Rising Seas are causing storms and flooding. In some regions people are literally standing in the water where before it was dry land© unsplash.com / Eric Garcia


How rising sea levels are changing the world

Climate change is altering the coasts of our planet: washing away sandy beaches, submerging islands and flooding plains. Our analysis of more than 700,000 tidal heights worldwide shows that climate change has long been a reality for the coastlines of the world. Hundreds of millions of people are affected.

von Annika Joeres

In the past six months, CORRECTIV, together with journalists from seven countries, has been collecting a wealth of data and now, for the first time, is making it accessible to the public. Since 1933 a British organisation, the Permanent Service of Mean Sea Level (PSMSL), has collected the tidal heights at ports around the world. In more than 2,000 places, the British have set up meters and taken, from some of them, monthly readings.. It is the most illustrative method of measuring the effects of global climate change. Satellite-based measurements began only in 1993.

We have selected 500 places which are particularly well documented and mapped them globally. The map not only gives you a glimpse into the past — it also shows how the levels will change in the future. “Where the sea level has risen strongly, it will continue to rise strongly in the future,” says Anders Levermann, researcher for climate impact in Potsdam and New York. Levermann is the main author of the last world climate report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has set the course for a scientific consensus. Changing currents could influence the sea level locally, adds Levermann, but the global trend remains.

No continent will be able to escape the swelling waters. So the sea level in southern Marseille, France, is 10 centimeters higher today than it was 30 years ago. On the North Sea island of Borkum the difference is 6 centimeters — where in 1980 one could still stand with dry feet you need rubber boots today. The top ten most affected cities are mainly in Asia. The capital of the Philippines, Manila, for example, has levels that are 40 centimeters higher than 30 years ago.

At the same time, a surprising effect can be seen on our map: in the Scandinavian countries, the land is rising faster than the water. Some ports are literally high and dry. In the city of Vaasa in western Finland, the land has risen by almost ten centimeters according to our data, and in the town of Bodo in northern Norway by as much as 25 centimeters. The reason: the crust of the earth, which was previously compressed by ice sheets several kilometers thick, is still expanding after the melting of the glaciers.

The extent of the sea level rise depends on how much polar ice melts. The ice melt is difficult to predict: its speed depends on how much air is trapped in the ice, how dense the ice is, and how old. Water, in turn, warms up more slowly than air and stores heat for longer. Researchers led by Detlef Stammer at the Hamburg Institute for Oceanography are currently working on computer simulations which look at how various factors affect sea levels, such as solar radiation, man-made CO2 in the atmosphere, and the effect of aerosols. “In the end it proves to us that a prediction is extremely difficult,” says Stammer. What is certain is that the global trends will continue.

Researchers at the IPCC currently assume a global rise in sea levels between 20 and 80 centimeters by the year 2100. By the year 2200 or even 2300 it could be a few metres. An enormous range that will decide the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Recently, the forecasts have been revised upward by a considerable degree.

“The fact that the sea levels will rise even faster in the coming centuries is now an absolute consensus — and also that this is due to human-induced warming,” says climate impact researcher Levermann. However the researchers are in disagreement as to how much the ice caps at the poles will change. “We have most probably underestimated their influence so far.” According to Levermann if one day the ice sheets of Greenland completely melted, they  alone would make global sea levels rise by seven meters.

Man has always lived on the coasts of this earth. To this day, cities near the water grow rapidly and attract twice as many people as those in the interior of the country. “The social, economic and political development of a country is concentrated on the coast,” says Derryl Colenbrand from Cape Town, South Africa. However our data – which is lacking across the continent – also attests to the economic isolation of Africa: tidal heights have only been recorded in South Africa and Zanzibar. Other ports were apparently not important enough for the British officials to measure their levels.     

Our data also shows that climate change affects humanity differently. The sea is rising worldwide at an average of 3.4 millimetres a year, but wind, currents and waves influence the level regionally. In some regions, the sea level rises ten millimeters per year, three times faster than the global average.

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What is certain is that the closer people live to the sea, the more they will suffer from climate change. Parts of the Philippines could cease to exist, as islands with their own languages ​​and cultures sink. Millions of people in Bangladesh, one of the lowest countries on earth, are threatened. Broadly speaking, countries in the global South often don’t have sufficient resources to protect themselves from storms and floods. African countries for obvious reasons, prefer to invest in roads and hospitals rather than in dykes.

Wealthier states are better prepared. The devastating storm surge on the North Sea coast of Europe in 1953, for example, has led to better protection measures, which are still paying off. But European citizens will also have to leave their homes. As will the North Americans: as Storm Sandy tragically showed in New York, the US has not done enough to protect its coasts. There is a danger that the luxurious houses in the Rio Parana delta in Argentina will perish, and in the south of France, in Palavas-les-Flots, hotels and beach bars are under threat from floods.                      

In Japan, scientists are trying to breed coral reefs to build living barriers against the rising water with the help of nature. And there is one more piece of good news: Climate change is making mankind work on global solutions for the first time.

So what to do? What now? We would like to present five positions:

Laurence Tubiana was the French negotiator at the UN climate summit in 2015 and is now the CEO of the European Climate Foundation. Even though the euphoria has now subsided after the Parisian summit, Tubian still sees it as a signal of hope. International treaties mean that even the powerful coal industry is looking for alternatives.

