For most of the past decade, Kadir Van Luohuisen Photography is used to try to document the climate crisis and explore what it means for the future. Since a chance encounter in Panama during a press trip, the Dutch photojournalist has been documenting the effects of rising sea levels around the world. By working closely with scientists, and while learning a lot about both human migration and tides, Van Luohuisen was able to prove what many experts have been warning for years: Our coasts are in danger.
His work, spanning 11 countries, has been used in presentations to the United Nations and at the Paris Climate Summit, and has been turned into a television series, book and numerous exhibitions. One is currently on display in New York, bore, Highlights how the island city will be affected by the upcoming changes.
Writing, After the flood, A comprehensive look at the slow climate change taking place on every continent – and how it affects the people who live there. While some countries have proven adept at adopting forward-thinking policies, including resettlement strategies, many refuse to acknowledge sea-level rise as more than just a regional issue. Van Lohuizen’s work starkly notes the intimate relationship between civilization and the sea, challenging the viewer to think more critically about the future.
Did you know that this project will claim many lives?
I started this again in 2011-2012, as a small story. I was researching contemporary immigration in the Americas, where I traveled overland for a year from the tip of Chile to the tip of northern Alaska, and researched why people migrated.
When I was interviewing people from the San Blas Islands in Panama, they said to me, ”We are being evacuated because the sea level is rising. ”I was confused because I’m talking to them from the sea floor, like six feet below sea level. That was 10 years ago, and I knew that sea level rise was a problem that would arise, but I didn’t I realize that was really a problem.I started looking for different parts of the world, if there was an urgent need elsewhere as well.How do you imagine something unseen yet?
So how do you get this in a powerful light that people understand?
It necessitated a great deal of research, because I wanted to find areas outside where people might realize that this is really a problem, like in the Pacific countries or Bangladesh. I really wanted to address this globally.
I actually thought I was closing the project again in 2015, because I felt like I was starting to repeat myself. How many islands, or how many eroded coastlines, can you show? It was a collaboration initially with The New York Times, then it became an exhibition that traveled and went to the Climate Summit in Paris, and eventually Dutch Public Television called me. This allowed me to go back to some of the places I visited, and sometimes even found the same people.
I have worked a lot with scientists. I definitely had to adapt my techniques very early in the story, because you usually know, as a photographer, that you work with light. I quickly discovered that if I wanted to visualize it, I had to work with the tides. If you saw that the land was actually inundated when the tide was high, that makes it less difficult to imagine what it would mean if the sea rose permanently three feet or six feet. It is not much. The question is not whether sea level rises. It is a matter of when.
When do people decide to move?
You might assume the problem becomes really urgent when the water is in your home permanently, but it starts much earlier. If sea water floods the land, then not often receding, people will not be able to grow crops anymore, because the soil becomes saline and drinking water becomes salty. That’s reason enough to go. Often this is not coordinated by the government, but the people themselves make the decision.
Where do people move? Are they going to cities? Are they going to other countries?
It depends on where you are, right? If you are in island states in the Pacific Ocean, such as the Marshall Islands or Kiribati, then there is nowhere to go, as it is no more than three or five feet above sea level. Not only do people know where to move, but they do not know where they will have the country they are going to.
If you have to move, you actually become a climate refugee, especially if you have to cross the border. This hasn’t been taken up internationally, which is kind of crazy. If you are trying to get asylum somewhere due to climate reasons, then there is no chance of getting asylum. This is usually a national or local problem. So Bangladesh has a problem and the Netherlands has a problem, but it is not addressed internationally.
Rising sea levels are an aspect of the climate crisis, but it is clearly much broader. I don’t know how much it is being discussed in the US, but a lot of people are fleeing Central America because there is no more water, or they can no longer grow crops anymore, they are losing their land.
By the way, these people on these islands in Panama are still there. This was the government’s program to move, and that money suddenly disappeared. They are indigenous and do not have the highest priority in the government of Panama. So it was fun to see.
