay hotter, than rural environments – is a growing problem for places like Los Angeles which is already seeing heat-related health emergencies in the winter.

Urban cooling is literally a matter of life and death for our future in LA,’ says Greg Spotts, chief sustainability officer of the city’s street services department, Streets LA. Since 2019, Spotts has led the Cool Streets LA programme, a series of pilot projects, including tree planting and cool pavement installations, designed to help reach the city’s goal of reducing its average temperature by 1.5°C by 2035. Using a Geographic Information System data mapping tool, the programme identified very hot streets with low tree canopy cover in three of the city’s neighbourhoods and coated them with CoolSeal, a light-grey, light-reflecting asphalt emulsion coating, which had already been shown to reduce road surface temperature in Los Angeles by 6°C. ’ 

Spotts says one of these streets, in the Winnetka neighbourhood of San Fernando Valley, can now be seen as a white-blue crescent on an otherwise red thermal image from the ISS. In September, Cool Streets LA launched its latest phase, an $8 million project to plant 1,900 trees and paint 200 city blocks across eight neighbourhoods. Spotts says that while the thermal image of Winnetka and the data-driven selection of vulnerable neighbourhoods helped to attract most of the funding needed, so did the size and the boldness of the project. Reflecting on a summer of global extreme weather events, he adds, ‘I feel like we’re now going to scale at the right time’. 

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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