The crisis of rising sea levels


As the seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at America’s shores

Part 1: A Reuters analysis finds that flooding is increasing along much of the nation’s coastline, forcing many communities into costly, controversial struggles with a relentless foe.

WALLOPS ISLAND, Virginia – Missions flown from the NASA base here have documented some of the most dramatic evidence of a warming planet over the past 20 years: the melting of polar ice, a force contributing to a global rise in ocean levels.

The Wallops Flight Facility’s relationship with rising seas doesn’t end there. Its billion-dollar space launch complex occupies a barrier island that's drowning under the impact of worsening storms and flooding.

NASA's response? Rather than move out of harm’s way, officials have added more than $100 million in new structures over the past five years and spent $43 million more to fortify the shoreline with sand. Nearly a third of that new sand has since been washed away.

Across a narrow inlet to the north sits the island town of Chincoteague, gateway to a national wildlife refuge blessed with a stunning mile-long recreational beach – a major tourist draw and source of big business for the community. But the sea is robbing the townspeople of their main asset.

The beach has been disappearing at an average rate of 10 to 22 feet (3 to 7 meters) a year. The access road and a 1,000-car parking lot have been rebuilt five times in the past decade because of coastal flooding, at a total cost of $3 million.

Officials of the wildlife refuge say they face a losing battle against rising seas. In 2010, they proposed to close the beach and shuttle tourists by bus to a safer stretch of sandy shoreline.

The town revolted. Like many local residents, Wanda Thornton, the town’s representative on the Accomack County board of supervisors, accepts that the sea is rising, but is skeptical that climate change and its effects have anything to do with the erosion of the beach. As a result, “I’m just not convinced that it requires the drastic change that some people think it does,” she said.

Four years on, after a series of angry public meetings, the sea keeps eating the shore, and the government keeps spending to fix the damage.

Wallops officials and the people of Chincoteague are united at the water’s edge in a battle against rising seas.

All along the ragged shore of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, north into New England and south into Florida, along the Gulf Coast and parts of the West Coast, people, businesses and governments are confronting rising seas not as a future possibility. For them, the ocean’s rise is a troubling everyday reality.

This is the first in a series of articles examining the phenomenon of rising seas, its effects on the United States, and the country’s response to an increasingly watery world. Other stories will show how other nations are coping.

In cities like Norfolk, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, coastal flooding has become more frequent. Beyond the cities, seawater and tidal marsh have consumed farmland and several once-inhabited islands. Here in Accomack County alone, encroaching seawater is converting an estimated 50 acres (20 hectares) of farmland into wetlands each year, according to a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study.

“It breaks my heart to think about it,” said Grayson Chesser, a decoy carver whose ancestors arrived in the Chesapeake Bay area four centuries ago. He lives outside Saxis, a town that’s losing ground to the water. Some nearby villages have disappeared altogether. “You’ve got to deal with the fact that it’s happening – and what are you going to do with those of us on the edge?”

It’s a question the U.S. government is dodging. More than 300 counties claim a piece of more than 86,000 miles (138,000 km) of tidal coastline in the United States, yet no clear national policy determines which locations receive help to protect their shorelines. That has left communities fighting for attention and resources, lest they be abandoned to the sea, as is playing out in Chincoteague.

“If we can’t make a decision about rising sea level in a parking lot, we’re in trouble as a nation,” said Louis Hinds, former manager of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Tidal waters worldwide have climbed an average of 8 inches (20 cm) over the past century, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. The two main causes are the volume of water added to oceans from glacial melt and the expansion of that water from rising sea temperatures.

In many places, including much of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, an additional factor makes the problem worse: The land is sinking. This process, known as subsidence, is due in part to inexorable geological shifts. But another major cause is the extraction of water from underground reservoirs for industrial and public water supplies. As aquifers are drained, the land above them drops, a process that can be slowed by reducing withdrawals.

WATER EVERYWHERE (from top): Seepage of seawater into coastal marshes is believed to cause ghost forests like these on Assateague Island, Virginia. “Nuisance flooding” inundated the historic City Dock in downtown Annapolis, Maryland, several times this spring. NASA has had to invest tens of millions of dollars into seawalls and replenished beaches to protect launch pads and other infrastructure at its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque; Mary F. Calvert; Kevin Lamarque

“You’ve got to deal with the fact that it’s happening – and what are you going to do with those of us on the edge?”

Grayson Chesser, lifelong resident, Accomack County, Virginia

For this article, Reuters analyzed millions of data entries and spent months reporting from affected communities to show that, while government at all levels remains largely unable or unwilling to address the issue, coastal flooding on much of the densely populated Eastern Seaboard has surged in recent years as sea levels have risen.

These findings, first reported July 10, aren’t derived from computer simulations like those used to model future climate patterns, which have been attacked as unreliable by skeptics of climate change research. The analysis is built on a time-tested measuring technology – tide gauges – that has been used for more than a century to help guide seafarers into port.

Reuters gathered more than 25 million hourly readings from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tide gauges at nearly 70 sites on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts and compared them to flood thresholds documented by the National Weather Service.

The analysis was then narrowed to include only the 25 gauges with data spanning at least five decades. It showed that during that period, the average number of days a year that tidal waters reached or exceeded flood thresholds increased at all but two sites and tripled at more than half of the locations.

Since 2001, water has reached flood levels an average of 20 days or more a year in Annapolis, Maryland; Wilmington, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Sandy Hook, New Jersey; and Charleston, South Carolina. Before 1971, none of these locations averaged more than five days a year. Annapolis had the highest average number of days a year above flood threshold since 2001, at 34. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the annual average tripled to 18 days at the Lewes, Delaware, tide gauge.

The flood threshold does not measure actual flooding. It indicates the level at which the first signs of flooding are likely to appear – ponding on pavements and such. The higher the reading, the higher the probability of closed roads, damaged property and overwhelmed drainage systems. Scientists consider the readings to be a reliable indicator of actual flooding.

The Reuters analysis shows that the “impacts of climate change-related sea level rise are increasing frequencies of minor coastal flooding,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer for NOAA who led a team of scientists that released similar findings in late July. The NOAA study examined 45 gauges and found that flooding is increasing in frequency along much of the U.S. coastline and that the rate of increase is accelerating at sites along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The coastal flooding is often minor. Its cumulative consequences are not. As flooding increases in both height and frequency, it exacts a toll in closed businesses, repeated repairs, and investment in protection. In effect, higher seas make the same level of storm and even the same high tides more damaging than they used to be.

In Charleston, a six-lane highway floods when high tides prevent storm water from draining into the Atlantic, making it difficult for half the town’s 120,000 residents to get to three hospitals and police headquarters. The city has more than $200 million in flood-control projects under way.

In Annapolis, home to the U.S. Naval Academy, half a foot of water flooded the colonial district, a National Historic Landmark, at high tide on Chesapeake Bay during rainstorms on April 30, May 1, May 16 and Aug. 12. Shopkeepers blocked doorways with wood boards and trash cans; people slipped off shoes to wade to work in bare feet.

Tropical storm flooding has worsened, too, because the water starts rising from a higher platform, a recent study found.

When Tropical Storm Nicole struck Maryland in 2010, it was no stronger than storms in 1928 and 1951 that were “non-events,” said the study’s author, David Kriebel, a Naval Academy ocean and coastal engineer. Nicole, by contrast, swamped downtown Annapolis and the Naval Academy. “It’s partly due to ground subsidence,” Kriebel said. “Meanwhile, there’s been a worldwide rise in sea level over that period.”

In tidal Virginia, where the tide gauge with the fastest rate of sea level rise on the Atlantic Coast is located, a heavy rainfall at high tide increasingly floods roads and strands drivers in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

Coastal flooding already has shut down Norfolk’s $318 million light rail system several times since it opened in 2011. Mayor Paul Fraim said he needs $1 billion for flood gates, higher roads and better drains to protect the city’s heavily developed shoreline.


The nation’s capital isn’t immune. The Potomac River turns into a tidal estuary just north of Washington as it flows toward Chesapeake Bay to the south. The average number of days a year above flood threshold has risen to 25 since 2001, up from five before 1971.

In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a $4.1 million project to close gaps in the line of flood protection for Constitution Avenue and the Federal Triangle area – home of the departments of Justice and Commerce, the National Archives and the Internal Revenue Service. The corps expects to finish in late autumn a 380-foot-long, 9-foot-tall barrier across 17th Street near the Washington Monument.

It still needs to raise by up to 3.5 feet a massive earthen berm built in the 1930s on the north side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. But Congress – high and dry on Capitol Hill – hasn’t approved the $7.1 million needed to finish that and two smaller projects.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the agency charged with reducing flood and storm damage on the nation’s coasts and inland waterways, recommended the project in 1992. Congress authorized it in 1999. “We’ve been waiting for appropriations for a long time,” said Jim Ludlam, the corps’ civil engineer on the National Mall project.

Congress chooses which corps projects to fund on a piecemeal basis. It has $60 billion in approved but unfunded projects gathering dust on its shelves, including 34 authorized by lawmakers this spring. The sums involved dwarf the $2 billion a year the corps typically receives for construction, aside from disaster funding.

As a result, “we will be constructing water projects to solve past problems for the next 40 years” as the money is slowly made available, said David Conrad, a water resources policy specialist in Washington.

The wait list is symptomatic of a larger problem hindering efforts to deal with rising seas: the U.S. government’s inability to confront the issue head-on.

Engineers say there are three possible responses to rising waters: undertake coastal defense projects; adapt with actions like raising roads and buildings; or abandon land to the sea. Lacking a national strategy, the United States applies these measures haphazardly.