Ottmar Edenhofer from the Berlin Mercator Institute hopes for a global CO2 tax. It would make climate-damaging energy forms such as coal expensive and thus unattractive. At the same time this could provide money for the victims of climate change.

There is another, previously little noticed solution, that was presented for the first time in Paris: a new agriculture. Because healthy, humus rich soil can store CO2.

CORRECTIV- climate expert Annika Joeres counts on enlightened and more frugal citizens: A climate friendly everyday life can be worth living for everyone.

And put the seas that are swelling worldwide into their place.

The coastline in swanage, Britain: Parts of british landscapes will be flodden - no barrier can keep them safe© unsplash.com / Will Broomfield

Sea-level rising

European citizens endangered by rising sea levels

Climate change is making the sea level rise along Europe's coasts. But the rising levels vary: 18cm in Nice, 9cm in Copenhagen, both since 1986. In Britain the Medmerry, on the south coast, was the first place to stop reinforcing dykes - returning the land to the sea. Experts say this is a fate awaiting large areas of coastal land in the future.

von Annika Joeres

Inland seas, especially, are “regions that are least prepared for a fluctuating sea level,” says Hans-Martin Füssel, head of climate projects at the European Environment Agency (EEA). His institute is based in Copenhagen. In the Baltic Sea, there have been hardly any floods. “Recently, we had dinner with colleagues at the port of Copenhagen and the Danes said: Where are we going to build a dyke here?” says Füssel. The sea level in front of the capital (LINK) is now around ten centimetres higher than it was 30 years ago.

Mediterranean cities, like Nice, in France, (LINK) or Levkas, in Greece, have already recorded levels that are around 20 to 30 centimetres higher. With climate change, the sea will rise even faster in the future. By 2100 it could have risen between 60 and 80 centimetres, according to data from the IPCC.

In the long term, people in sparsely populated and less protected areas of Europe will have to relocate. Like in Medmerry, southwest of London, which abandoned its dykes, which were constantly being destroyed, and instead allowed 500 hectares inland to be flooded by seawater. The Environment Agency decided that it would rather give in to the pressure of the sea and create a new flood zone in what was a sparsely populated area, than to invest money in higher dykes. So far it is the largest coastal opening in Europe.

The EEA observes on their European maps that overall, urban areas are better protected than rural ones. This is easy to understand. “Which government would give up Hamburg or London?” says EEA expert Füssel.

People living around the North Sea are used to strong tides, and they’ve made provisions for spring tides and storms. “Overall, Europe is better prepared for rising sea levels than most other regions of the world,” says Füssel. After the devastating storm surge along the North Sea coast in 1953, massive dykes were built against the force of the sea.

As well as the European Environment Agency each country has its own flood protection plans, and there are coastal institutions in countries like the Netherlands that have always built dykes and put out sand against incoming floods. But climate researchers agree: all of these measures are not enough to protect the 200 million people who live in coastal areas, according to Eurostat.

The British research institute CSIR has put measuring instruments at 180 European ports, more than on any other continent. CORRECTIV has evaluated the data. The conclusion: At most measuring points, the sea level is rising. In Scandinavia it’s sinking, because the land mass there has been rising since the last ice age.

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The amount the sea is rising varies, even between cities that are close together. In Tarifa, southern Spain (LINK), the sea is 30 centimetres higher than 30 years ago, yet just 150 km away in Malaga (LINK) the increase is only six centimetres.

Tthe sea rose by 16 centimetres in Brest, Brittany, but in neighboring Roscoff (LINK) it only rose by about 10 centimetres. This shows that local wind and water currents can directly influence the sea level on the coast.

While in Hanstholm,northern Denmark, the level has increased by six centimetres since 1985, it decreased by 18 centimetres in Smogen which is directly opposite in western Sweden. On the Scandinavian coasts, the landmass is rising faster than the sea (LINK TO  JONS TEXT). Some ports are literally high and dry. In the city of Vaasa (LINK),western Finland, the land has risen by almost ten centimetres according to our data, and in the town of Bodo in northern Norway by as much as 25 centimetres. “The northern European countries have experienced a land uplift since the last ice age: The earth crust that was previously compressed by kilometer thick ice sheets continues to expand even today after their melting away,” explains EEA expert Füssel.

The vast majority of coastal inhabitants in Europe will have to adapt to rising sea levels. To protect the coasts, dykes and weirs can slow down the water and the waves, and sand can be dredged to the beach from deeper levels to prevent erosion during floods. In Germany for example, dykes will be increased by 70 centimetres in the coming decades.               

But not all coasts and inhabitants can be brought to safety, like in Medmerry. “Today, no one any longer questions the fact that the sea level is changing,” says Detlef Stemmer, director of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Hamburg. But the exact plans in countries like Germany, France or Portugal are still uncertain. The climate is considered too chaotic. “We have to accept that a relative uncertainty will persist,” says Stemmer.

Water masses change more slowly than air masses. Even if humanity stopped the emission of greenhouse gases overnight, the water would continue to rise for many centuries. That’s why no one can say today what the coasts will look like in the long term — not even in Europe,which usually plans ahead in so much detail.


