Climate Change

Can developing world adapt to climate change like Germany?

Experts doubt if countries whose shorelines are being fast eroded by the sea level rise and coastal regions being battered by extreme weather events can replicate German measures

By Vijeta Rattani
Published: Sunday 30 September 2018
Low-lying Hooge faces constant 
threat of inundation, even by a 
high tide Low-lying Hooge faces constant threat of inundation, even by a high tide

The landscape appears straight out of a fairytale. Surrounded by Wadden Sea in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein state, the island of Hooge is made up of 10 artificial hillocks, referred to as warftens. On top of these, 100-odd residents have built houses, stables, barns and restaurants. One warften, closer to the shore, houses a church and a cemetery. Then there is another adorned by a kindergarten and a school. The warftens are closely guarded by dykes.

At the other end of the sea, somewhat closer to Hamburg city, winding dykes also mark the border of Föhr island. Along its slope facing the sea, people grow crops on the mud flats. All these have been there for centuries, not as structures of beautification but as protection measures for these extr emelylow-lying islands, also known as halligens, that faces constant threat of inundation, even during a high tide.

The risks are comparable to what hundreds of islands and low-lying countries face elsewhere in the world due to rising sea levels and extreme weather events. But the halligen communities seem unperturbed by these.

“Almost all the houses here are of two storeys. At least one room in the upper storey is made of pillar and concrete in which people take shelter in case of floods or storm surge,” says David, the priest of Hooge church.

But with changing climate the traditional structures may not be able to protect for long the life so unique to this corner of Europe, and Germany had realised this as early as the 1970s. That was the period when scientific opinion on climate change had just started taking shape. The government introduced an extensive coastal management strategy to safeguard the islands that act as protective barriers for the mainland.

While early warning system is an integral part of the strategy, flood walls, flood gates, embankments and barriers are more prevalent in urban areas and dykes and dunes have been put in place to protect rural areas. In places like Hooge and Föhr, where dykes were in place, they were raised from 3-5 m in height to more than 7 m. Tunnels were also dug through the dykes to pump out the seawater that gets piled up on the island in case of a storm surge. The efforts did pay off. In 1976, the region was battered by a severe storm but did not report any casualty. A storm of similar intensity in 1962 had resulted in 300 deaths and damaged 60,000 houses in and around Hamburg. Several uninhabited islands in Wadden Sea had vanished beneath the waves.

Over the subsequent years, as coastline started retreating, the government developed a comprehensive adaptation strategy. Schleswig-Holst ein, which has a coastline of 1,190 km and 3,700 km2 of lowlands, became the first to include these measures in its master plan in 2001. Other than strengthening dykes, the measures included sand nourishment of retreating beaches. For instance, the shoreline of Sylt, a halligen island, has been retreating by a metre per year. To maintain it, the government dumps 8 million cubic metres of sand on its beaches every year.

Further, to protect people from losses caused by weather extremities, the government has put in place the system of insurance. Such systems have been there in Germany for centuries. Insurance against crop loss due to hail has existed since 1733. Cattle insurance was introduced first in 1830. But in the 1990s, the government extended the system to include losses due to natural hazards like floods, drought, torrential rain, earthquakes and avalanches.

In fact, flood insurance is now offered as a selectable add-on to property insurance and available for private households and commercial or industrial enterprises. It has gone up from 19 to 40 per cent between 2002 and 2017. Though most insurance coverage is provided by private agencies, state-owned German Development Bank KfW has also set up a fund worth Rs 68 million (about US $79 million) to offer direct insurance against climate change disasters.

When asked if she feels safe living away from the mainland, Marie who is a teacher at Hooge primary school, says, “The measures are adequate and we are safe here. In fact, climatic adversities have taught us that we can be resilient only by staying connected as a community.” Small wonder, social events and gatherings are a regular feature in this sleepy island.

Can others follow?

“The wheel of knowledge need not be re-invented,” says Thomas Hirsch, founding director of Climate and Development Advice, a consultancy based in Neckargemünd town. “If Germany has advanced knowledge of climate adaptation, it must be shared with the lesser developed part of the world,” he says. But can countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives, whose shorelines are being fast eroded by the sea level rise and coastal regions being battered by extreme weather events replicate the German measures? Experts doubt.

Officials say Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world, spends more than Rs 50 million (some $57 million) a year to maintain its coastal management system. This is humongous when compared with the fact that developed countries, including Germany, have pledged $80 million under the Green Climate Fund of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to help developing countries adapt to changing climate. It also doles out huge subsidies to curb emissions by making solar and wind power competitive with fossil fuels—by the end of 2017, renewable energy accounted for 38 per cent of the total electricity production in the country.

Such massive spending is nearly impossible for most developing countries. “Right now, there is very little sharing of resources and capacities between developed and developing countries. This needs to be encouraged in the context of climate action,” says Hirsch.

(This article was first published in the 16-30th September issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Thriving in Adversity').

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