Sea level rise has become mired in the debate over climate change. And on climate change, the politically polarized U.S. Congress can’t even agree whether it’s happening.

The stalemate was on display in May, when the administration of President Barack Obama released its updated National Climate Assessment. The 841-page report was five years in the making, with input from more than 300 scientists, engineers, government and industry officials and other experts, a 60-member advisory committee and more than a dozen federal departments and agencies. It was among the first major assessments of climate change to move from predictions of disaster to point out the effects that can already be seen: record-setting heat waves, droughts and torrential rains.

At or near the top of the list of the most pressing concerns is “the issue of sea level rise along the vast coastlines of the United States,” Jerry Melillo, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and chairman of the advisory committee, said at a briefing on the report.

Within hours of its release, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, Republican chairman of the House science committee, decried the report as nothing more than “a political document intended to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human [carbon dioxide] emissions.”

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, responded: “There is no time left to deny the reality of climate change, or to turn a blind eye on the impact it is having on our country.”

Congress actually recognized global warming way back in 1978 with passage of the National Climate Program Act. The law aimed to “assist the Nation and the world to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications.”

But after three decades and more than $47 billion in direct federal spending on climate change research, Congress hasn’t passed a major piece of legislation to deal specifically with the effects of rising sea levels.

“In the U.S., you have best data set on what’s happening in the world, and yet it’s not used in public policy,” said Robert Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southampton in England and a contributor to the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "You say you don’t believe in global warming. But sea levels have been rising for 100 years in Baltimore.”


The irony is evident at Wallops Flight Facility.

NASA scientist William Krabill and his team have flown research missions from there aboard aircraft with laser technology to measure changes in the Greenland ice sheet, 1,000 miles long, 400 miles wide and up to 2 miles thick. The data they have collected since 1991 has produced evidence that the ice covering Greenland is melting. “Any glacier we have visited in Greenland over the last 25 years is thinning,” Krabill said. “It’s thinning faster five years ago than when we visited 25 years ago.”

They’ve found the same thing is happening to Antarctica’s ice sheet – seven times larger than Greenland’s. Their discoveries underpin predictions of rising seas for decades to come.

The scientists don’t have to look far to see the consequences of rising seas. Wallops Island is gradually being inundated. Yet this bastion of climate research has been slow to apply the science of sea level rise to its own operations. Officials here are embarking on expansion in the face of increasing assaults from the sea.

The Arctic research program’s aircraft is safely ensconced in a hangar on the mainland. But a billion dollars in assets – 50 NASA structures including three sub-orbital spacecraft launchers, as well as a commercial spaceport and a Navy surface combat training center – cluster on Wallops Island.

The launch pads sit at the south end of the island, “the most vulnerable part,” said Caroline Massey, assistant director of management operations at Wallops. Moving them farther north would put them too dangerously close to the people of Chincoteague, she said.

But Wallops Island has been losing an average of 12 feet of shoreline a year. A seawall three miles long and 14 feet high intended to protect the launch structures hasn’t stopped the flooding. Rather, it has allowed wave action to consume the natural beach that once served as a shoreline buffer.

CLOSE TO HOME: NASA scientist William Krabill has used Wallops Flight Facility to conduct research on the climate phenomena that are contributing to the inundation of nearby Wallops Island. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In January 2009, a federal interagency assessment of the mid-Atlantic coast said that both Wallops and nearby Assateague islands may have crossed a “geomorphic threshold” from a relatively stable state into a highly unstable condition – one in which rising seas could trigger “significant and irreversible changes.” The islands could shrink, move or break apart.

Ten months later, construction started on a $15.5 million rocket assembly building and a $100 million launch pad 250 feet from the pounding surf on the south end of the island.

In early 2010, Wallops officials proposed a $43 million project to extend the sea wall by about 1,400 feet and build a new, 4-mile-long beach to better protect their growing assets on the island. As required by law, they released a draft environmental impact statement on the plan.

Reviewers from state and federal agencies criticized the 348-page document for failing to adequately take rising sea levels into account in the project design and impact, or to temper future plans for expansion. Even NASA’s own technical review team noted the “short shrift” given to the problem.

Wallops officials responded by nearly doubling references to the effects of sea level rise in the impact statement. But in the official record of the decision, which announced Wallops would proceed with the project, sea level rise isn’t mentioned anywhere. Joshua Bundick, Wallops’s environmental planning manager, explained that he distilled the issues “down to only the highest points,” and sea level rise wasn’t among them.

Before work began, Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011. The storm surge did $3.8 million in damage to Wallops and closed it for weeks, Massey said. Work was finally finished in August 2012. Two months later, Sandy ripped out large hunks of the wall, sparing the buildings but washing away a quarter of the 3.2 million cubic yards of new beach sand. An additional 10 percent has eroded away since then, Massey said.  An $11 million redo, paid out of the Sandy relief fund, began in July, and Wallops officials are considering adding another launch pad, she said.

“In the U.S., you have best data set on what’s happening in the world, and yet it’s not used in public policy.”

Robert Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering, University of Southampton, England

As NASA stays the course at Wallops, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service is sending a different message to the town of Chincoteague next door.

The island community of 3,000 attracts more than a million tourists a year.

The big draw is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, just east of Chincoteague. Its 14,000 acres of wild beach, wetlands and loblolly pine forest provide habitats for the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel; the piping plover, a threatened beach-nesting bird; and up to 150 Chincoteague ponies, feral animals descended from a herd brought to the island in colonial times.

Most visitors come for the mile of ocean-facing public recreational beach, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. Visitors can drive with all of their gear right up to the edge of the beach to park in a 1,000-space crushed-shell lot.

The only way to get to the beach is to drive through town, and many visitors eat, shop and sleep there. Tourism accounts for about two-thirds of the jobs in town, state and federal records show.

The problem is that the beach has been retreating at an average rate of 10 to 22 feet a year amid bigger and more frequent storms. The cost to American taxpayers of repeated destruction of the parking lot and causeway from rising sea levels would only increase, Fish and Wildlife officials said.

In 2010, the agency came up with a proposal: close the existing recreational beach and relocate it a mile and a half north, where the shoreline was retreating at a third of the pace. The new site would have a smaller parking lot to limit disturbance to wildlife, and visitors would be shuttled from a satellite lot in town.

“It’s incumbent on us to look further down the road,” said Hinds, the refuge manager at the time.

Chincoteague was incensed. Town leaders pointed to a survey in which 80 percent of visitors said they would not continue coming to the beach if they had to park in town and take a shuttle.

Residents also feared that Fish and Wildlife would let the southern end of Assateague Island erode away if the beach were moved. The southern tip of the island shelters a nascent shellfish aquaculture industry and buffers Chincoteague from storm surges.

A series of angry meetings with local Fish and Wildlife officials resolved nothing.

In 2012, Chincoteague got a hearing on the proposal at the U.S. Capitol. Thornton, the county supervisor, testified that local residents feared for their jobs. In a recent interview, Thornton, who owns a campground in Chincoteague, said she thinks the federal government is using climate change as a ploy in a “long-term plan to get everyone away from the coastline.”

She blames the government, not rising sea levels, for the beach’s flooding problems. The refuge hasn’t taken steps to protect the shoreline, such as replenishing the beach with sand, she said. “There’s going to be nothing left to protect us,” she said.

The agency compromised somewhat, releasing an official draft plan in May that would relocate the beach to the less unstable site, but keep the parking area at its current size, as long as there’s enough land to do so. Building a new parking lot, access road and visitor station would cost $12 million to $14 million. As many residents feared, this plan would not replenish the sand at the southern end of Assateague or at the new site as they erode.

A public hearing in Chincoteague on June 26 failed to settle the matter. Thornton is calling for more study before officials at Fish and Wildlife make a decision. Once a decision is made, Fish and Wildlife will probably have to seek federal funding from Congress to proceed with relocation.

Hinds, the refuge manager who shepherded the original proposal, retired last year. The stalemate over how to cope with the rising tide in this tiny town, he says, doesn’t bode well for the rest of America. “What do you do then,” he said, “when you start talking about New York City?”

Edited by John Blanton

Why Americans are flocking to their sinking shores even as the risks mount

BEACH BUMP: Structural engineer Terry Anderson stands near the dunes he created to help ensure approval of a permit for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's beachfront house in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. REUTERS/Phil Sears

Part 2: Despite laws intended to curb development where rising seas pose the greatest threat, Reuters finds that government is happy to help the nation indulge in its passion for beachfront living.

SANTA ROSA BEACH, Florida – Mike Huckabee bought a beachfront lot here in 2009, a year after his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. A longtime friend and political ally of the former Arkansas governor bought the lot next door. They planned to build $3 million vacation villas side-by-side, each with a pool and sweeping views of Walton County’s renowned sugary sand beaches and the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The only hitch was that their lots lay on a severely eroding beach. Under state regulations, they couldn’t build on the seaward side of the sand dune nearest to the surf. And after seven hurricanes in six years, the surviving “frontal dune” sat too close to the street to allow space behind it for the friends’ 11,000-square-foot (1,020-square-meter) compounds.

The structural engineer they had hired knew what to do. He dumped truckloads of sand farther out on the beach, shaped it into a mound, and declared the man-made hump to be the new frontal dune. When staff at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) still balked at issuing the necessary permits, the engineer asked Michael Sole, head of the agency at the time, to intercede.

“I met with Secretary Sole on Friday …” the contractor wrote to DEP staff in a March 8, 2010, email, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters. “I believe we’ve reached a consensus decision on the location of both these projects.”

