Mauritius island, famous for its beautiful beaches and rich marine life, is facing the threat of climate change-induced sea-level rise like so many islands. Several communities that live along the coastal zone today must endure the impacts of sea-level rise such as recurrent flooding, higher tides and a decrease in land surface area. These coastal hazards invariably have severe repercussions on the communities’ livelihoods in addition to affecting their properties and assets. Yet, as pioneers in certain of these coastal villages for generations, moving out of vulnerable locations is strictly unacceptable for many of them. Nevertheless, with the failure of adaptation measures and the costs associated with them, relocation may be the best option all in all.
Mauritius is located in the Indian Ocean between latitudes 19°50’ South and 20°30’ South and longitudes 57°18 East and 57°46’ East. The island is affected by various weather systems leading to its particular mild tropical maritime climate throughout the year. Furthermore, it is found in the cyclonic belt of the Indian Ocean where some ten cyclones form per year during the summer months. Consequently, the island frequently faces tropical storms and storm surges which are now made worse with rising sea levels.
Physical data on sea-level rise on Mauritius using tide gauges have been gathered since 1986 through the 10-year Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) programme, a component of the World Climate Research Porgramme (WCRP) of the WHO, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the UNESCO and the International Council for Science (ICSU). As of 1993, altimetry information is collected with sea level measurements forming part of the WMO/IOC Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM) Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS) programme to obtain regional and global data sets for coastal research, climate change and oceanographic purposes.
Based on the latest publication of sea-level rise on Mauritius , the mean sea level has been rising by 3.8 mm yr-1 from 1988 to 2014 with various swings throughout the years. Thus, from 2010 to 2011, a drop of 8.7 cm was recorded but from 2013 to 2014, a 4.7 cm rise was noted. The Second National Communication under the UNFCCC of Mauritius projects a sea-level rise of 16 cm by 2050, 35 cm by 2080 and 49 cm by 2100 based on the IPCC SRES A1F1 emission scenarios.
Just like other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Mauritius faces particular challenges. These relate to its small size, narrow resource base, loss of biodiversity, remoteness and vulnerability to climate change impacts. Basically, Mauritius is a predominantly coastal entity with limited land-use option that is currently under agriculture and tourism-related use. With a population of 1.3 million inhabitants and a population density of 626 people per km2, land space for settlement is quite limited given the hilly nature of the island.
What’s more, people choose to live in regions exposed to natural hazards as they perceive the risk associated with the hazards less compared to the benefits they anticipate. For instance, a survey conducted on the migration of fishers from Rodrigues Island (a dependency of Mauritius) to Mauritius attributes the movement to a decrease in fish catch. Thus, people voluntary live in vulnerable regions because it sustains them and their families notwithstanding coastal dangers.
Also, the disparity between the rich and the poor households is quite obvious when it comes to land allocation. While the wealthier households are located in safe areas inland, the poorer communities are left with the vulnerable places to settle on. While recently the trend has been reversing with many of the wealthier constructing bungalows and villas on the beachfront, villagers who have lived at particular locations for decades are the ones suffering the most from the impacts of sea-level rise.
Strikingly, some decades back, coastal impacts were not as disastrous as they are today. One of the villages that is severely impacted by rising sea levels is Riviere des Galets. Located in the south of Mauritius, this peaceful haven has turned into a nightmare for the villagers that have inhabited the region for years.
Nicolas Mangue, one of the villagers who has lived there for 34 years declares, “Previously, the sea was very calm here. The beach was beautiful with many trees. Everything started to disappear with rising waters since the beginning of the 1990s. Now, it’s attacking our yards and homes.”
In just over 20 years, sea level rise has greatly affected the coastal village of Riviere des Galets. Higher waves are becoming recurrent, eroding the land and washing away sand and rocks as they return back to the sea. The village cemetery has been devastated due to coastal flooding. While some of the tombs have been transferred elsewhere, some bodies are still buried in the dilapidated graveyard. Worse still is the sea that is slowly getting closer and closer to the villagers’ houses.
The vulnerability of certain regions to climate change-related impacts is based on their degree of exposure as well as socioeconomic parameters. Both of these elements must be taken into consideration for short and long term planning of human settlements under the menace of climate change. For example, research has shown that Le Morne village located in the south-west of Mauritius is one of the most vulnerable spots of the island. This is not only because of its low-lying position but also because of the high number of employed people and the low income of those who work as fishers and farmers. As a result, they are highly exposed to climate change impacts like sea-level rise, storm surges and tropical cyclones.
Concrete efforts to combat sea-level rise impacts at various sites of the island has been undertaken in line with the Hyogo Framework for Action and the implementation of the UNFCCC’s SDGs. Local-level adaptation projects include rock revetments, construction of seawalls, stormwater evacuation mechanisms and erosion control measures. Additionally, ecosystem-based approaches have also been implemented along the coasts such as mangrove plantation and reforestation, dune and vegetation restoration on beaches as well as beach rehabilitation works.
Over and above all these, coastal projects are also regulated by the EIA/PER mechanism under the Environment Protection Act and a setback distance of 30 m from the high water mark must be respected. Finally, where adaptation structures cannot keep the sea at bay or may take too long to be effective, relocation remains the only option.
Interviewing the villagers of Riviere des Galets, mixed responses have been gathered regarding relocation. Whilst the younger generations are willing to move out to be safe, the elders refuse categorically to relocate because of their cultural ties to their land. What’s more, others still want to move to sites that are close to the sea as they are basically fishers and their livelihoods depend on it.
Conversely, in another coastal village of Mauritius, Quatre Soeurs, relocation of many inhabitants has been successful. Located in the south-east of the island, this small village is prone to landslides during heavy rainfall a situation which is worsened by increased storm surges. As a result, eleven families had to be relocated to Camp Ithier, a nearby village, due to their exposure to natural hazards. While the inhabitants initially refused the government’s proposal for relocation, they eventually agreed.
The Ministry of Land and housing, Abu Kasenally remarked, “It’s always difficult to move out of your native village and live elsewhere. But we are proposing a secure place with all the required infrastructure.”
As a state with high exposure to risks, incorporating relocation within the climate change framework of Mauritius is essential. Though the government has undertaken several adaptation actions to decrease the pressure on communities to migrate from their lands, in many cases, these strategies have not borne fruit. With the IPCC’s latest macabre projections of sea-level rise by the end of the 21st century in its ‘Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a changing climate’, encouraging relocation as a way to be safe is now crucial.
As it currently stands, the government of Mauritius considers adaptation as the key solution to manage climate change, thus translating into pragmatic actions to support populations who are unwilling to move. At the same time, in instances where these prove ineffective and under increased pressure of local communities, considering relocation may be the only way out. In this regard, meaningful actions for those populations that have to be relocated must be embedded within the larger framework of climate adaptation strategies. As relocation requires resources and finance, cooperation with international and regional partners is thus mandatory.
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