Translation: Victoria Parsons

Sea-level rising

More than 60 million Africans are affected by sea level rise

Every year the sea rises an average of two millimetres globally. Data from South Africa suggests the increase will be much bigger there. Millions of people will lose their homes. But so far only Cape Town has invested in precautionary measures.

von Annika Joeres

Darryl Colenbrander spends his life with the sea. In his spare time he enjoys surfing, and during the week he tries to prepare Cape Town for rising sea levels. His official job is running the coastal protection program (Coastal Management Programme). On a map, he draws a line around the metropolis of four million people, which he calls his “setback line”. Beyond it, there is already the threat of flooding during storms. In the long run, this whole zone will be under water. At the moment no new construction work is allowed beyond this line, and in the medium term the people who live beyond it will be resettled.

This is a task that requires a lot of tact, says Colenbrander. He is a trained philosopher, not an engineer or scientist, and he tries to take into account the social aspects of his planning as well. “Each coast is a complex area,” he says, “he who wants to change it needs to respect the tradition and history of its inhabitants. When we say we want to protect you — then this means something different for every citizen.”

Colenbrander says the advice of the IPCC is important and right but needs to be specifically negotiated and implemented at each location. “In South Africa we have the legacy of apartheid. Some coastal strips were only accessible to whites, others reserved for blacks.  We have to consider these past injustices for our protection plans.” To date, mainly the poor live near the sea,beyond the setback line. It would be a fatal signal to demolish their accommodation first, says Colenbrander, and: “There can be no solution for all.”

Scant data situation

Overall, the data situation for the African continent is not very good. Our visualization is based on only a few measuring points. Data is only available from ports which are important for world trade. There are six measuring points in South African ports, which indicate that the sea has risen by more than ten centimetres in the past 30 years. They include Port Elizabeth in Simons Bay, near Cape Town, a large industrial site where Victorian houses are a reminder of the British colonial period; Port Nolloth, a hub for shipping copper ores; and East London, where historically leather was traded and where today Daimler Benz AG builds cars and trucks.

Only in the Tanzanian port of Zanzibar have the levels dropped over a number of years, possibly influenced by numerous buildings in the vicinity of the measuring points. However,recently the sea here rose by about two centimetres.

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No money for protective measures

“The lack of data from Africa hampers scientific predictions of climate change,” says Sally Brown, environmental and marine scientist in Southampton. Brown predicts tough times for the African population: “The sea will not rise as strongly as in South Asia. But the people in Africa are much less protected than in industrialized countries.” There are very few studies and even fewer planned construction projects with which the countries could contain the rising seas. Brown does understand: “If a state is primarily concerned with building hospitals and schools, then there is no time and no money to protect against potential climate-related damages.”

Sometimes travel entrepreneurs want to protect beaches with controversial construction projects. Some luxury resorts in Zanzibar have built protective walls in front of their sandy beaches which now direct the currents and waves to other coasts around the island. Fishermen and residents protested against these arbitrary actions that make the beaches beyond the tourist temples swell or wash away. According to Sally Brown about 1.6 million people in Tanzania will be affected by flooding in the coming decade.

Between 60 and 70 million Africans live in areas that are up to ten metres above sea level — and could soon be submerged into the salty water. In the average scenario predicted by climate scientists the Indian Ocean will rise 43 centimetres by 2100, displacing 16 million people from their homes. The worst affected areas will be Mozambique, Guinea, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and South Africa. But so far only Cape Town is developing a protection plan for its coasts.

In 2100, countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Tunisia and Libya will have to spend more than one billion euros a year repairing what the rising waters destroy on the coasts, according to calculations by Sally Brown and  colleagues. (pdf) Not taking protective measures would cost even more — and the damage caused by the floods would have to be endured.

The good in the bad

In spite of all the horrific scenarios: In Cape Town, Darryl Colenbrander hopes that climate change will also lead people to set aside old divisions between black and white. “We now have the chance to right the wrongs of the past,” he says. Because all people now need to put distance between themselves and the coast. Poor and rich. About 75 per cent of high-risk areas are currently built up. With surf clubs and slums, bars and shacks. Before climate change, however, all are equal. And must give way.

Translation: Samy Feistenberger/Victoria Parsons

© unsplash.com / Alexander Marinescu

Sea-level rising

Where the land rises faster than the sea

At first glance it's a paradox: While globally sea levels are rising, they’re sinking in Scandinavia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. And also more recently in Iceland.

von Jòn Bjarki Magnússon

This is shown by an analysis of 365 measurement points over a period of 50 years, from 1961 to 2011. Some of the levels in the northern hemisphere are falling with astonishing speed: In certain areas of Alaska and Canada, the sea level falls by up to two centimetres per year. On the coasts of Norway, Sweden and Finland it falls by 0.7 centimetres per year. The explanation: It is not the sea level that’s falling, it is the land that’s rising. Because the glaciers are melting and the immense weight of their ice mass has disappeared. And that is why the land rises.

The phenomenon has long been known in Scandinavia. In Iceland, it’s new. In 2015, an international team of scientists published a study that showed that parts of the central highlands of Iceland rise by more than three centimetres per year. Recent measurements of the national land survey authorities show a rise by one and a half centimetres in certain coastal areas.

