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  • Writer's pictureIHS Alumni

The Threat of Water: Relocation in Cali and Christchurch

Veronica Olivotto (UMD9) and Biddy Livesey (UMD 9) are researchers. Biddy lives in Auckland, New Zealand; Veronica lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. We met in Rotterdam in 2009. As a city, Rotterdam is threatened by water in a dramatic way. The university where we studied urban management is located in Kralingen, near to the lowest point of the Netherlands, which is approximately seven metres below mean sea level. Situated on the River Maas, the city of Rotterdam is protected by a system of dikes, and the whole river system is protected from storm surges in the North Sea by the Maeslant Barrier[1], a massive barrier which can be mechanically moved to block the entrance of the river. When we lived there, Rotterdam was experimenting with floating houses, emphasising water transport as a way to reach isolated parts of the city, and has since built a ‘water plaza’, a public square that collects excess rainfall during downpours. Living in Rotterdam, we cycled through this landscape of threat and protection every day. We were in Rotterdam when the Christchurch earthquakes occurred in New Zealand, and also when the ‘winter wave’ of 2010-11 forced the evacuation of many families from the Cauca dike in Cali, Colombia.

Relocation and community

Examining relocation is critical when assessing adaptation as a response to climate change. ‘Managed retreat’ – the abandonment of settled areas vulnerable to hazards – is a technical response with significant social, economic, and political implications. This text considers two communities who live by rivers in different parts of the world. Both are threatened by water, and as a result have been relocated from their homes. In neither case is the threat explicitly related to sea-level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change. In Christchurch, a natural disaster has caused the earth around the river to liquefy, unsettling housing foundations, roads, and infrastructure. In Cali, people are living on a human-made dike protecting the city from river flooding, which civic authorities worry is unsafe. In both cases, communities have intensively occupied historically swampy, low-lying land.

Cali and Christchurch illustrate the precarity of communities living in vulnerable places, and the vulnerability of peoples’ lives and livelihoods within a shifting geological and political system. When considering global environmental change, vulnerability is considered to be a function of the exposure (who or what is at risk) and sensitivity of a system (the degree to which people and places can be harmed).[2] Adding to this concept an awareness of the biophysical and social forces that can make specific communities more or less vulnerable[3], we frame vulnerability as an issue of ‘human security’ where climate change is only one of the multiple processes of change that affect people.[4]

You can read the whole essay here (page 80 – 101):

Families live in tents after the ‘winter wave’ hits the area of Juanchito, next to the dike (Source: El Pais, 2011)


[1] The Maeslant Barrier was built as part of the Delta Works, a comprehensive set of dikes, locks, sluices and dams developed after major flooding in 1953. Along with the central city of Rotterdam, Kralingen has also been the site of major rebuilding. In 1940, during World War II, Rotterdam was bombed by the German air force, leveling 2.6 square kilometres of the city.

[2] Adger, N., (2006) Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change 16, 268-281 and Cutter, S.,L., (1996) Vulnerability to environmental hazards. Progess in Human Geography 20, 529-539 in Cutter, S.L. et al. (2008), ‘A place-based model for understanding community resilience to natural disasters’, Global Environmental Change, 18(4), 598–606.

[3] Frerks, G., Warner, J., and Weijs, B. (2011), ‘The politics of vulnerability and resilience’, Ambiente & Sociedade (2), 105. doi: 10.1590/S1414-753X2011000200008, 106.

[4] O'Brien, K., (2007), ‘Why different interpretations of vulnerability matter in climate change discourses’, Climate Policy Vol.7 (1) DOI:10.1080/14693062.2007.9685639.



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