The decision: Huckabee and his friend would nudge their home sites back 5 feet (1.5 meters). The permits were approved. Construction wrapped up in 2011.

In a written response to Reuters, Huckabee complained about “the slow-walking of the permits,” but said he was pleased with the outcome. “We enjoy the home and are blessed to be able to open it to our friends and family, which we do often.”

Accommodating the two politicians was nothing out of the ordinary.  The way they got their permits is standard operating procedure along much of Florida’s besieged shoreline. “I can’t think of a single project that I’ve done here in the last 12 years that’s been denied a permit,” said Terry Anderson, Huckabee’s engineer. He acknowledged that his winning record has depended on the occasional intervention of top DEP officials.

Such interventions are needed to temper the sometimes “over-zealous” permitting staff, said Danielle Irwin, the DEP’s deputy director for water resource management.

The ease with which Huckabee and his neighbors have been able to work around some of the most restrictive beach development laws in the country is indicative of a problem that only worsens as rising seas gnaw at U.S. shores: Americans are flocking to the water’s edge, as they have for decades, even as the risks to life and property mount. And government is providing powerful inducements for them to do so.

Between 1990 – when warnings were already being sounded on rising sea levels – and 2010, the United States added about 2.2 million new housing units to Census areas, known as block groups, with boundaries near the shore, a Reuters analysis found. The analysis did not include Louisiana, Hawaii or Alaska.

That 27 percent increase is in line with growth nationwide. But it occurred in block groups near some of the country’s most imperiled shores, sometimes at much higher rates. Florida’s 1,350 miles (2,173 km) of shoreline – the longest in the contiguous 48 states – accounted for a third of new coastal housing built. Huckabee’s house was one of 22,000 housing units added to block groups near Walton County’s shoreline since 1990, a 186 percent increase.

The number of people living near the Florida seashore has jumped by about 1.1 million since 1990, to 4.8 million – an increase more than four times greater than in Washington, the state with the next highest increase. And Florida’s increase doesn’t count part-time residents who spend their winters in the state.  

ON THE EDGE: A series of storms, including hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, left houses clinging (left) to an eroded ledge in Santa Rosa Beach in 2005. The house on the right sat on a lot former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (right) bought in 2009 to build a new house. REUTERS/Brian Frank

“Sometimes it does take … appealing to a higher authority.”

Terry Anderson, engineer who helped secure permits for Mike Huckabee’s beachfront house

“There’s not much [privately owned coastal property] in Florida that’s not developed,” said Tom Tomasello, a former DEP lawyer. He is now among the many lawyers, consultants and engineers who offer their services to help homeowners get permits from his former employer.

The latest wave of explosive seaside growth has occurred in the four decades since the state enacted laws to temper coastal development, protect the beaches that are Florida’s most treasured natural resource, and curb the rising costs of damage from tropical storms. During that time, the need to protect the coastline has only intensified.

As Reuters detailed in the first installment of this series, rising sea levels are not just a future threat: They are already here, a documented fact. The oceans have risen about eight inches on average over the past century worldwide. The rise is two to three times greater in spots along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean because of subsidence, a process whereby natural geological movements and extraction of underground stores of water, oil and gas cause the ground to sink.

Higher water levels compound the effects of storms and regular flooding, hastening erosion. Hurricanes slam into Florida more than anywhere else in the nation; more than a dozen of them have resulted in major disaster declarations since 1990.

Yet, as Huckabee’s example in Walton County shows, the law has done little to discourage growth in harm’s way. Out of 3,302 applications for permits to build residential structures on Florida’s 825 miles of beaches since Jan. 1, 2000, just 114 have been denied, a Reuters analysis of state records shows.

Florida also approves most applications for bulkhead and seawall permits to protect shoreline development. Reuters found that the state has issued more than 300 since 2005, an approval rate of 79 percent. Seawalls come with a price to the public: They deflect wave energy that then scours the beaches in front of them.

Irwin, who headed a firm that helped clients obtain environmental and coastal construction permits before she joined the DEP in 2012, said the approval rate is high because the department works with applicants to reduce the impact of shoreline structures, and must approve them if they meet the law.  “Any brakes on development would have to come through the legislature,” she said.


Breakneck development at the shore has trapped Florida in a costly Sisyphean effort to maintain its perpetually eroding beaches. More than a tourist attraction, the beaches protect all those buildings from the waves. Nearly half of Florida’s beachfront is designated under state law as “critically eroding.”

But that designation doesn’t limit further development; instead, it triggers taxpayer subsidies that support the status quo. Since 1990, government “beach renourishment” programs have dumped more than 135 million cubic yards of sand on Florida shores.

The state accounts for about a quarter of the roughly $7 billion spent on sand projects nationwide, in current dollars, according to Andy Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Federal taxes covered about three quarters of the cost; state and local government paid the rest, minus a small share contributed by private landowners.

Congress this session approved five new sand projects that will require an estimated $400 million in federal help. Among them: Replenishment of the 19-mile stretch of beach that passes Huckabee’s vacation house, with $43 million in federal subsidies.

In towns and cities all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the sight of dump trucks laden with sand or dredgers pumping a sand-laden slurry through pipes onto beaches has become the norm.

Panama City Beach, a resort town on the Panhandle, has had its beach reconstructed three times by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: in 1998, after Hurricane Opal wiped the sand clear back to the sleepy, low-rise hotels at the water’s edge; in 2005, after Ivan, Dennis and Katrina slammed into the high-rise condos that had replaced the old hotels; and in 2011, when one million cubic yards of sand was added to the beach to keep pace with erosion. Cumulative cost: $54.5 million.

The taxpayer largess doesn’t end there. Federal disaster recovery assistance has exceeded $124 billion since 2004, according to a May 2014 study by the Congressional Research Service, mostly for damages caused by hurricanes.

And many of the houses, condominiums and resorts that line the storm-battered beach are covered by federal flood insurance, a subsidized program that took up the slack when private insurers fled the state after Hurricane Andrew inflicted huge losses in 1992. Florida is the program’s top customer among states. It has two million policies, many of them charging below-market rates, insuring $484 billion in property.

All that money creates what many people familiar with Florida’s predicament characterize as a costly – and dangerous – system of socialized risk to indulge beach lovers. “It’s an unsustainable model that encourages development and leaves people in harm’s way,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based nonprofit budget watchdog.


The scenery along coastal Highway A1A between historic St. Augustine and metropolitan Jacksonville has changed a lot since Walter Coker moved to the area in 1990. Driving his battered pickup on the highway one recent sunny day, Coker, a surfer, photographer and owner of an import business, pointed to a boxy new house on a dune where he used to lead his daughter on a path through scrub oak and sea oats to the beach.

“It’s insane,” Coker said. “Still building right on the dunes.”

This 18-mile stretch of Atlantic coast was undeveloped when the highway opened decades ago. Now, more than 400 houses line the shore of what is, like so many heavily developed areas in Florida, a barrier island whose natural function is to protect the mainland from the sea by bearing the brunt of storms and high seas. “For Sale” signs top undeveloped lots on the narrow dune between the highway and the shore.

The evolution of the shoreline here and all around Florida reflects powerful incentives to pursue seaside development. Local government budgets depend on property tax revenue, and beachside properties are cash cows. Tourism generates state sales tax revenue and jobs.

In St. Johns County, where the attractions include 450-year-old St. Augustine and 42 miles of beaches, tourists spent more than $700 million last year, and real estate taxes accounted for one-fifth of the county’s budget. A Reuters analysis found that about 34 percent of the county’s taxable property value is located within about one-eighth of a mile of saltwater shores.

Decades after Congress sought to curb the federal costs of coastal management, several agencies are encouraging communities to apply for aid to protect shores with sand replenishment, bulkheads, breakwaters and rock embankments. “If you don’t have a federal project, we want to talk to you,” Jacqueline Keiser, chief of coastal and navigation projects at the Jacksonville office of the Army Corps of Engineers, told a recent gathering of local officials and sand and dredging industry representatives. Her job is to look for suitable projects in her area. “We are pulling out all the stops to get funding for you.”

Last year alone, the corps spent $150 million to replenish sand on 39 miles of Florida beaches. Keiser expects a lot more work. “There’s going to be an increasing need to actively manage the shoreline,” she said in an interview. “We either need to nourish the sand or harden the coast – or really retreat from the coast, and I don’t think that’s an option.”


Walton County’s coast was a rural landscape of rolling green dunes and sugar-white beaches when Florida lawmakers approved new restrictions on coastal development in 1978. It was a place where “there were more dogs than full-time residents,” wrote local historian Edmond Alexander.

Storms regularly scoured the coast. The beaches responded as beaches untouched by man do: They retreated and regenerated.

Today, a 20-mile wall of villas and resorts pushes right up to the edge of the last dune before the surf. With nowhere to go, the beach – a stretch of rare fine-grained sand that’s almost pure quartz – has been disappearing as summer storms have worsened.

Their erosive effect has been compounded by a separate phenomenon: The normal seasonal increase in sea levels during summer months has intensified along the eastern Gulf Coast since 1990. Scientists aren’t sure why. A recent study by researchers at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg found that this trend has doubled the impact of long-term sea level rise on surges during summer storms.

During that period, hurricanes and tropical storms have resulted in 10 federal disaster declarations in Walton County. The worst, Hurricane Ivan, flung 15-foot surges against the Florida coast in 2004, causing an estimated $8 billion in damage and killing more than a dozen people.

To protect expensive vacation homes on the shore, Walton County applied for federal assistance to widen its beach and to replenish the sand for the next 50 years.

