For most of the past decade, Qadir van Lohuizen has been using photography to document the climate crisis and explore what it means for the future. After facing an opportunity in Panama during a reporting trip, Dutch photojournalists are documenting the effects of rising sea levels around the world. Working closely with scientists, and learning a lot about both human migration and tides, Van Lohuizen has been able to visually prove what experts have been warning for so many years: Our coastline is in danger.
His work has been used in UN presentations and at the Paris Climate Conference across 11 countries and has turned into a television series, a book and several exhibitions. Currently seen in New York City Museums, Rising tide, Highlights how the island city will be affected by the changes.
His book, After the catastrophe, Offers a broad view of slow climate change on each continent এবং and how it affects the people who live there. While some countries have proven adept at adopting forward-thinking policies, including migration strategies, many are refusing to acknowledge sea levels as anything other than a regional problem. Van Lohuizen’s work points to the close relationship between civilization and the sea, which challenges viewers to think more critically about the future.
Did you know that this project will take many lives?
I started it in 2011-2012, as a short story. I was looking at contemporary immigration to America, traveling for a year from the tip of Chile to the edge of northern Alaska, to see why people were migrating.
When I was interviewing people from the San Blas Islands in Panama, they told me, “We are being evacuated as the sea level rises. ”I was a little hesitant, because you know, I’m talking to them from the sea floor, six feet below sea level. That was 10 years ago, and I knew sea level rise was a problem that would come up, but I didn’t realize it was already a problem. I started research in different parts of the world, if there is an emergency elsewhere. The big challenge was, how do you imagine something that is not yet visible?
So how do you make it happen in a way that people can understand?
It required a lot of research, because I wanted to find areas where people would understand that it was already a problem, like the Pacific nation or Bangladesh. I really wanted to touch it worldwide.
I actually thought I closed the project in 2015 because it felt like I was starting to repeat 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 turned into an exhibition, which traveled and went to the climate conference in Paris, and finally reached out to me on Dutch public television. It allowed me to go back to some of the places I was, and I found the same guy occasionally.
I have done a lot of work with scientists. At the beginning of the story I had to adapt my work methods, because you know, usually, as a photographer, you work with light. I discovered very early on that if I wanted to imagine it, I had to work with the tide. If you see that the land is already flooding at high tide, it makes it a little less difficult to imagine what it would mean if the sea rose permanently three feet or six feet above sea level. It’s not much. And there is no question that sea level is rising. The question is when.
When do people decide to move?
You might assume that the problem becomes really urgent if there is permanent water in your home, but it starts much earlier. If sea water floods the land, and then often does not subside, people can no longer grow crops, because the soil becomes saline and drinking water becomes saline. That’s enough for the transfer. Often it is not coordinated by the government, but will make the decision on its own.
And where are people moving? Are they going to town? Are they going to another country?
It depends on where you are, doesn’t it? If you live in an island state in the Pacific Ocean, such as the Marshall Islands or Kiribati, there is nowhere to go, as it is no more than three or five feet above sea level. People not only know where to move, but they do not know where the country will move them.
If you have to relocate, you are actually becoming a climate refugee, especially if you have to cross the border. And it’s not addressed internationally, which is kind of crazy. If you are trying to take refuge somewhere because of the climate, there is a zero chance that it will be given to you. This is usually considered a national or local problem. So Bangladesh has a problem and the Netherlands has a problem, but it has not been solved internationally.
Growing sea level is one aspect of the climate crisis, but obviously, it is much broader. I don’t know how much of it is discussed in the United States, but many people are fleeing Central America because there is no more water, or they can no longer cultivate crops, they are losing their land.
However, these people are still on these islands in Panama. It was the government’s relocation program, and that money suddenly disappeared. They are indigenous, and do not have their highest priority in the Panamanian government. So it was interesting to watch.
I noticed that initially, when I was there, people were telling me they were moving and they were reluctant to do that, which is obvious, right? This is a very difficult message to anyone, if you are told to leave the land of your ancestors: give up your life, go to the high ground where you have to learn to be a farmer, where you are always imprisoned. When I got back [later], It seemed very complicated. People were kind of anxious to leave then, because they felt it was becoming too dangerous.
You have been dealing with conflict and immigration for many years and with these complex social issues. Is it very different from covering the climate crisis?
I think they are becoming the same. We know that one of the main causes of the conflict in Syria was initially, the lack of water. If you see what is happening in Sahel and other places, it is often related to the climate crisis. And then if al-Qaeda or ISIS or anyone enters there, it changes a kind of story, they are often related to each other.
Through this project, have you seen the formulation of solutions or strategies where you thought, OK, maybe we’ve crossed this tipping point, but maybe it’s not all lost?
I hope I have been able to give a kind of balanced perspective. Many ask me, it must have been very frustrating in Bangladesh, and you know, it’s not, because people are taking matters into their own hands. They have been living with water all their lives. They know what happens, and they adapt. I’ve met a lot of people who have already moved five or nine times. And then, if they no longer survive, they will move to the big cities. Has elasticity.
There is nothing new about rising sea levels. The big difference is that it took hundreds of years, or if not thousands of years, and now it is happening between two generations. This makes it very different.
Before the Dutch were so well protected by dykes, people would build hills on the land to make sure their homes were dry, or they would move to other areas. We have lost the ability to adapt, especially in the West. We consider a city like New York or Miami or Amsterdam to be where it is. And obviously, we’re dealing with a much larger population now.
The Delta Commissioner of the Netherlands in 2018 asked a large engineering company to look into the worst case scenario. And that worst case scenario is, basically, if nothing is done, and if we don’t reach a global warming reduction in the Paris Agreement, sea levels could rise by three to nine feet in the Netherlands by the end of the century.
It’s 80 years. If you were born today, you would probably have witnessed some of that. In the Netherlands we can deal with three feet, but we can’t work with six feet or nine feet. So the Netherlands has very wild plans about what it should do to protect itself, but it often seems that the most realistic plan is to relocate.
It is very difficult to imagine cities like Amsterdam, or Rotterdam, which is the largest port in Europe, to be abandoned.
I think it’s very problematic in New York as well. It wasn’t really until Hurricane Sandy that people even started to consider sea level and took it seriously and investment is still very slow. We are eight years old, nine years after Sandy, and in the case of something real physically happening, almost nothing.
A lot can be done, obviously. The Dutch have proven that you can live in a country below sea level, but it has been a very high investment, and it took centuries to build it, which is still a very small country.
Much of the east coast of the United States is unprotected. Worse, those who live on Barrier Island. Very, very valuable real estate exists on a barrier island, but you should not live on the barrier, because moving a barrier is supposed to be, will be touched by storms and form a buffer to protect the land.
The time factor is a huge problem. Bangladesh has launched a huge master plan to protect some of its coastal areas, called Delta Plan 2100. People may have to relocate, and if they have to relocate, you have to provide them with a new livelihood. It’s very interesting.
I was not initially included in the Netherlands project because I was looking for a region or country in the world where there was an urgent need and the roads in Amsterdam were not flooded. With the climate crisis, we always think it’s not going to be as bad as predicted, but there’s no reason for it to be accurate, because every scientific report that comes out actually paints a grim picture.
I often ask myself, how is this possible? And the answer might be that we’re in our comfort zone, aren’t we? We grew up because the economy is growing and your children will probably have better lives than us. We have to accept some sacrifices, which none of us like. So, you know, go one or two steps back and compromise to make sure the next generation is still okay, which is a very different difficult idea for us.