Disappearing Borders: The Effects of Rising Water Levels


Part of what water emphasises is just how much influence it has over every aspect of life. 

Drinking water is an obvious example, the scarcity of which, can often force communities to literally pack up their things and migrate, in the hopes of finding a new water source. 

But migration flows are particularly evident when it comes to actual geography; that is, when thinking about maritime borders, whether water borders that separate two countries, or the border of water around Pacific Island Nations such as the Philippines. 

These water borders not only separate one country from another, but also dictate how these countries are separated, or even whether they remain intact, as water borders can shift.

In fact, water borders do shift: as glaciers melt and sea levels rise, the original water line moves. Which illustrates how easily a water border can ebb and flow – the ripple effect of which can force another kind of migration flow, where entire communities must go with the tide and relocate elsewhere, often with nowhere to go.

Blurred Lines

Whilst land borders might be more of a definite concept, in that a strip of land is not likely to move, water borders are more abstract when trying to define the boundary between two countries. This can often lead to disputes over which territory belongs to whom, such as with the Philippines.

As a group of islands, the Philippines technically shares no land borders with any other country; however, this doesn’t stop water disputes from arising over the maritime borders it shares with other surrounding countries.

It was only in 2014 that the Philippines and Indonesia finally settled a 20-year dispute over their maritime borders. When it comes to China, the dispute over territorial water still remains, because of these blurred lines. The Philippines has even taken China to court over the conflict; in 2012, maritime warfare in the shape of a stand-off with boats from both countries was reported to last for weeks. 

Between countries like Italy and Switzerland, there’s a more amicable dynamic when it comes to their border, although arguably just as abstract.

Whilst much of the Italian-Swiss border runs along the Alps – stretching nearly 740km – there’s a part of their shared border that is purely water: a large glacial lake, Lake Laguno.

As a glacial body of water separating Southern Switzerland and Northern Italy, with the majority in Switzerland, the need for clear-cut agreements becomes apparent. 

“The border is moving because of the warmer climate.”

Daniel Gutknecht, Swiss Federal Office of Topography. 

And agreements were reached between the two countries in 1992 and 1986, relating to general navigation and fishery regulations. As the lake so closely connects the Italian-Swiss region, it actually makes for a strategic location for cross-border cooperation. 

However, for a border largely made up of glaciers that have been shrinking since the 1980s, the original lines agreed upon are perhaps set to remain blurred. 

Between 2007 and 2008, 82 out of 88 glaciers shrank by about 25 meters in length, threatening the Italian-Swiss border; in 2009, Italy and Switzerland even had to rethink their shared alpine territory because the glaciers that originally guided the line began to melt – a trend that is unlikely to dissipate, especially with the prediction that all of the glaciers along the border are estimated to vanish by 2050

Shifting Water Borders

When it comes to water borders, climate-driven shifts aren’t limited to merely rethinking cross-border agreements. They can also lead to rethinking about an entire country’s existence. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati proves to be an extreme example of this.

A low-lying island whose land is mostly less than three meters in height, Kiribati is at the whim of the water that surrounds it, vulnerable to any sea level rises or fluctuations. As sea levels do rise, this creates the prospect of being inundated by water, with the livelihood of Kiribati’s community – a growing population of over 100,000 people – and its very survival threatened. 

According to a 2013 report by the World Bank, Pacific Island Nations are among the world’s most physically and economically vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events like floods, earthquakes and tropical cyclones – the effects of which, the Kiribati government began observing in the 1990s. 

The result is a shift in priorities in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change and sea level rises. 

For Kiribati, a whole-of-nation approach has been used to address these challenges. Namely, the planting of mangroves in the hope of protecting its coastline with plants that intercept water, the reconstruction of a concrete road that continues to erode, and finally, the purchase of nearly 6,000 acres of land in Fiji as a migration last resort. 

The government has even considered moving Kiribati residents onto artificial floating islands, an even costlier solution. 

“I think climate change will only get worse in the future. One day, Kiribati will drown.”

Kiribati Resident.

But, as a rapidly-growing country that relies mostly on external aid to finance its adaptation measures, the race to save itself from going underwater is a tense and expensive one. Kiribati has already witnessed first-hand the disappearance of two of its small uninhabited Islets that went underwater in 1999. And with reports that the island as a whole could also disappear by 2050, forced migration might well be a likely prospect.

Climate-Driven Migration

Kiribati isn’t alone. On the other side of the world, another community is preparing itself for its own disappearance. The governor of Fairbourne, a small seaside town in Wales, has called the whole village to be decommissioned and moved out due to unprecedented sea level rises and storm surges.

“It is an uncertain future […] we’re seeing the sea levels rise by an average of 4.7mm every year,” says Deiniol Tegid, member of the Natural Resources Wales council. The council maintains that despite a focus on flood risk management, the engineering and financial challenges of protecting the village are likely to become “insurmountable”.

Source: Greenpeace UK

“This isn’t our planet, we’ve borrowed it from the next generation. And we’ve really left them something to sort out.”

Stuart Eves, Fairbourne resident.

What emerges from these pressures is the decision to cease maintaining sea defences in Fairbourne by the 2050s – with an undetermined fate for the village residents. And with sea levels in the U.K. expecting to rise well beyond 2100, the question remains as to whether other territories will be next.

What’s Next?

The interconnectedness between movement and water is so deep-rooted, so what’s next?

For low-lying Netherlands, it’s viewing water in a different way: as a challenge rather than a danger. In East Amsterdam, Steigereiland, working with water has inspired the construction of floating houses, as both a solution against rising tides, and a step up from house boats. 

Built on concrete so-called “tubs” for a base, floating houses mostly function like houses built on land. The only difference is, the “tubs” are partly submerged to act as a counter-weight and go more easily with the movement of the tide. They are then anchored down to the lakebed with poles to keep them from floating away.

“We shouldn’t see water as a danger, but as a chance, as a challenge.”

Pavel Kabat, Delta Commission climate expert.  

This “Leven met water” – living with water – strategy for the Dutch has also attracted the interest of climate change researchers, as well as delegates worldwide, including those from Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and the United States. It’s an alternative that Kiribati, despite the financial drawback, has been considering. 

As sea levels continue to rise globally, with many cities and territories under threat to migrate, solutions such as floating homes might be the flexibility that’s needed – and, paradoxically, the one that water allows us to embrace. 

By Lauren — Apr 27, 2020
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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