When Dennis crashed to shore the next summer, there was too little beach left to stop the waves from grinding away the dunes under the big villas. Rooms and pool decks hung in midair. The storm caused more than $1 billion in destruction and two deaths in Florida. Katrina passed to the south a month later, taking a little more of the beach.

A state report on the aftermath said the storms left homes on a stretch known as Blue Mountain Beach “critically imperiled” by severe erosion. A photograph of the damage shows two battered houses clinging to a 20-foot-high ledge where the storm had sheared off a large dune.

The property on the right was sold four years later to Mike Huckabee and his wife for $800,000. Former Arkansas state Representative David Haak and his wife paid the same for an adjacent undeveloped parcel.

But their plans to build vacation homes ran up against state laws and regulations meant to curtail high-risk development on the state’s beaches. Their lots rested directly atop the “Coastal Construction Control Line,” a state designation marking how far inland the surge from a 100-year storm might reach. Property touching it cannot be developed without a special permit.

To qualify for such a permit, buildings may not be placed atop the “frontal” dune, nearest to the water. On Huckabee’s and Haak’s land, the beach had eroded so badly that the frontal dune lay close to the street. Another provision allows new homes to be as close to the water as existing houses -- but only if they “have not been unduly affected by erosion.”

Haak, owner of a label manufacturing company in Arkansas, said a surveyor warned him before they bought the property that the lots “were unbuildable” due to erosion. “That’s when we contacted Terry.”

Terry Anderson, the engineer hired to shepherd the project through the state permitting process, told Reuters that he seized on two maneuvers responsible for much of the new construction in risky areas.

First, he began by trucking sand to the beach to create a manmade frontal dune closer to the water. “I’ve done this in many cases,” said Anderson, who opened his firm in Santa Rosa Beach 12 years ago.

He then aligned the footprints of the two proposed houses with the rest of the houses on the beach. Huckabee and Haak should be allowed to place their homes as close to the water as everyone else, he said, even though the terrain and risks may have changed since the older homes were built.

Anderson dropped Huckabee’s name in an email to the permitting staff on Jan. 19, 2010, the same day he submitted the permit applications: “As I mentioned to you earlier, one of these lots is for Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and Presidential candidate. Needless to say, we’re getting a lot of subtle pressure [from the clients] to move the permit process along as quickly as possible.”

DEP staff responded that the artificial sand dune Anderson had built didn’t offer enough protection to the homes or the beach. Eventually, they were willing to approve Huckabee’s house if Anderson built it 5 feet closer to the street. But they insisted that Haak’s house be built 30 feet back, citing differences in the condition of the lots.

“It would have completely destroyed the architectural footprint,” Anderson said.

A struggle ensued “to get the houses properly sited – several trips to Tallahassee and meeting with … Mike Sole and trying to explain the justification for what we were trying to do.”

Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection from 2007 to late 2010, sided with Anderson. The permit was issued with each house moved back 5 feet.

“Sometimes it does take ... appealing to higher authority maybe to get some consideration for more common sense views of a particular situation,” Anderson said.

Sole, now vice president for state government affairs at Florida Power & Light Co, declined to comment.

Huckabee said the negotiations caused unnecessary delays. “The house was built to exceed the most stringent hurricane codes in existence, but that was not good enough for DEP.”

Tony McNeal, administrator of the permit program, said that the staff is trained to go by the letter of the law, but that they may apply it too conservatively at times, prompting him or higher-ups to step in. When told the records show that he initially supported his staff’s interpretation of the rules in this case, McNeal said, “I don’t recall the details.”

Florida’s coastal development restrictions have not stopped development as much as they have made it more expensive, Anderson said. A coastal construction permit with no complications may cost upwards of $50,000 in state, legal and engineering fees. Huckabee and Haak paid a reduced rate of about $50,000 total because their sites were developed together, he said.

Taxpayers pay, too. To protect the growing number of expensive vacation homes on the shore, Walton County applied more than a decade ago to the Army Corps of Engineers for federal assistance to widen its beach and to replenish the sand for the next 50 years.

To qualify, the county had to prove there was a national economic interest that exceeded the cost of the project. The Army Corps found there was, and Congress approved the project in May.

Rob Young, a coastal geologist who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, was surprised to learn that it made the cut. The beach is “spectacularly beautiful” and one of his family’s favorites, he said, but “how in the world is there a federal interest there?”

One of the most significant benefits cited in the Army Corps’ analysis: potential savings in hurricane damage, much of it paid by the federal government through insurance and disaster assistance. The replacement value of the buildings and their contents that would be protected, $1.1 billion, helped nudge the project past the break-even point for economic benefits per dollar spent.

“What it shows you is how many federal subsidies we have that incentivize development of the oceanfront,” Young said, “The federal government is incentivizing keeping property in harm’s way.”

Edited by John Blanton

In metro Houston, an uphill fight to build a Texas-size defense against the next big storm

SURROUNDED: Rising seas are eating away as much as 11 feet of shore a year along the unprotected western end of Galveston Island, where rock revetments are the only thing preventing the waves from swallowing some homes along the shore. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Part 3: Hurricane Ike sent a clear message that the people and vital energy industry of one of America's largest urban areas needed protection from rising seas. Six years later, the only plan with any traction is a professor's Dutch-inspired idea - and it has scant political backing.

GALVESTON, Texas – When Hurricane Ike hit this city on the Gulf of Mexico, William Merrell found himself trapped in a second-floor apartment as storm waters coursed eight feet deep through the floor below. “I had time to think,” said the professor and chair of marine sciences at Texas A&M University Galveston.

One thing he thought about was the Dutch Delta Works, a vast coastal protection system he had seen several years earlier on a trip to the Netherlands.

That led to his big idea: build a 60-mile-long, 17-foot-tall dike that would guard against the next hurricane that hits the long, thin barrier island on which Galveston sits. Like its Dutch inspiration, his idea included massive gates that would swing shut as a storm approached, blocking the 1.7-mile-wide entrance to Galveston Bay. The gate would protect low-lying parts of metro Houston, home to hundreds of thousands of people and an oil and petrochemicals complex essential to the U.S. economy.

Ike hammered Galveston and its 57,000 inhabitants, funneling a surge of water around an existing seawall and into the bay. Eighty percent of Galveston’s homes were damaged or destroyed, including Merrell’s apartment building. The hurricane killed 112 people in the U.S., including 36 in the Houston-Galveston area alone, and caused nearly $30 billion in damage.

The toll left little doubt that something was needed to defend residents and the U.S. economy against the next big storm. “It’s a national security issue,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the nonprofit Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

Six years on, Galveston and Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, are as vulnerable as when Ike hit. No major projects are under way to fend off surging seas.

Instead, Merrell’s “Ike dike” remains the leading proposal for coastal defense. Nineteen cities and towns lining Galveston Bay back it, but with an estimated cost of $6 billion, the Ike dike is far from a done deal. It has no big money behind it.

For the Ike Dike to evolve beyond wishful thinking, Texas would have to get funding from Congress and support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the go-to federal agency for coastal protection.

But the corps has been sidelined by new spending limits, and Texas’s advocates in Congress have been silent. Major local powers – the city of Houston and the oil and petrochemicals industries – have yet to weigh in on Merrell’s plan or a competing idea pushed by Rice University.

“It’s absurd it’s been so slow,” Merrell said.

The paralysis in Texas reflects a troubling truth: The United States lacks a unified national response to the threat posed by rising sea levels. The policy vacuum leaves vulnerable communities to come up with their own self-defense plans and then hope to snag federal dollars before the next big storm.

“Without some sort of national perspective on this, it pits parts of the country against each other … And Houston is stuck right in the middle of it,” said Richard Luettich Jr, a marine scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and chairman of a National Research Council panel on coastal risk. The panel in July said U.S. government agencies have “no central leadership or unified vision” on reducing coastal risk – a failure that extends even to towns that are literally washing into the sea (see related article).

As previous articles in this series showed, the threat of rising seas is not an alarmist prediction. It is already a reality, resulting in increased tidal flooding and worsening storm damage along much of the U.S. coast. And even as the water has risen, subsidies for flood insurance, utilities and disaster bailouts are encouraging development along some the nation’s most at-risk shores.

For places like the Texas Gulf coast, which on average gets slammed with a major hurricane every 15 years, higher waters mean a storm today will tend to be much more dangerous than one of equivalent strength several decades ago.

“Sea level is not going to kill you today,” said Larry Atkinson, a professor at the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “It’s the storm surge that comes on top of the sea level rise.”

The probability of a flood in New York like the one that accompanied Hurricane Sandy in 2012, while low, has increased about 50 percent since 1950, and tripled for parts of the New Jersey shoreline, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a September 2013 report.

That adds up to a lot of people and property at increasing risk.

IDEA MAN: Texas A&M Galveston professor William Merrell was trapped by Hurricane Ike when he came up with his plan for armoring the coast. REUTERS/Donna Carson

“It’s hard to get someone’s attention when there’s not a hurricane.”

William Merrell, professor of marine sciences, Texas A&M University Galveston

At least $1.4 trillion worth of property – homes and businesses – sits within about one-eighth of a mile of the U.S. coastline. That number comes from a Reuters analysis of data provided by RealtyTrac. Incomplete data for some areas means the actual total is probably much higher.

More than 40 counties have coastal property worth $10 billion or more, the analysis found. In Miami-Dade County alone, about $94 billion worth of property lies along tidal waters.