I noticed that in the beginning, when I was there, people were telling me they were going to move and that they were reluctant to do so, which is obvious, right? It is a very difficult message for anyone, if you are told that you must leave the land of your ancestors: Leave your life, go to a high place where you have to learn to become a farmer, where you are always a hunter. When I got back [later], It looked so complicated. People were kind of anxious to leave, because they felt it got too dangerous.
You’ve been working a lot with conflicts and migrations and these really complex social issues over the years. Is this completely different from covering the climate crisis?
I think they have become the same. We know that, in the beginning, one of the main causes of the Syrian conflict was the lack of water. If you see what’s happening in the Sahel and elsewhere, it is often linked to the climate crisis. And then, if al-Qaeda or ISIS or anyone else intervenes, that kind of changes the story, but they are often related to each other.
During the course of this project, did you see solutions or strategies being implemented where you thought, well, we may have passed this turning point, but maybe not all of them are lost?
Hope I was able to give a kind of balanced look. Lots of people ask me, it must have been very frustrating in Bangladesh, you know, not really, because people are taking solutions in their own hands. They have lived with water all their lives. They know what’s going on, and they’re adapting. I’ve met a lot of people who have already moved five or nine times. And then, if it’s no longer sustainable where they are, they’ll move to big cities. There is flexibility.
There is nothing new about sea level rise. The big difference is that it used to take hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, and it is now occurring in two generations. This makes it very different.
Before the Dutch were well protected by dams, people would only build hills in the ground to make sure their home was dry, or they would move to another area. Especially in western countries, we have lost our ability to adapt. We consider a city like New York, Miami or Amsterdam, and it should remain the same. Obviously, we are dealing with a much larger population now.
A delta commissioner in the Netherlands asked a major engineering firm in 2018 to look into the worst-case scenario. And this worst-case scenario, basically, is if nothing is done, and if we do not reach the global temperature reduction in the Paris Agreement, then sea level in the Netherlands could rise anywhere between three and nine feet by the end. Of the century.
This is 80 years old. If you were born today, this is something you will probably witness. Maybe in the Netherlands we can handle three feet, but we can’t handle six feet or nine feet. So, there are wildly wild plans about what the Netherlands should do to protect itself, but it often seems the latest realistic plan is resettlement.
Imagining the possibility of giving up cities like Amsterdam, or Rotterdam, which is Europe’s largest port, is a very difficult concept.
I think it’s very problematic in New York, too. It wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy that people started thinking about sea levels and taking them seriously, and the investment was still very slow. We’re eight years later, nine years after Sandy, and as far as something real physically happens, almost none.
Obviously, a lot can be done. The Dutch have proven that you can live in a country below sea level, but it was a very high investment, and it took centuries to create this, in a country that’s still very young.
Most of the eastern coast of the United States is unprotected. Worse yet, the people who live on buffer islands. There are very high value properties on a barrier island, but you don’t have to live on a barrier, because the barrier is supposed to move, storms touch it and form a barrier to protect the ground.
Time factor is a big issue. Bangladesh is one of the few countries that has embarked on a massive master plan to protect its coastal areas, which is called the Delta Plan 2100. It’s an interesting plan because it not only talks about building dams and protecting the land, but also looking at where people might have to move, and if they have to. Moving on, you have to provide them with new livelihoods. it is very interesting.
I did not include the Netherlands in the project at the beginning, because I was looking for regions or countries in the world where there is an urgent need, and the streets of Amsterdam do not flood. With the climate crisis, we always think it won’t be as bad as expected, but there is no single reason why this is true, because every scientific report released actually paints a much bleaker picture.
I often ask myself, How is this possible? And the answer to that is we’re in our comfort zone, right? We grew up with the fact that the economy is growing and your children are probably enjoying a life better than us. We need to make some sacrifices that none of us like. So, you know, take a step or two back and level up to make sure the future generations are still doing well, which is a difficult and very different concept for us.