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Rising sea levels threaten coastal homes

It’s time to think outside the box

By Jen Stern

, |

Rising sea levels threaten coastal homes

It’s time to think outside the box

By Jen Stern

, |

3 min read

As low-lying coastal homes are threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather events, some landowners and governments are proposing proactive action. While others, of course, bury their heads in the sand, hoping against all logic to defy the tides in an ironic twist of the story of King Canute.

King Canute and rising sea levels

The story of King Canute, the Viking colonial ruler of Britain, has been retold and mis-told many times. The gist is that he placed his throne on the beach at low tide and ‘ordered’ the tide to not come in and wet his toes. Well, it did. But, historians say, he was not deluded – he was trying to make a point to his sycophantic followers who insisted that he was the greatest king that ever lived, and that the whole world would bow down to him. Unfortunately, history is silent about the result of his dramatic illustration of the limit of his power. It didn’t stop the Vikings colonising Britain, but it has given us a useful allegory for our times.

Sea level is rising

We mostly live under the delusion that things don’t change, which is clearly not the case, but it explains our head-in-the-sand attitude to global climate change and rising sea levels.

Much like the fact that most people were taken by surprise by COVID-19, even though scientists had been warning for decades that a novel flu pandemic was a certainty, with only the time in question, most people don’t really believe that sea levels will rise. Well, scientists do – they’re just not sure when. We continue to buy and build coastal properties a metre or two above sea level – and often built on sand, or in estuaries. But how sustainable is this? Will it take just one high tide to flood out a beach development for coastal property values to plummet? And what then? Well, interestingly, at least one politician is proposing a novel solution.

California’s plan to buy out coastal properties

State Senator Ben Allen has proposed a bold plan for dealing with the issue of rising sea levels. With billions of dollars’ worth of coastal properties in the state, he predicts that protecting homes from rising oceans will be very expensive. It’s perhaps not surprising that California is in the lead in acknowledging the risk of rising sea levels; with the San Andreas Fault running right through the state, Californians – unlike those of us who live in tectonically stable South Africa – are aware of the fact that the earth is a dynamic, changing entity.

Allen’s proposal is that the state buys out coastal property now, so that home owners can recoup their investment, and then rent it out (perhaps to the original home owners) so that the state can – in turn – recoup their investment. Allen’s argument is that the state will, in the long run, save money by implementing a planned retreat from the sea, rather than trying to fight the inevitable until, like King Canute, the state legislators are forced into an undignified scurry with wet knickers.

But could this work in South Africa?

It is clear that our national, provincial and local governments have more pressing issues than protecting the investments of the rich – or, more accurately, they have issues that should be considered more pressing. But – as so many positive-thinking philosophies assert – every problem is also an opportunity. So could rising sea level be an opportunity for HOAs in low-lying marinas and beach estates to proactively deal with what is a very real threat? Or could this even be an opportunity for ‘undevelopment’ – the planned, proactive retreat of at-risk neighbourhoods?

It’s a bit of a gamble, of course. As mentioned, scientists are certain that sea level will rise, they’re just not sure when. So a planned buyout-to-rent, like that proposed by Allen, would benefit home owners in the short term. Of course, the speculators/undevelopers who buy these lovely coastal homes may lose out if they are flooded out in ten years, but they may turn a tidy profit if the tide holds back for a few more decades. Like all development investments, it’s a matter of making reasonable predictions, and then hoping that you have erred on the conservative side.

The alternative is to do nothing until the kitchen is knee-deep in water, by which stage people will not be queueing up to buy these lovely beach houses.

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