The reason: The glaciers that once covered approximately 11 per cent of Iceland’s land mass have shrunk dramatically in recent decades. It’s predicted that they’ll be gone completely in about 200 years time.Many countries will shrink due to climate change and the rise in sea levels. “Iceland will first grow,” says Páll Einarsson, professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland. Einarsson was one of the first who explored the phenomenon in the early 1990s. “We were stunned when we started with the measurements. Meanwhile, the land elevation is taking place at a rate much faster than we had anticipated.”

In Scandinavia, the land has been rising for a long time; it is called the “Fennoscandian land elevation”. In 1491 the residents of a settlement called Östhammar were already complaining that the coast had pulled back from the city so far that the old port had become unusable. The people at that time had no explanation for it. They suspected the sea would drain, the sea levels fall. Over the centuries, several other ports became dry, and new ones had to be built.

“During the last glacial period, one single big glacier covered what is today Scandinavia,” explains Sven Knutsson, Professor of Soil Mechanics at the Technical University of Luleå in Sweden. In its center, the glacier was about 3,000 metres thick, and its immense weight pressed the ground down. As the ice retreated about 10,000 years ago, the ground began to lift. This post-glacial uplift continues today — up to nine millimetres each year.

Professor Knutsson emphasizes how much difference this makes — especially along a coast where the water is not very deep. “This means that we are talking about a land elevation of half a metre to one metre during a person’s lifetime.”

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But there are exceptions which seem difficult to understand at first glance. Some stations on the Norwegian and Swedish coast show sea levels rising up to one millimetre per year. The explanation: These areas are the furthest away from the old Fennoscandian glacier. The land here rises only 1 to 2 millimetres per year, and sea levels rise around 3 millimetres each year globally- so the net effect is that the sea level increases slightly.

Reykjavík is another exception. Here, the sea level increased by about 2.1 millimetres per year between 1961 and 2011. The explanation: While individual parts of Iceland rise by up to three centimetres per year, the land below the capital falls due to tectonic movement. Since the launch of GPS measurements in 2007 the land around Reykjavík fell by about two millimetres per year.



unsplash.com / Tim Trad

If global sea levels rise by about 3 millimetres per year, and Reykjavík falls by about two millimetres per year — the sea level would actually increase by 5 millimetres per year. However, it is only 2.1 millimetres. Why?

The explanation is provided by Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: The ice cap at the North Pole is melting due to climate change and is getting smaller. This also reduces its gravity. The water — gradually — withdraws from the North Pole, which is why countries like Greenland, Iceland, and even Scotland and Alaska, are experiencing a decline in sea levels along their coasts.

For now. In the medium term, when the global levels continue to rise, this effect will diminish — and the northern countries will experience a rise in sea levels too.

© unsplash.com / Charles Deluvio

Sea-level rising

Manila: A capital is sinking

In the last 50 years the sea level has increased more than 80 centimetres, according to our map. In ten or twenty years coastal areas around the city, home to millions of people, will be permanently underwater, according to research by the University of the Philippines

von Jacque Manabat

One of the most densely populated and fastest growing economic centres in the world, in 2015 the population was estimated to be around 13
million people by the Philippine Statistical Office. „As the land around Manila Bay sinks and the sea level rises, the flooding is spreading not
only in the city, but also in the surrounding provinces“, said Greg Bankoff, an Asia expert at Auckland University in New Zealand. Inprevious downpours the main streets of Manila have flooded.

Before the 1960s the sea level around Manila did not significantly increase, but from then on it rose steadily at a rate five times faster than the rest of the world. By 2050 it is estimated the sea will have risen by another 50 centimetres. In the worst case scenario the sea will  penetrate into metropolitan areas near coastal cities like Manila, Pasay, Parañaque, Las Piñas and Navotas, and even into the coastal
provinces of Bataan, Pampanga, Bulacan, and Cavite. If there is a tsunami, the larger water mass and higher sea levels will mean the
potential for destruction will be far greater.

Now, after each heavy rainfall, several areas of the capital flood. The traffic grinds to a standstill and people wade through chest-high water.
Homemade rafts are paddled through the streets. The inhabitants seem to have become strangely used to the flooding, which usually subsides by the following day.

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But during huge tropical storms the flooding does not subside so quickly. In 2009 Typhoon Ketsana caused floods that were almost seven
metres high. More than 80 per cent of Manila was under water, displacing around 300,000 people.


Mike Clarke / AFP

The sea level rise which began in the 1960’s coincided with the industrialisation of the Philippines. The President at that time, Ferdinand Marcos, focused on infrastructure projects for rapidly growing cities – and the built environment was changing too. According to
research by NAMRIA, the national mapping service, industrialisation exposed the country’s inhabitants to floods. In the capital, where skyscrapers rose rapidly, houses and office buildings were built in flood prone areas, and are particularly vulnerable to the rising sea
today. A study by the World Bank describes how the ground is still sinking, even though the Government stopped pumping up groundwater for infrastructure projects decades ago. If the Government does not protect the coastline in the future, wading through waist-deep floods during Manila’s rainy season will become normal, scientists warn.

„Venice“ is a $23 million residential community designed for the Argentinian capital’s elite.