Despite so much at stake, Washington shies away from large-scale action to defend the coast. Instead, it focuses on holding the line with smaller, temporary measures – dumping sand on eroded beaches, or building seawalls, breakwaters and berms to protect scattered sections of populated shoreline.

The price of these piecemeal measures is high: New seawalls average $36 million per mile, and a new levee is $10 million per mile, according to a 2010 study by Old Dominion. That doesn’t include maintenance.

But failure to act carries a high cost, too. In Galveston County, nearly 70 percent of businesses and 75 percent of the jobs are in hurricane flood zones, according to a Reuters analysis of data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The picture is similar in other parts of the country: In Norfolk, Virginia, 76 percent of jobs are in hurricane flood zones. In Charleston, South Carolina, it’s a little more than half.

The federal government has typically waited to take major preventive action until after a disaster, when public awareness provides political impetus.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, emergency congressional action gave Louisiana $14.5 billion to build a comprehensive system of levees, dikes and floodwalls to safeguard the New Orleans area. This year, the levee system was accredited as safe enough to allow residents to get cheaper flood insurance.  

Similar moves after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 provided much of the $20 billion New York City needs over the next decade to build 250 projects to protect against storm surges.

Many other cities with tens of billions of dollars in assets at risk have no recent storm to point to. They remain vulnerable. Norfolk’s mayor says his city needs a billion dollars for flood gates, raised roads and storm water improvements to protect its shoreline.

Ike was the third most destructive storm in U.S. history after Katrina and Sandy. It would seem to have justified action on behalf of metro Houston.

But two days after Ike hit, investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, triggering a global financial crisis that quickly overshadowed Texas’s natural disaster. The state didn’t ask for any money for prevention, just for relief to clean up the mess. Galveston was represented in Congress at the time by libertarian Republican Ron Paul, who voted against any Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid anywhere. Paul declined to comment.

“All the coverage Katrina got and Sandy got, Ike just didn’t get,” Merrell said. Now, years later, “it’s hard to get someone’s attention when there’s not a hurricane.”

Most of the post-Ike disaster relief FEMA gave Texas has been spent to rebuild in the same places, as required by federal law. The agency is also offering subsidized flood insurance, another incentive to rebuild in harm’s way. Last year, Houston and Galveston officials and homeowners joined a nationwide rally to prod Congress to maintain below-market rates on flood insurance.

Galveston, like many cities along the nation’s imperiled shores, continues to encourage development. Over the past two years, the Galveston planning commission approved 81 of 85 applications to build even closer to the beach than normally permitted by state law, records show. New development is rising along the disappearing shore. Many of the expensive homes are perched on stilts.

Galveston and hurricanes have long shared a singular notoriety. On Sept. 8, 1900, an unnamed hurricane nearly wiped the city off the map, killing more than 6,000 people. To this day, it remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Within a couple of years, construction was under way on a seawall to protect the city at the northeastern end of the island. It now stands 17 feet high. Originally about three miles long, it was extended over the ensuing decades to its current 10-mile length.

But Galveston Island is nearly three times longer than that. Most of its Gulf-facing shore remains exposed. Ike’s storm surge didn’t top the existing seawall, but it did go around it. A 20-foot-high surge shot into the bay, wreaking havoc.

Even without storms, rising seas are chewing away at the island’s unprotected beaches at a rate of two to 11 feet a year. The tide gauge at the city’s Pier 21 has shown a rise in relative sea level of 25 inches since 1908 – the largest increase over the past century at any of the scores of gauges monitored by NOAA.

About one-third of that rise was from oceans rising globally as water warms and polar ice melts. The remaining two-thirds resulted from land sinking due to subsidence, which happens when the removal of underground water, oil and gas causes the land to pancake.

Galveston Island is far from the only thing at stake. Between it and the mainland is Galveston Bay, connected to Houston by the 50-mile Houston Ship Channel, home to one of the world’s busiest ports. The entire area, once marshy wetlands, is lined with suburbs and at least $100 billion in oil refineries, chemical plants and related infrastructure. Metro Houston accounts for about 26 percent of U.S. gasoline production, 42 percent of base chemicals production, and 60 percent of jet fuel output.

A 25-foot storm surge pushing into the bay and up the ship channel would cause “economic catastrophe” to the nation and poison the bay in “the worst environmental disaster in United States history,” according to Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center. The Ike surge was just shy of that scenario.

Galveston Bay has lost a third of its wetlands to development since the 1950s, removing a natural buffer against flooding and storm surge.

“We do think we have a strong case for [protecting] a national strategic asset,” said Robert Eckels, a Houston lawyer, businessman and former chief executive of the Harris County government. Eckels was appointed a month after Ike to chair the Governor’s Commission for Disaster Recovery and Renewal.

The commission first heard Merrell’s pitch four months after Ike. Members liked what they heard and recommended a feasibility study. In early 2010, the commission created a six-county “recovery district,” a non-profit also headed by Eckels, to look at ways to protect metro Houston. It promptly ran out of money: The $4 million for the study got tangled in a legal dispute over funding for rebuilding public housing in Galveston.

For the next three years, the recovery district was dormant.

Meanwhile, Rice University’s Sspeed Center in Houston had come up with a rival plan – and it didn’t include a wall along the gulf.

Instead, the Rice team proposed building what it called the Centennial Gate farther inland, at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel. The gate’s two metal walls would swing shut to block any storm surge threatening the area. The cost, about $1.5 billion, could be at least partly covered by bond issues backed by taxpayers or industry, the Rice team said.

Merrell rejected the Rice plan as “a waste of money.” Any effective protection for the entire area would, like the Dutch Delta Works, have to armor the outermost shore, not the inner bay, he said.

Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law at Rice’s engineering school, helped develop the Sspeed Center’s plan. He criticized the Ike dike for protecting shoreline that should be left in its natural state. “Perhaps the coast should just be a place to visit,” Blackburn told reporters in 2009.

Galveston Bay has lost a third of its wetlands to development since the 1950s, removing a natural buffer against flooding and storm surge. The Rice plan would set aside about 225,000 acres of low-lying land and undeveloped coast around the bay to reduce storm risk. This proposed national recreation area would also draw in birdwatchers, kayakers and other tourists. “A no-brainer,” Blackburn said.

But communities around Galveston Bay hit hard at the Rice plan for leaving them unprotected outside the Centennial Gate.

DROWNED HISTORY: A road disappears into the Galveston Bay waters now covering the San Jacinto battlefield where Texas won its independence from Mexico, while farther on, a tanker moves along the Houston Ship Channel. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

“Collateral damage,” is how a LaPorte City Council resolution described their city’s fate under the plan. A blogger complained: “They have already drawn us off the damn maps.”

Past attempts to protect vulnerable shores have run into the same problem.

The new levees around New Orleans don’t protect towns just to the north, south and west. Residents of LaPlace, a town of 32,000 people northwest of New Orleans, blamed the improved levees protecting their neighbors for their own unprecedented flooding by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

A centerpiece of New York’s plan – 10 miles of berms and floodwalls forming a “Big U” around lower Manhattan – would safeguard Wall Street. But some people complain it would push more water onto New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens shores.

Merrell’s Ike dike plan elicited similar complaints. Initially, he suggested that the dike simply trace a path from the end of the existing seawall along a highway that weaves beside the shoreline to the southwestern tip of the island. The highway would be raised atop the new wall.

But the strip of land that would lie between highway and beach contains $810 million in real estate, 11.2 percent of the island’s total, according to the county appraisal office. And if it were left outside the Ike dike, it could be washed away.

“If it’s on the highway side, it’s going to leave us underwater,” said Tom Booth, a retiree who lives with his wife in a condominium between the highway and the breezy shore where pelicans patrol the sky.

As a solution, Merrell would build the wall right along the beach and cover it with sand and salt-resistant plants to emulate a dune line. That revision still raised issues of cost, lost views and restricted beach access, among other things.

Merrell continued to refine and tout the Ike dike plan. He talked frequently with engineers he met through connections at Delft University of Technology, which helped design the Dutch Delta Works. In September 2012, he helped lead a group of two dozen Texas business people, academics and engineers on a tour of the Netherlands’ flood and erosion projects. Many of these were started after the North Sea flood of 1953 killed nearly 2,000 people.

For now, his Ike dike idea and the competing Rice concept are staying alive on local grants – $4 million here, $3 million there. Area politicians have been pressing the two camps to unite. And recently, the Rice team modified its plan so that it resembles something very close to the Ike dike: In addition to the gate on the Houston Ship Channel, it now has sea gates and raised highways along the Gulf shore, eliminating the major objection that it left too many communities exposed.

But with no agreed-upon proposal to evaluate, the all-important Army Corps of Engineers has remained out of the picture. Sharon Tirpak, the corps’ project manager for a Texas coastal flooding study, stopped looking at Galveston Bay earlier this year after Congress imposed a three-year, $3 million limit on feasibility studies. Those caps are too strict to allow for the large studies required for the type of big fix metro Houston needs.

Only a congressional waiver can get around those limits, and as Tirpak told the Galveston City Council in April: “The political support, you don’t have it in Texas.”

She had a point.

Governor Rick Perry hasn’t commented publicly on the Ike Dike or any other storm protection plan. The state’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, are noncommittal, as is the U.S. congressman who replaced Ron Paul.

The oil and petrochemical industries, whose multibillion-dollar facilities would be protected by both competing plans, is in a delicate position: Texas leads the nation in emitting greenhouse gases, which are at the heart of the debate over human-induced climate change and thus rising sea levels. The industry’s powerful lobby said it is still evaluating the rival proposals.

