For much of the past decade, Kadir van Lohuizen has used photography to try to document the climate crisis and explore what it means for the future. Since the chance encounter in Panama during a reportage trip, the Dutch photojournalist has documented the effects of rising sea levels around the world. Working closely with scientists and despite learning a lot about human migration and tides, van Lohuizen has managed to visually demonstrate what so many experts have warned for years: our shores are in danger.
His work, which spans 11 countries, has been used in presentations for the United Nations and at the Paris climate summit and has become a television series, a book and several exhibitions. One is currently in the New York City Museum, The ascending sea, highlights how the island city will be affected by the changes that will come.
His book, After the Flood, provides a comprehensive view of the slow-moving climate change that is taking place on all continents and how it affects the people who live there. While some countries have proven adept at adopting advanced policies, including relocation strategies, many refuse to recognize sea level rise as more than a regional problem. Van Lohuizen’s work intensely points to the intimate connection between civilization and the sea, challenging the viewer to think more critically about the future.
Did you know that this project would have so many lives?
I started this in 2011–2012, as a little story. I studied contemporary migration to the Americas, traveling by land for a year from the tip of Chile to the northern tip of Alaska, looking at why people migrated.
While interviewing people in the San Blas Islands, Panama, they told me: “They’re evacuating us because the sea level is rising. ”I was a little baffled because, you know, I’m talking to them from the bottom of the sea, about six feet below sea level. It was ten years ago and I knew that sea level rise was a problem that would arise, but I didn’t realize it was already a problem.I started researching different regions of the world, if there was also an emergency elsewhere.The big challenge was : How do I view something that is not yet visible?
So how do you get a strong image that people understand?
It involved a lot of research, because I wanted to find regions beyond which people would realize that this is already a problem, like in the Pacific nations or Bangladesh. I was really looking forward to playing this globally.
In fact, I thought I would close the project in 2015, because I felt like it was starting to repeat itself. How many islands or how many eroded coasts can you show? It was a collaboration initially with the New York Times, and then it became an exhibition that traveled and went to the Paris climate summit, and finally Dutch public television brought me closer. This allowed me to go back to some places I’ve been to and sometimes found the same people.
I worked a lot with scientists. I definitely had to adapt my working methods very early in the story, because you already know, usually, as a photographer, you work with light. I discovered very quickly that if I wanted to visualize it, I had to work with the tides. If you see that the land is already flooded at high tide, it makes it a little less difficult to imagine what it would mean if the sea rose permanently three or six feet. It’s not much. And it is not a question of whether sea level rises. It is the question of when.
When do people decide to move?
I suppose the problem becomes urgent when the water is permanently in your home, but it starts much earlier. If sea water floods the land and often does not recede, people can no longer cultivate, because the soil becomes saline and drinking water becomes brackish. One reason is enough to change places. This is often not coordinated by the government, but it is the people themselves who make that decision.
And where do people move? Are they going to the cities? Will they go to other countries?
It depends on where you are, right? If you’re in Pacific island states, like the Marshall Islands or Kiribati, there’s nowhere to go, because it’s not more than three or five feet above sea level. Not only do people not know where to move, but they do not know where the country will have to move.
If you have to move, you will become a climate refugee, especially if you have to cross the border. And that is not addressed internationally, which is crazy. If you are trying to get asylum somewhere for climatic reasons, there is no chance that you will be granted. It is usually considered a national or local issue. Therefore, Bangladesh has a problem and the Netherlands, but it is not addressed internationally.
Sea level rise is one aspect of the climate crisis, but it is obviously much broader. I don’t know to what extent it is discussed in the US, but many people flee Central America because there is no more water or they can no longer cultivate, they lose their lands.
By the way, these people from these islands of Panama are still there. It was the government program that was relocated and that money suddenly disappeared. They are indigenous and do not have the highest priority in the Panamanian government. So it was interesting to see.
I realized that initially when I was there, people would tell me that they were moving and that they were reluctant to do so, which is obvious, right? It is a very harsh message for anyone, if you are told to leave the land of your ancestors: leave life, go to higher ground where you will have to learn to become a farmer, where you are always a fisherman . When I came back [later], seemed very complicated. At that time, people were anxious to leave because they felt it was becoming too dangerous.
You’ve been working a lot with conflicts and migrations and these really complex social issues over the years. Is it very different to cover the climate crisis?
I think they are becoming the same. We know that one of the main reasons for the Syrian conflict was initially, water scarcity. If you look at what is happening in the Sahel and elsewhere, it is often related to the climate crisis. And then, whether al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever intervenes, history changes, but they often relate to each other.
Throughout this project, have you seen that solutions or strategies are applied in which you thought that, okay, we may have overcome this turning point, but perhaps not all has been lost?
I hope I have been able to give a kind of balanced view. A lot of people ask me: it must have been very depressing in Bangladesh, and you know, it really isn’t, because people take solutions into their own hands. They have been living with water all their lives. They know what’s going on and they adapt. I met a lot of people who have already moved five or nine times. And then, if it is no longer sustainable where they are, they will move to the big cities. There is resistance.
There is nothing new in rising sea levels. The big difference is that it used to take hundreds of years, or if not thousands of years, and now it’s happening in two generations. This makes it very different.
Before the Dutch were so well protected by dikes, people would only build hills on 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. Consider a city like New York or Miami or Amsterdam that has to stay where it is. And obviously we are facing a much larger population now.
Commissioner Delta in the Netherlands asked one of the largest engineering companies in 2018 to analyze the worst case scenario. And this worst case, basically, is if nothing is done and if we do not achieve the reduction of global temperatures in the Paris Agreement, sea level could rise in the Netherlands between three and nine feet by the end of the century. .
They are 80 years old. If you are born today, you will probably witness this. We in the Netherlands may be able to deal with three feet, but we cannot do so with six or nine feet. So there are very wild plans on what the Netherlands should do to protect themselves, but it often seems like the most realistic plan is relocation.
To imagine that cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, which is the largest port in Europe, could be abandoned is a very difficult concept.
I think it’s very problematic in New York as well. It wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy that people even began to consider sea level and take it seriously, and investment has been very slow. We’re eight years old, nine years after Sandy, and when it comes to something real happening physically, there’s almost nothing.
A lot can be done, obviously. The Dutch have shown that it is possible to live in a country below sea level, but it has meant a very high investment and it has taken centuries to create it, in what is still a very small country.
Most of the east coast of the US is unprotected. Even worse, people living on the barrier islands. There is very, very valuable real estate on a barrier island, but you should not live on the barrier as it is supposed to move, be hit by storms and form a shock absorber to protect the land.
The time factor is a huge problem. Bangladesh is one of the few countries that has embarked on a huge master plan to protect its coastal regions, which is called Delta Plan 2100. It is an interesting plan because it not only talks about building dikes and protecting the land, but also it’s looking at where people might have to move, and if they have to move, you’re going to have to provide them with new livelihoods. It is very interesting.
I did not include the Netherlands in the project initially, because I was looking for regions or countries in the world where there was an emergency and the streets of Amsterdam were not flooded. With the climate crisis, we always think it won’t be as bad as had been predicted, but there’s no single reason why it’s right, because every scientific report that comes out really makes a darker picture.
I often wonder: how is this possible? And one answer to that is maybe we’re in our comfort zone, right? We have grown up with the fact that the economy is growing and your children will probably have a better life than us. We have to make some sacrifices, which none of us like. So, you know, take a step or two back and make a commitment to make sure the next generations continue well, which is a very different concept for us.