„Venice“ is a $23 million residential community designed for the Argentinian capital’s elite.© Gilda Di Carli

Sea-level rising

Argentina: Where the rich and poor will sink together

The delta of the Rio Paraná, just outside Buenos Aires, was once barely populated. That was, until the real estate developers came - and the islands in the wetlands were marketed as luxurious waterfront properties. The consequences were disastrous.

von Gilda Di Carli

When storms strike the Buenos Aires’ slum of Garrote, Marcela Creciente’s kids know the drill: they climb to the roof of their home where Creciente has laid out mattresses for them to rest upon while they wait for the rain to pass.

She puts them there to keep them out of the filthy, flooded streets below, where the water can rise to waist level, and garbage flows by at a steady pace. From this viewpoint, they watch as their neighborhood comes to a standstill — power interrupted and sewage pouring into the streets, blocking the roads and preventing anyone from coming in or going out.

Kids in Garrote

Kids in Garrote

Gilda Di Carli

Yet, less than a mile away, just north up Italia Street, a new development designed for the Argentinian capital’s elite is being built on the same river delta as Garrote.

In an irony not lost on Creciente and her neighbors, its designers envision the $23 million residential community, called Venice, as an aquatic neighborhood — a city built atop the water, with canals instead of roads, just like Italy’s famous city — but with a modern twist: instead of gondolas, small yachts will dock outside the wealthy patrons’ condos.

“Deciding to name the project Venice is almost mocking“, said Patricia Pintos, a geographer and expert on real estate development on the Paraná delta wetlands. „During extraordinary floods, many lower-class neighborhoods actually resemble Venice [with canals instead of streets] so it feels like they’re taunting them“, she said.

And when the new development is complete, on those rainy nights when Creciente’s children rest and wait on their soggy mattresses, Venice’s residents will be sheltered safely inside their luxury condominiums, admiring the weather through double-paned, vista-filled windows- unaware their presence, and the development they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to live in, may only make things worse for their neighbors in Garrote.

In 2014, a team of public interest lawyers brought the Venice project investors to court, alleging the high-end complex may aggravate flooding in Garrote.

Although both Garrote and Venice were built atop flood-prone wetlands in the Paraná river delta, it is the new, high-end developments — like Venice — that lawyers claim are not only built illegally, but as a result of their design, will exacerbate the flooding of the older and poorer communities nearby.

With over zealous dredging, and the introduction of landfill, artificial lakes and floodwalls, these new developments- many illegal and badly planned- will alter the delta’s runoff, diverting it toward lower-lying communities, such as Garrote.

And as global temperatures rise and glaciers and poles melt, rising seas, stronger storms and increased storm surges will make the already devastating flood situation significantly worse for these delta communities.

Correctiv, a German nonprofit investigative journalism news organization and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environment reporting project, have examined tide gauge data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) for the Buenos Aires region. Although there are very few gauges in the region, the available data shows that sea level has been rising in the area at a rate of 1.7 mm per year over the past fifty-seven years. That’s a roughly 9.5 cm increase since 1961- a trend scientists say is only likely to accelerate in the future, leaving the Paraná river delta, and the communities within it, even more vulnerable to flooding and storms.

The delta is on the path to becoming submerged, said Jorge Codignotto, a leading scientist on sea level rise at The National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET)a leading scientist on sea level rise at the National Institute of Industrial Technology in Buenos Aires, and even the new developments, he said, will eventually be lost.

Geography of Paraná river delta

The Paraná delta is the planet’s only river delta that does not drain into the sea, but instead, another river, the Río de la Plata. The delta is roughly 14,000 square kilometers in area, and dotted with more than a thousand small islands – the result of sediment carried 1,000 kilometers downstream by the South American river as it snakes its way from its headwaters in Brazil, southward along the border of Paraguay and into Argentina.

Crisscrossed with dozens of smaller rivers, including the Luján river, the wetlands and marshy islands of the delta, have served to temper the fluctuating water levels of both the Paraná and the Río de la Plata. And for decades, only the most marginalized communities – such as early residents of Garrote and towns like it – resided in this flood-prone, buggy, and swampy environment.

But that all changed about two decades ago, when the southeast corner of the Paraná delta, Tigre, caught the attention of developers looking for new, exotic and cheap land to build upon. Tigre was one among many towns, like Pilar, Campana, and Escobar, targeted for development.

Today in Tigre, among islands thick with vegetation, where ceibos — the national tree- and herons nest, nearly 100 gated communities have been developed, turning the once remote and unglamorous marsh into a tourist attraction.

Over 9,000 hectares of wetlands have been cleared for real estate projects at the Luján river’s basin.

Over 9,000 hectares of wetlands have been cleared for real estate projects at the Luján river’s basin.

Gilda Di Carli

Development of Tigre

Developers of Nordelta, pioneers of Tigre’s gated communities, submitted their first lot for construction in 2000. Within 15 years, this large-scale gated community grew from a few resident herons and ducks to more than 30,000 human residents, according to the development’s website. Nordelta, one of the largest communities, encompasses a surface area of 1,600 hectares, which is roughly four-and-a-half times larger than New York City’s Central Park.

Nordelta was soon followed by dozens of others including Marinas Golf, Complejo Villanueva, El Cantón.

All were built for wealthy buyers — with many serving as weekend or vacation homes, according to Diego Ríos, an expert on the developments in this area.