Edited by John Blanton

Why Britain is flirting with retreat from its battered shores

TOO LATE: Bryony Nierop-Reading turned down a government offer to buy her cliffside property in Happisburgh, England, on the North Sea; since then, storm damage has cost her her home and a big chunk of her lot. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

Part 4: The government recognizes the reality of rising sea levels and their damaging effects. But having done so, it still faces tough choices about what areas to defend and what areas to cede to the sea.

HAPPISBURGH, England – Bryony Nierop-Reading has what she calls a million-dollar view from her clifftop property in east England, looking out over North Sea swells beyond a sandy beach where gulls wheel overhead.

The drawback: The place is all but worthless.

Her bungalow was demolished by the local council after a December 2013 storm bit a 33-foot (10-meter) chunk out of the cliff, leaving her home perched over a void. She now lives in a camper parked at the back of her property.

“It was devastating, with the tidal surge and the demolition of my house,” said the 69-year-old grandmother, standing at the edge of a 65-foot cliff face of soft yellowish earth. “I feel bitter about it.”

All the more so because she passed up a one-time local government offer to buy her out. Now she’s out of options: Current British law “does not confer ... any right to protection from flooding or coastal erosion,” as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) puts it.

The law in question, the 1949 Coastal Protection Act, is becoming outdated as rising sea levels lead to worsening storm flooding and coastal erosion. With no legal obligation to protect coastal residents, the British government relies on a cost-benefit calculus to determine which areas warrant investment in seawalls, revetments and other protective measures, and which don’t. Rural populations wind up getting little help, while big cities tend to get a blank check of protection.

“We are trying to fix a problem with a 70-year-old toolkit,” said Malcolm Kerby, head of the National Voice of Coastal Communities, a Happisburgh-based group that advocates for rural communities vulnerable to rising seas.

In the absence of a modern toolkit, some seaside communities are experimenting with programs meant to help adapt to coastal erosion by luring people to retreat. In Happisburgh, the local council offered Nierop-Reading a chance a few years ago to sell her place for more than twice what she paid for it and move to stable ground. Most of her cliffside neighbors took up the one-time offer; she didn’t, and she’s unable to rebuild on what’s left of a lot that no one will buy.  

Sea levels have risen an average of 8 inches globally over the past century as a result of glacial thaw, polar ice melt and the expansion of water as it warms, according to the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For much of Europe, higher seas are aggravating storm surges like those that battered Britain last winter – setting up daunting political and economic choices about what to do in response.

At Lowestoft, about 30 miles south of Happisburgh, the sea has risen 4.1 inches since 1962, based on readings from a tide gauge there. It’s one of at least 105 gauges worldwide to show an increase of 4 inches or more during the same period, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, based in Liverpool, England. The analysis encompassed annual sea level readings from 229 tide gauges worldwide with data covering a 50-year period.

In Europe, the largest increase was at Dieppe, France, a city on the English Channel. Like Happisburgh, its cliffs are crumbling as seas rise. A gauge in the harbor showed an increase of about 8 inches since 1960.

Around the world, the biggest increases were in Asia, reflecting the greater impact in that region of subsidence, the process by which geological forces and the extraction of groundwater cause the land to sink. Near Bangkok, Thailand, a tide gauge showed an increase of nearly 3 feet since 1959. In Manila, the Philippines, the sea level rose about 2.7 feet.

As the rising waters take a worsening toll, European governments and local authorities are forced to ask: What’s our coastline worth? And can we afford to defend it all?

About 200 million people - 40 percent of the European Union’s population – live within 30 miles (50 km) of the sea, and the numbers are growing. In some parts of the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and France, the population jumped as much as 50 percent from 2001 to 2011.

In most cases, EU coastal investments are focused on strengthening existing infrastructure to deal with sea level rise and more extreme weather. France, Spain and Italy, in particular, prefer to add sand to beaches and reinforce other coastal defenses as needed in order to maintain big sources of tourism dollars. Apart from scattered experiments such as Happisburgh, European nations are not encouraging people to retreat inland.

But as the costs of protection rise, Britain, Germany and some other nations have begun giving up besieged land to the sea. This process of retreating from rising seas is euphemistically referred to as “managed realignment.”

Since the 1990s, dikes and levees sometimes centuries old have been destroyed in 118 projects around Europe, converting 15,500 acres (6,300 hectares) of farmland into salt marshes or tidal wetlands, according to a database run by ABP Marine Environmental Research Ltd, a British marine environmental consultancy.

That’s an area about the size of Manhattan – not huge. But governments expect sea levels to continue to rise as fast as or faster than they already have. Last month, the IPCC released a report saying that the burning of fossil fuels is stoking climate change, leading to harsher weather and greater flooding. The U.N. panel said average global sea levels may climb by between 10 and 32 inches by the late 21st century.

As a result, letting the sea flood lowlands while building new defenses farther inland may become the cheaper and preferable solution. So far, though, people haven’t always been eager to surrender.

“We will have to retreat sooner or later as sea levels rise - the financial costs of holding the shoreline in place ... will eventually force our hand,” said geologist Andrew Cooper, professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster. “But I’m afraid we will only come to that point, kicking and screaming, when we have exhausted our money.”

SAFE AND SOUND: Britain’s cost-benefits analysis for determining what to protect from rising seas is why London sits safely behind the massive Thames Barrier, which was closed a record 50 times last winter. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

“We will have to retreat sooner or later as sea levels rise - the financial costs of holding the shoreline in place … will eventually force our hand.”

Andrew Cooper, professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster

The dilemma has prompted big engineering firms, which stand to profit hugely from increasing efforts at coastal defense, to experiment with approaches that fall somewhere between hard armoring of the coast and abandoning it (see related story).

Dutch companies have dominated the business of keeping the sea at bay because of their nation’s long experience with the problem. Twenty-six percent of the nation is below sea level. And unlike its fellow EU members, Holland guarantees to keep citizens dry.

“In the Netherlands it costs about 1.3 percent of GDP to build and maintain sea defenses. But if we don’t do it, we won’t even have a GDP,” said Lisette Heuer, technical director of engineering group Royal HaskoningDHV.

Geologically, Britain is in a slightly better position. The island was connected by a land bridge to Europe until 6,000 years ago, when fast-rising seas after the last Ice Age separated it from the Continent. More recently, as the pace of sea level rise has picked up, storm damage and flooding have increased.

Last winter, a string of severe storms contributed to the wettest season in more than two centuries in England and Wales. At least 6,000 homes were inundated. Though most of the flooding occurred inland, big waves chewed away chunks of ocean shoreline, underscoring the vulnerability of property owners with no legal claim for government protection.

London, vulnerable to storm surges moving up the Thames estuary, will be protected at almost any cost. The metropolis already has the Thames Barrier, a system of 10 giant steel gates that can be raised to stave off surges. It was completed in the early 1980s at a cost of £500 million ($782 million), unadjusted for inflation. The barrier had to be closed more than 50 times last winter, shattering previous records.

Places like Mullion Cove aren’t so fortunate. Winter storms dislodged 7,000 granite blocks from the walls that guard the picturesque fishing harbor, which lies between high cliffs in Cornwall on the southwest coast. Repairs are estimated to cost £400,000.

The bill will be paid by the National Trust, founded to protect the nation’s historical and natural heritage. It owns 742 miles of coastline, including Mullion Cove.

For the Trust, “defense is the last resort” when addressing the effects of sea level rise, according to an April 2014 Trust strategy report. Instead, the Trust intends to let coasts change over time, relying on salt marshes and sand dunes to act as buffers against angry seas where possible.

LOSING BATTLE: National Trust ranger Justin Whitehouse says the Trust can’t continue covering the costs of repairing seawalls indefinitely at Mullion Cove, where rising seas are resulting in worsening storm damage. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

“If the wall does go, these houses will go without a shadow of a doubt. … Nothing would stop the sea.”

Roger Pashley, harbor master, Mullion Cove, England

In Mullion Cove, the Trust says that it has already spent more than £1 million in the past decade or so on repairing the seawall, but that it won’t keep covering the costs indefinitely. “We can’t just keep plowing money into it,” said Justin Whitehouse, head ranger for the National Trust in the region.

That’s no comfort to residents of the several homes that have lined the cove since before the seawall was built in the late 19th century. “If the wall does go, these houses will go without a shadow of doubt,” said harbor master Roger Pashley. “Nothing would stop the sea.”

Hannah Hawkins, an artist who lives in the house nearest the sea, had to evacuate one winter night when storm-driven waves poured over the wall. “A little work each year would be enough to maintain it,” she said.

That sentiment prevails in many communities vulnerable to rising seas. Residents tend to prefer the unsustainable protection of seawalls and levees to abandoning land to the sea.

“Do we have to retreat? That’s not a technical question, it’s a socio-political question,” said Robert Nicholls, a professor of coastal engineering at Southampton University. “In rich countries you could armor your whole coastline - but at the expense of hospitals, education or pensions.”

This month, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron said it planned to invest £2.3 billion in flood defense over the next six years. The money will go mostly toward protecting against river, rather than coastal, flooding, and it comes in addition to annual maintenance budgets, which totaled £171 million for 2014-15. (Last month, the National Audit Office said current spending was “inadequate” and that half of the nation’s flood defenses were maintained to a “minimal level.”)

The tension between the desire to stand one’s ground and the practical necessity to retreat is playing out about 50 miles east of London. There, a conga line of trucks laden with mud rumble across a plain at Wallasea Island to create what by 2019 will be the biggest man-made coastal nature reserve in Europe.

