Rising sea levels threaten Caribbean cities

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times chronicle how the effects of climate change have begin to be recorded in the historic city of Cartagena de Indias in Columbia’s Caribbean coast. For five years, retired Colombian naval officer Germán Alfonso has watched tides rise higher and higher in the Boca Grande section of Cartagena. This month, tides briefly inundated the only mainland connection to his neighborhood, a converted sandbar where about 60 high-rise condo and hotel towers have been built in the last decade or so.

According to a recently updated World Bank study on climate change in Latin America, not only are the effects of global warming more evident in Latin American coastal cities, but the phenomenon could worsen in coming decades because sea levels will rise highest near the equator. Colombian naval Capt. Julian Reyna, a member of a government task force monitoring climate change, said the sea level around Cartagena, renowned for its Spanish colonial fortifications and beaches, has risen as much as one-eighth of an inch each year over the last decade, an increase that scientists expect to accelerate in coming years. According to some scenarios that the authors of the World Bank study say are not that far-fetched, Cartagena and the rest of the Caribbean coastal zone could see sea levels rising as much as 2 feet, possible more, by the end of the century. Even at the lower end of projections, parts of this city would be knee-deep in sea water.
One of the authors, climatologist Walter Vergara, cautions that the projections are based on trends and factors that could change, but he is worried that Colombia’s entire Caribbean coastal zone could see relocations of urban centers. Other Latin and Caribbean cities especially at risk include Veracruz, Mexico; Georgetown, Guyana; and Guayaquil, Ecuador, he said. “The projections are based on assumptions generally accepted by the scientific community and do not include the cataclysmic effects of possible advanced ice melting in the Antarctic or Greenland,” said co-author economist John Nash.
Even under the most benign of scenarios, Vergara and other scientists are concerned for Colombia’s Cienaga Grande, a mangrove marsh covering hundreds of square miles whose ecosystem could die because of increased salinity from higher tides. The forests could disappear and thousands of fishermen may be displaced. Agriculture in Colombia and other tropical countries is at greater risk than in the United States, Canada and Europe because temperatures are already relatively high in countries near the equator, and increases will be more damaging to growing conditions, Nash said.
Cartagena’s chief city planner, Javier Mouthon, said the local government is aware of what could be in store and is making plans beyond immediate effects that include a long-term “adaptation process.” That includes new roads and relocating city facilities to avoid permanently flooded zones.
Cartagena is already studying the feasibility of building dikes or collection pools and possibly requiring all construction to have foundations 20 inches higher than currently specified.
“We are quite concerned,” Mouthon said. “It’s a problem that grows year by year.”
For the complete Los Angeles Times article go to


 Photo: High tides recently cut off the Boca Grande section of Cartagena, in Colombia. Scientists say Latin American cities are at higher risk because sea levels will rise most near the equator. (Capt. Julian Reyna / Colombian Navy / November 21, 2009)

One thought on “Rising sea levels threaten Caribbean cities

  1. Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

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