Over 9,000 hectares of wetlands -about half the size of Washington D.C.- have been cleared for real estate projects at the Luján river’s basin, according to Patricia Pintos, a researcher in geography at the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires. She and a team of researchers authored a report, The Sacrilegious Privatopia, on real estate development on the Paraná delta wetlands. And the speed and scale of development is increasing, nearly 1/4 of these wetlands were cleared between 2012 and 2014.


But as development booms, so does flooding.

In March 2010, heavy floods hit low-lying neighborhoods in Tigre — meter high waters flooded ground floor apartments, destroying fridges, doors and walls, according to local news reports. Some residents in Tigre claimed one of the gated communities had opened a floodgate, redirecting water into a nearby middle-class neighborhood, according to the local newspaper, Actualidad de Tigre.

As a result, the Tigre municipality ordered two gated communities to design drainage infrastructure, such as dams, canals and levees, to alleviate the impact of flooding, and prevent runoff from pouring into poorer communities, reported the local newspaper.

But things got worse.

In June 2012, a Buenos Aires newspaper reported Garrote was in the midst of a public health epidemic as a result of contaminated waters filling the neighborhood streets.

Creciente recalled that dredging by developers earlier that winter along the Luján river brought a murky muddy mixture onto the bank of the Canal San Fernando. When it began to rain, the churned-up mud seeped into places where children played. Before long, the children became sick. Parasites were observed in children’s diapers.

Today in Tigre nearly 100 gated communities have been developed, turning the once remote and unglamorous marsh into a tourist attraction.

Today in Tigre nearly 100 gated communities have been developed, turning the once remote and unglamorous marsh into a tourist attraction.

Gilda Di Carli

“Children were vomiting parasites from their mouths“, said Creciente. One case of parasites was detected in a woman who was seven months pregnant.

Between 2012 and 2017, flooding not only became commonplace, but increasingly accompanied by civil unrest.

For instance, in 2013, as floods swelled along the delta, residents of a middle-class neighborhood near Nordelta broke through a wall surrounding the gated community’s golf course in order to relieve the rising waters submerging their homes. Nordelta security guards shot at them. No injuries were reported.

And in 2015, nearly 20,000 residents from several towns were evacuated- including Las Tunas- and three drowned, according to Clarín, a national newspaper.

These municipalities were hit again in 2016 and early 2017.


Concerned by the constant flooding, lawyers and scientists began investigating the relationship between real estate development and flooding on the delta.

They discovered that many developers were not only shirking provincial and federal laws – in some cases with the help of local municipalities – but publicly bragging about it.

For instance, in 2014, a team of public interest lawyers found that while the company developing Venice had submitted environmental impact statements to the city of Tigre, it had failed to provide provincial authorities with those documents- a violation of the law. So they sued both the city and the developers.

The developers had publicized this violation in sales brochures.

“The sense of entitlement is so normalized that they have no problem mentioning in their company advertisement that 60% of their condos had been sold before they had the permits to build“, said Eduardo Reese, director at Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, the law firm filing suit.

A Tigre municipality spokesperson denied any wrongdoing.

Still, Pintos, the researcher who authored the Paraná delta real estate report, and her team have shown that non-compliance and lack of enforcement are rampant in the development of gated communities similar to Venice.

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For instance, developers of San Sebastián, a gated community spanning 9 km along the Luján river excavated wetlands, introduced landfill, built floodwalls and created artificial canals and lagoons without one certified permit, and in violation of more than 10 laws regulating wetland development.

And San Sebastián is not alone. As of December 2014, 66 gated communities on the Luján river basin were non-compliant, according to Pintos’ team.

In 2016, two federal judges filed a decision halting construction in more than a dozen of these communities, including Venice.

The decision required provincial authorities to prevent any new construction in these municipalities until environmental impact statements were submitted that analyzed the cumulative impact of these gated communities on wetland flooding.

As a result, several projects were modified.

In 2016, two federal judges filed a decision halting construction in more than a dozen of these communities, including Venice.

In 2016, two federal judges filed a decision halting construction in more than a dozen of these communities, including Venice.

Gilda Di Carli

In the case of Venice, not only was the development’s footprint reduced, but the developers were required to incorporate flood control measures and restore wetland vegetation, according to Juan Paladino, provincial government coordinator.

The development is now under construction and fully compliant, said Pablo Botana, managing director for TGLT, the developer of the Venice project. He noted Venice is different from most other gated communities because instead of being built atop virgin wetland, it is located on an abandoned shipyard, where large boats were built and repaired over the course of the century.

However, not everybody is satisfied.

Researchers say the cumulative impact of these developments is still being ignored, despite the courts’ requirements, and as a result, the health of the wetlands environment is threatened.

“It’s not possible to argue that an isolated project will not have an effect on the flooding dynamic“, said Pintos. „We have to watch the whole movie, looking at just one take is not enough.“

For instance, Diego Ríos, an expert on the Paraná delta, is looking at the effect chemical fertilizers, artificial lakes and weed killers are having on the delta’s fragile ecosystem. He found they are contributing to the production of a toxic algae known not only to kill native plants and animal, but that may threaten human health, as well.

His study shows these blooms produce noxious odors, skin rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and even death.

Complaints regarding greenish blue, fluorescent colored algae emitting the smell of insecticide surfaced in Nordelta as early as 2005. Biologists note that water pumps to eliminate the algae have little effect so long as agrochemicals are used to maintain lawns green year-round -especially in the case of golf courses.