The mud comes from tunnels dug below London for a new underground railway; it is being dumped on Wallasea Island to form raised pathways amid wetlands and mudflats on former farmland that is a haven for avocets, sandpipers and other birds.

This managed realignment, which will ultimately encompass 1,730 acres, was born a decade ago when Defra decided that worsening storms were making the island’s defenses too expensive to maintain. It began creating mudflats from farmland by breaching seawalls built when the land was originally claimed from the North Sea 400 years ago. In 2008,  railway operator Crossrail signed on as a supplier of mud. When completed, the project will have cost about £100 million.

FOR THE BIRDS: Workers on Wallasea Island are using soil from London rail-tunnel construction to landscape a saltwater marsh wildlife habitat that is replacing farmland the government will no longer protect under a program of “managed realignment.” REUTERS/Andrew Winning

“It’s a win-win. This land would probably be inundated in time anyway,” said Neil Hodson, a project field manager at Crossrail. “We can’t defend all of the country. Part is going to be washed away in time.” he said.

John White, a farm manager who has grown wheat and other crops on the land, is among the segment of locals who see the project as a betrayal of their heritage. “I feel I have wasted my life,” he said. “It’s worth saving. These farms have been here for centuries.”

Andrew Gilham, flood and coastal risk manager at the Environment Agency, said the agency did a better job winning over local farmers in a £28 million managed realignment at Medmerry on England’s south coast. There, about 450 acres of farmland claimed in medieval times are being allowed to flood with seawater after authorities stopped paying for bulldozing shingle – pebbles and stones - up the beach each winter as a defense. Now, a 4.5-mile flood bank encloses a new tidal area reaching up to one mile inland from the old shoreline.

Locals were unenthusiastic when managed realignment was first suggested. “Then in 2006-07 we took a different approach, highlighting the risks of climate change and saying, ‘We can provide better defense against coastal flooding.’ That change in the argument led to acceptance,” Gilham said.

All of the farmers were paid compensation for land lost to the sea. That’s been the case in all managed realignments in Britain and elsewhere in the EU to date.

In Britain, the Environment Agency uses a basic formula to determine whether to help local councils pay for coastal protection: The value of land and buildings shielded has to be at least eight times the cost of protection.

IN RETREAT: Dark granite boulders make up the new defensive wall at Medmerry, where low-lying farmland is being allowed to flood because authorities could no longer protect against storm surges and rising seas. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

One section of the coast near Happisburgh retreated 115 yards in the two decades to 2004. More has been lost since.

Happisburgh, like a lot of places, didn’t pass the test. The North Norfolk Council built steel and wooden defenses after the historic floods of 1953, in which more than 1,800 people in the Netherlands and 300 in Britain were drowned. When those started to fail, the council cut back on all but stop-gap investments. But something more had to be done. One section of coast near the village of 1,400 people retreated 115 yards in the two decades to 2004. More has been lost since.

Then, in 2009, the local council won £3 million of an £11 million government-funded “Coastal Change Pathfinder Program” to help a handful of communities experiment with ways to cope with erosion.

Happisburgh’s clifftop homeowners were offered 40 percent of what their homes would be worth had they not been at risk of collapse. For instance, a home that would fetch £100,000 if situated on a stable clifftop would have been valued at £40,000. Kerby of the National Voice of Coastal Communities said the hope was that homeowners would rebuild in the village, but farther inland, thus helping to preserve the community for the long term.

Nierop-Reading, a retired teacher, had paid £25,000 for her bungalow in 2008. At the time, it stood about 20 yards from the cliff edge, and she knew erosion was a problem. Insurers refused to cover the home, and a local real estate agent had valued it at £1 for mortgage purposes. But she figured she could live out her retirement with the spectacular view before the sea staked its claim.

The Pathfinder program offered her £53,000 to move out. She refused. “I would have considered a better offer, say £100,000,” she said.

Nine other homeowners accepted their offers. But they didn’t stay in Happisburgh. Some moved to local villages, one opened a cafe in a nearby town, and one moved to a home for the elderly.

A government-funded review in 2011 criticized the Happisburgh experiment as too generous to owners of nearly worthless homes.

The local council, however, judged it a success overall. “People have individual needs and aspirations,” said Peter Frew, who headed the project at the local council. “They went and did different things.”

Ultimately, Kerby said, places like Happisburgh will have no choice but to retreat. “It’s a pretty powerful mistress out there. You will never command it,” he said, pointing to the sea. “And the bottom line ... is that we are broke. We can’t get involved in putting millions of pounds into defenses.”

Edited by John Blanton

In Jakarta, that sinking feeling is all too real

SEA VIEW: Jakarta has sunk so much due to groundwater extraction that fully 40 percent of the city now lies below sea level, putting millions of residents in neighborhoods like Muara Baru, just inside the sea wall, at risk of total inundation. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Part 5: In the Indonesian capital, sinking land is an even bigger threat than rising seas. Jakarta has no option but to spend tens of billions of dollars on reinforcing its ramshackle defenses.

JAKARTA, Indonesia – The Ciliwung River flows from a volcano south of the Indonesian capital, through the heart of one of the world’s most densely populated cities and almost into Jakarta Bay. Almost, because for the final mile or so of its course, the river would have to flow uphill to reach the bay.

The same is true for the rest of the half-dozen sewage-choked rivers that wind though central Jakarta. Unable to defy gravity, they’ve been redirected to canals that drain into the sea.

The reason these conduits are necessary is that Greater Jakarta, an agglomeration of 28 million people, sits on a swampy plain that has sunk 13 feet (4 meters) over the past three decades.

“Jakarta is a bowl, and the bowl is sinking,” said Fook Chuan Eng, senior water and sanitation specialist with the World Bank, who oversees a $189 million flood mitigation project for the city.

The channels of the Ciliwung and other rivers are sinking. The entire sprawl of Jakarta’s north coast – fishing ports, boatyards, markets, warehouses, fish farms, crowded slums and exclusive gated communities – it’s all sinking. Even the 40-year-old seawall that is supposed to keep the Java Sea from inundating the Indonesian capital is sinking.

Just inside the seawall sits the Muara Baru kampong, or village, that is home to more than 100,000 people. It is now at least 6 feet below sea level, and residents like Rahmawati, a mother of two small children, gaze upward from their front stoops to view the sea.

“When there’s a high tide, the ships float almost at the same height as the seawall – we can see the ships from here,” said Rahmawati, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Flooding from overflowing rivers and canals in the area is at least an annual event that forces Rahmawati and the rest of the kampong to evacuate to public buildings nearby. High-water marks from the last big flood, in 2013, are still visible on the walls of the kampong.


Jakarta is sinking because of a phenomenon called subsidence. This happens when extraction of groundwater causes layers of rock and sediment to slowly pancake on top of each other.

The problem is particularly acute in Jakarta because most of its millions of residents suck water through wells that tap shallow underground aquifers. Wells also provide about a third of the needs of business and industry, according to city data.

“It’s like Swiss Cheese underneath,” the World Bank’s Fook said. “Groundwater extraction is unparalleled for a city of this size. People are digging deeper and deeper, and the ground is collapsing.”

The effect is worsened by the sheer weight of Jakarta’s urban sprawl. Economic development in recent decades has transformed the city’s traditional low-rise silhouette into a thickening forest of high-rise towers. The weight of all those buildings crushes the porous ground underneath.

Previous articles in this series have focused on rising seas, which are climbing as the warming atmosphere causes water to expand and polar ice to melt. Ocean levels have increased an average of 8 inches globally in the past century, according to the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But in many places – from metro Houston, Texas, and cities on the U.S. East Coast to the megacities of Southeast Asia – the impact of subsidence, due mainly to groundwater extraction, has been greater. Manila is sinking at a rate of around 3.5 inches a year. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is subsiding 3 inches a year, and Bangkok around an inch.

This has been happening even as populations around the world have tended to concentrate along low-lying coastal land. In 2010, an estimated 724 million people around the world lived in what researchers consider low-elevation coastal zones – coastal areas 10 meters or less above sea level. That number increased 34 percent from 538 million people in 1990, according to a Reuters analysis of data developed by the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center at Columbia University.

The phenomenon has been most pronounced in Asia, home to the top five nations in terms of population growth in vulnerable coastal areas. In China, that population rose 29 percent to 162 million during the 20-year period; in India, the increase was 43 percent to 88 million; and in Bangladesh, it was 46 percent to 68 million.

No city is sinking faster than Jakarta. It is sinking an average of 3 inches a year, far outpacing the one-third inch annual rise in mean sea level in the area.

In Indonesia, the number of people living in vulnerable coastal areas was 47.2 million – one of the highest totals in the world, and up 35 percent since 1990.

Higher seas, sinking cities and more people mean worsening impacts from storms and floods. And the frequency of these events is increasing, too. Recorded floods and severe storms in Southeast Asia have risen sixfold, from fewer than 20 from 1960 to 1969 to nearly 120 from 2000 to 2008, according to an Asian Development Bank study.

No city is subsiding faster than Jakarta. As a whole, the city is sinking an average of 3 inches a year, far outpacing the one-third inch annual rise in mean sea level in the area. The coast near Jakarta is sinking at a much greater average of six inches a year – and in some places as much as 11 inches – according to a 10-year study by a team of geodynamics experts from the Institute of Technology Bandung.

Today, 40 percent of the city is below sea level.

“Jakarta is the world’s worst sinking city,” said JanJaap Brinkman, a hydrologist with the Dutch water research institute Deltares, who has spent years studying the city’s subsidence and helping devise solutions for it.