“It’s a problem that never ends, like a snake that bites its tail“, said Ríos.

Government’s role

There is hope, however, for the delta’s health.

In 2016, Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, a center-right politician promoting liberal policies, introduced a wetlands protection bill designed to conserve Argentina’s 600,000 square kilometers of wetlands– nearly ¼ of the country’s surface area, including the Paraná delta.

Recognizing that flooding is Argentina’s costliest environmental issue, according to the World Bank, the bill will prevent farmers, cattle ranchers, and developers from destroying flood-preventing wetlands.

Despite strong backlash, the bill was given preliminary approval in the Senate, and is now awaiting final approval in Congress.

In addition, the Paraná river delta is protected by an international treaty known as the Ramsar Convention on wetlands. The treaty stipulates that the delta can’t be reduced in size without notification.

“To this date we have received no report on any changes made there“, said Maria Rivera, Senior Advisor for the Americas for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Yet, scientists warn such conservation developments may have come too late to save the delta and its residents.

Climate Change

Geographers and meteorologists say sea level rise, as well as other climatic changes, such as storm frequency, and changes in wind and weather patterns, increase the urgency and need to prepare for and prevent damage to all the communities in the Paraná delta.

“We’re not suggesting we leave this place untouched“, said Jorge Codignotto, a leading scientist on sea level rise at the National Institute of Industrial Technology in Buenos Aires. ‘We just don’t want to lose the few natural resources we have.“

As seas rise and storm intensities increase, it won’t just be the poor communities that get clobbered, it’ll be all of them.

According to a study conducted by University of Buenos Aires, sea level has risen 20 cm in the last century at the Río de la Plata. Such a significant increase has and will continue to have a direct impact on the Paraná delta wetlands, said Codignotto.

In a spacious wooden office at the National Institute of Geography in Buenos Aires, Ignacio Gatti, a geographer, pointed to a map showing the southeast corner of the Paraná delta.

The map was pockmarked with red dots, where gated communities are being built, atop seas of blue and red where scientists say flooding is going to get worse.

And while the Paraná delta and its wetlands currently serve to help temper floods, as new housing developments are built here, the wetlands shrink, and the seas rise, the delta is likely to be swallowed whole; gated communities and all.

Meanwhile, Creciente’s kids will continue watching their mom scrub mud from her house and unclog the sewage drains, as the storm waters fill the streets of Garrote.

The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is part of Columbia Journalism School post-graduate fellowship program and is supported by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with Correctiv.

Shonda Rnai and her brother Kalidas: Their watermelons suffer from salty water for the shrimp-farms in their neighboorhoud

Sea-level rising

Rising salinity batters Bay of Bengal farmers

Shondha Rnai’s small island paradise in the Bay of Bengal is threatened by salt. The little fresh water she needs is taken up by shrimp cultivation for the US and Europe.

von Eduardo Garcia

She’s one of roughly eight million people living on artificial islands built by the Bangladeshi government in the 1960s to create 1.2 million hectares of farmland to feed its growing population.

Known by the Dutch term „polder“, these 139 islands surrounded by dikes are now under assault by rising seas, sinking land, a strained supply of river water, and a radical shift in farming practices: from land based-agriculture to shrimp cultivation.

Island farmers, such as Rnai, are struggling in this changed landscape.

Although rustic and primitive, her small plot of land on Polder 22 is lush with mango and guava trees. She lives in a house pieced together with mud walls, dried reeds and thatched roofing, and makes a decent living growing turmeric, lettuce, rice and even watermelon – a cash crop in the Ganges Delta.

But as the seas encroach, and her neighbors flood their land with seawater to grow the lucrative crustaceans Americans and Europeans dip in cocktail sauce, her irrigation water is turning brackish, making her land unfertile during the dry season.

“The lack of fresh water means we cannot have two crops of rice a year and other vegetables don’t grow well“, said the 34-year-old, wrapped in a red and green patterned sari. „Our production is being hampered by this water crisis.“

Shonda Rnai standing by her home_en.jpeg


Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environment reporting project, in partnership with CORRECTIV, and Mediapart, is examining the global, environmental, social and demographic consequences of global sea level rise.

Scientists say Bangladesh – a low-lying country crisscrossed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, as well as their branches and offshoots – will be one of the hardest hit areas as the oceans become warmer and the poles melt due to global warming, raising sea levels globally.

Data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level shows that sea level in southwestern Bangladesh increased by roughly 7mm per year from 1980 to 2003, well above the global average of 3mm.

That is, in part, because the 6,000 km of embankments that surround the polders are helping to fuel sea level rise.

By constraining the tides inside the embankment walls, the polders’ dykes prevent the seawater from spreading out, instead pushing the tides further inland.

The result: sea levels is rising some 17mm a year in Khulna, the region where Rnai lives, according to a study by Julian Orford, an Emeritus Professor at the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University in Belfast.

“Our very act of trying to preserve civilization through building embankments is actually a major cause of reinforcing this rise in sea level“, says Orford.

In addition, the embankments also prevent sediment from the Ganges River from replenishing the polders’ soil, causing the islands to slowly shrink below the rising waters.

Making sea level forecasts for the massive Ganges–Brahmaputra delta, the largest delta in the world, is difficult because there are few long-term measurements of both sea level and tidal expansion. But, climate models indicate the global mean sea level could increase 1m by 2100 if carbon emissions continue unabated, a surge that could be catastrophic for this low-lying, densely-populated region.

“Dealing with this massive change that will affect up to 16 million people over the next 20 to 25 years is the worst coastal zone management problem in the world“, Orford said.

As farmers watch the slow, inevitable encroachment of the sea, they are also witnessing their farms die as a result of a much more immediate, but equally devastating change in the way they make a living: shrimp farming.

Shrimp farms in Polder 23 2_en.jpeg


In the Khulna region, ponds of brackish water for shrimp cultivation are everywhere, creating a landscape where the distinction between land, river and ocean is completely blurred to the eye.

Aquaculture has boomed over the last four decades in this riverine country, shifting the local economy from agriculture to aquaculture and turning Bangladesh into the world’s seventh largest exporter of farmed shrimp, behind China, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Ecuador and Thailand.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, aquaculture is the world’s fastest growing food production sector.

“We went from the green revolution in developing delta countries to what is called a ‘blue revolution’. These deltaic countries are not only the rice bowls of the world, but they have more recently become protein bowls of the world“, says Kimberly Rogers, a researcher at the University of Boulder Colorado who specializes in human-environment interactions in deltas.

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This dramatic shift was driven by shrimp farmers who flooded large swaths of land with seawater. While some land owners willingly agreed to turn their rice paddies into shrimp ponds, some landless farmers say outsiders flooded communal land with seawater.

For instance, most of the farmland in Polder 23 – an island next to Rnai’s – is now controlled by shrimp cultivators. The plantations where farmers once grew rice are now underwater, and all that is left is a dry strip of land that serves as an embankment.

Demographic data is hard to come by in Bangladesh, but farmers, scientists and land rights activists say many locals have been forced to migrate away from their homes because they cannot longer find work in the fields.

“Right now, almost all men spend most of the year working for a brick factory near Khulna city. Many of the women have migrated to the city to do domestic work, and some families have migrated to India or Dhaka in search for employment“, says Rokya Bagun, a 47-year-old mother of three.

“This is breaking families apart“, she adds.

Other communities, such as the one on Polder 22, have been able to physically keep the shrimp farms off their island, but they haven’t been able to save their water.

“I work with farmers who own small plots of land, some of whom have been forced to convert their rice paddies to shrimp because contaminants from adjacent shrimp farms – chemicals, feces and salt – have seeped into their land, and stunted or destroyed their soil quality“, said Rogers, who has studied the Ganges Delta for a decade.

Salinity data is hard to come by, but the few reports documenting the trend show it is getting worse.

A 2009 study by the government-run Bangladesh Soil Resource Development Institute showed that some 1.1 million hectares of arable land in the coastal area were then affected by salinity, which marked a 27% increase in 35 years.

As well as higher sea levels, flooding, and stronger tides, shrimp ponds are also to blame, for the increase in salinity said Khandker Moyeenuddin, director of the institute.

While „shrimp farming is a threat to the environment“ because it increases soil salinity, the industry should continue because it is an important source of foreign revenue for the country, he said.

Meanwhile, the lack of freshwater is exacerbating salinization.

A massive engineering project in India to capture river water during the monsoon and divert it to drier areas through a network of reservoirs and canals is reducing the amount of freshwater that arrives in Bangladesh.

“Politicians making decisions in the upstream river basins are concerned about protecting their populations, their infrastructure and their agricultural productivity, but they’re not thinking ‘Oh, hold on, this big canal system will divert water away from the delta in the next country’. That’s not happening“, says Rogers.


Scientists and government officials are struggling to design adaptation strategies to help farmers cope with the rising seas and increased salinity. The Bangladeshi Rice Research Institute has developed saline tolerant rice varieties, which is helping farmers harvest better yields – but it’s not enough.

“Once they have a variety that can tolerate three grams of salt per kilogram of water, salinity in the coastal area goes to four. Then, once they develop one that can tolerate five, the low-lying coast has gone to seven. The problem moves faster than the solution“, says Saleemul Huq, the lead author of the chapter on Adaptation and Mitigation in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report.

Huq, a well-known climatologist in Bangladesh, considers shrimp farming a „maladaptation“ to climate change that has caused significant economic and social problems for local people. But, if managed the right way, it doesn’t have to be a disaster.

He says aquaculture and rice cultivation could coexist. Shrimp farmers could allow local people to grow a rice crop after the monsoon, before they inundate the land with brackish water to cultivate the crustaceans for the remainder of the year.

Huq concedes, however, that some shrimp farmers refuse to share land with rice farmers and, in any case, there is no telling whether the soil can sustain both shrimp and rice in the long term.

In the end millions of people will be displaced over the next decade or two because of the insurmountable challenges posed by salinity, tidal surges, flooding and the cyclones that regularly hit this region.

The latest cyclone, Mora, battered the coastal belt in May killing at least six people and forcing the government to evacuate 1 million people.

Huq says that a process of „facilitated adaptation“ should be implemented to give farmers means for surviving and adapting, while providing education and skills for their children so that „they don’t end up being farmers and fishers like their parents but can get jobs in the cities and the towns, and when they move, they can take their parents with them.“

The author takes part in the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project of Columbia Journalism School post-graduate fellowship program and is supported by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with correctiv.org