Little can be done to halt the slow upward creep of the seas. But it is possible to stop subsidence. Jakarta has regulations limiting the amount of water that can be extracted daily from licensed wells. A public-awareness campaign on television urges viewers to “save groundwater for the sake of our nation.” But enforcement is weak, and illegal wells are rife in the city.

About three-fourths of residents rely on groundwater. Many of them are refusing to connect to the piped water distribution system because it is more expensive, is not always available and sometimes looks dirty coming out of the tap.

The city has a moratorium on new mall construction, mainly to ease notorious traffic congestion, but has otherwise not tried to temper the building that weighs on the ground below.


Unable to stop itself from sinking, Jakarta has focused its attention on walling off an inevitable inundation from the sea. A February 2007 storm was literally a tipping point for moving the government to act.

A strong monsoon storm coinciding with a high tide overwhelmed ramshackle coastal defenses, pushing a wall of water from Jakarta Bay into the capital. It was the first time a storm surge from the sea had flooded the city. Nearly half of Jakarta was covered by as much as 13 feet of muddy water. At least 76 people were killed, and 590,000 were left homeless. Damage reached $544 million.

As Jakarta cleaned up, then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formed a task force to come up with a strategy to deal with more frequent flooding.

One option discussed was to move the overcrowded capital to higher elevations southeast of the city or to another island altogether, said Robert Sianipar, a top official from the Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs, which convened the task force. With 5,585 people per square km (0.4 square mile), Jakarta is among the 10 most densely populated cities in the world.

Another thought was simply to abandon the old city district of north Jakarta.

Both ideas were dismissed. Jakarta is the economic hub of Indonesia, contributing 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Allowing the sea to claim 40 percent of the capital city, home to nearly half of Jakarta’s population, was unthinkable, Sianipar said. “If we abandon north Jakarta, that would cost $220 billion in assets – not to count the number of people and productivity that would have to be replaced,” he said.

The group decided to focus on bolstering coastal defenses and refurbishing the crumbling flood canal system. The Dutch government offered technical assistance.

The height of the existing 20-mile seawall was raised in 2008. But as that structure slips under the waves, it offers little protection against another big storm surge, or even a moderately high spring tide. At high tide in some places, the city’s old seawall can barely be seen poking above the water’s surface, both because the sea is rising and because the wall itself is sinking into soft alluvial sediments.

The World Bank warned in a 2012 report that catastrophic floods would soon become routine in Jakarta, “resulting in severe socio-economic damage.”

The task force was still trying to decide on an overall strategy when the World Bank’s prediction came true in January 2013: Parts of the city were submerged under 6 feet of water after a heavy monsoon storm. Days later, President Yudhoyono ordered the task force to take a bolder approach.

The result was the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development Master Plan, better known as the “Giant Sea Wall” or the “Great Garuda,” for its resemblance from the air to the bird-god of Hindu mythology that is Indonesia’s national symbol. The $40 billion complex will include a 15-mile outer seawall and 17 artificial islands that will close off Jakarta Bay (see related story).

Construction of the first stage of the plan, a new 6-foot-wide inner seawall just behind the existing one, was launched on Oct. 9. The inner seawall is aimed at buying time, holding off another inundation until the new outer wall of the Great Garuda provides long-term protection.

The Great Garuda won’t, however, restore the flow of some of the sinking city’s 13 rivers and various canals into Jakarta Bay.

Some of the channels drain into floodwater retention lakes, a magnet for new migrants from outlying provinces who squat illegally around their perimeters. Pumping stations then spew the highly polluted water from these lakes the last few hundred yards into Jakarta Bay.

More and bigger such lakes will soon be needed to discharge the water of all other rivers and canals, including the large flood canals, according to the NCICD Master Plan. “You’re talking about pumping lakes up to 100 square kilometers,” said Victor Coenen, Indonesia chief representative for Dutch engineering and consulting firm Witteven+Bos, who was part of the government’s Dutch consulting team. “Where do you find room for that in a densely populated city?”

The Great Garuda would solve that problem by creating a single gigantic storage lake in Jakarta Bay, enclosed by the inner and outer seawalls and fed by pumping stations onshore. “If it comes to that, I’d prefer to have the one big black lagoon offshore,” Coenen said.

To prevent the Great Garuda from looking like a great black lagoon, the city must address another huge priority – providing clean piped water to most of its citizens and setting up waste treatment facilities so the rivers and canals no longer have to function as open sewers.


Jakarta under Dutch rule was known as Batavia, styled “the Queen of the East” for its distinctive colonial architecture and tree-lined canals. Closer inspection of the coast revealed “a dismal succession of stinking mud-banks, filthy bogs and stagnant pools (that) announces to more senses than one the poisonous nature of this dreadful climate,” British writer John Joseph Stockdale observed in his 1811 book, “Island of Java.”

Then as now, “stagnant canals” functioned as open sewers and exhaled “an intolerable stench.” In the wet season, “those reservoirs of corrupted water overflow their banks in the lower part of town, and fill the lower stories of the houses where they leave behind an inconceivable quantity of slime and earth.”

Today, the city has just one small wastewater treatment plant that serves the central business district. Almost everyone uses septic tanks or dumps waste into neighborhood sewers that flow into the canal system.

The slime has mounted over the centuries in the canals, and their embankments have risen in a failing effort to contain the flood waters. The canals that flow to the sea or into the coastal retention ponds have lost up to 75 percent of their capacity, said Brinkman at Deltares.

The city is near the end of a three-year project to deepen the canals and increase the height of their walls. But the homes alongside them are often below the level of the canals now, leaving no “vertical escape” to the rooftop in a flood, he said.

COSTLY PARADOX: Jakarta’s inadequate piped water system means that many of the city’s residents must buy water from vendors who cart water-filled jerrycans around the city. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

The city has just one small wastewater treatment plan that serves the central business district. Almost everyone uses septic tanks or dumps waste in neighborhood sewers that flow into the canal system.

A city with an extensive canal system and a tropical rainforest climate should not have a water shortage. Yet only about a quarter of Jakarta’s population is connected to the city’s piped water system. Half draw their water from wells, and the other quarter buy from vendors who get their water from both legal and illegal public wells.

Some city residents who could have access to piped water prefer to use groundwater because connection fees – a month’s minimum wage – and additional charges on the bill make it much more expensive than a backyard well.

Piped water is also unpopular because it is often filthy when it comes out of the tap. There’s a good reason for that: Half of Jakarta’s water supply comes from the basin of the Citarum River, which the Asia Development Bank has dubbed “the world’s dirtiest river.” It is so clogged with industrial and agricultural effluents and waste from the teeming settlements along its banks that it almost seems like you could walk across parts of the river.

Groundwater is hardly better. Seventy percent of the wells in the city are contaminated by the E. coli bacteria from leaking septic tanks, according to a study conducted by the city government.

The water crisis has been a boon to the increasing ranks of water vendors who drag long carts filled with 5-gallon (20-liter) jerrycans of water around the kampongs. One jerrycan costs about 500 rupiah (4 U.S. cents).

They are especially prevalent in the coastal districts, where subsidence has allowed saltwater to flow into the water table, making well water undrinkable. And in some areas along the coast, piped water is only sporadically available during the day.

The Jakarta government does not publish data on the volume of groundwater use. But the city’s new governor, Basuki Tjajaja Purnama, said illegal use of groundwater had reached “alarming levels.” He said he will start enforcing a 2008 law that imposes fines of up to 1 billion rupiah ($80,000) and jail terms of six years for those who misuse groundwater.

The concrete jungle is not only an intensive water user; it has also taken over natural drainage sites and green areas, preventing the water tables below from being recharged. Instead of seeping into the ground, monsoon rains now wash into the canals and out to the sea.

In 2009, the Ministry of Environment came up with a novel idea to restore the water tables: It issued a decree requiring homeowners and commercial buildings to store rainwater in 3-foot-deep “biopore cylinders” on their properties to absorb and store rainwater. The decree has no enforcement mechanism, and the city environment ministry could not say how many cylinders had been installed.


The city has recently tried another tack in its water wars: evicting settlers to create green areas along the coast.

Tens of thousands of squatters occupy large swaths of the Muara Baru kampong, behind the seawall and around a retention pond, scavenging, collecting green mussels or shrimp from the dirty water, or picking up work in the boatyards.

Every year, the floods come, people evacuate to public buildings, and the kampong sinks some more. “It’s not that bad,” says Sukiman, a 41-year-old father of three and a neighbourhood chief in Muara Baru. “We can live here.”

But Muara Baru’s days appear to be numbered. The city has begun shifting the residents to create green space and to restore the Pluit retention pond, which had become clogged with garbage and waste.

Those who have a residency card may be eligible to get an apartment in new high-rise public housing projects. Those buildings, going up alongside luxury apartments and retail stores, will add to the weight pressing down on steadily subsiding land and – as with other besieged coasts around the world facing rising sea levels - only worsen the problem.

Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in New York, Charlotte Greenfield and Angie Teo in Jakarta, Manny Mogato in Manila, Sujoy Dhar in Kolkata and Ruma Paul in Dhaka

Edited by John Blanton


Water’s Edge: the crisis of rising sea levels

By Deborah J. Nelson, Duff Wilson, Ryan McNeill, Alister Doyle and Bill Tarrant

Web programming: Charlie Szymanski

Data: Ryan McNeill

Graphics: Matthew Weber, Maryanne Murray, Christine Chan and Charlie Szymanski

Video: Zachary Goelman, Angie Teo and Eve Johnson

Photo editing: Jim Bourg, Stelios Varias and Thomas White

Design: Troy Dunkley

Editing: John Blanton