In Kadir van Lohuizen’s forthcoming photo book, After Us the Deluge: The Human Consequences of Rising Sea Levels, the climate crisis is fundamentally a water crisis. With the melting ice caps in Greenland as the catalyst for rising waters, the aftermath of their destruction, coupled with the complacency of governments, is leaving people in unlivable circumstances.
People in nations including Panama, Bangladesh, and Kiribati are witnessing the sea come up to their homes during high tides. The Netherlands and the United States, though well-protected in certain areas, continue to experience terrible storm surges near coastal cities, and large parts of Jakarta in Indonesia are predicted to be submerged by 2050. “We talk about the climate crisis, it seems that we always think that it wouldn't be as bad as predicted,” says Lohuizen. “It is strange that we don't act, although we know.”
Lohuizen’s goal is to go beyond publishing a traditional photo book in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Sections on the effects rising waters are having on six regions are authored by a mix of local politicians, scientists, activists, and journalists familiar with their countries’ impending fates. While the accompanying photographs show the frightening consequences of human decisions, they also depict what Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water affairs, calls in the book’s introduction “the fine line between the power of nature and human hope.”
Lohuizen’s documentation of human experiences, and the struggle between people and nature, is a prevailing motif. In a photograph taken in Tebike Nikoora on Kiribati, a woman stands outside, watching as seawater overtakes dozens of sandbags. In an image from Jakarta, people walk through knee-level flood water after canals failed due to garbage buildup.
The dramatic and evocative imagery of dangerous ocean currents and flooding was achieved through Lohuizen’s reliance on the tide table, data used to predict high and low tides. Lohuizen said shooting at high tide would be the best way for viewers to imagine the future severity of rising waters in coastal cities. “If you can show what happens already at high tides, you don't have to have a very wild fantasy to realize what would happen if the sea level would rise one, two, or three meters on top of that,” he says.
Lohuizen also relied on drones, and even a kite rigged with a camera in the project’s early stages, to show the fragility of coastal cities. “There was a very important component to have those aerials—and specifically for the Netherlands—because then you see, in some of the images, how close we are to the sea,” he says.
Lohuizen, who hails from Utrecht, started this project in 2011 while he was working on a project about migration in the Americas. He has also photographed projects about the world's rivers and the diamond industry.
While the aerial shots show the relationship between rising waters and coastal cities, others show the attempts by residents to leave those places. In Bangladesh, boats fill Sadarghat, the main river port in the capital city of Dhaka, carrying people hoping to relocate from the delta. Similar situations are shown in Guna Yala, an indigeneous province in Panama, where Lohuizen captures a woman at the construction site of where her new home will be built. The idea of resettling communities, which Lohuizen documents in almost half of the countries he photographed, feels normalized yet controversial. “If people have to relocate, where do they go?” he asks. “I think in the US you have enough space, but in countries like Bangladesh, also the Netherlands or Indonesia, we don't have the space to relocate people.”
In Jakarta, which is sinking at a rate between 15 and 25 centimeters a year due to the extraction of groundwater, most of the city floods during high tides. “They put the sandbags with the hope that the water doesn’t come into their houses, which doesn't work. So they're almost used to that this has become part of their life,” says Lohuizan. The Indonesian government intends to move the capital to Borneo and rebuild there, but, says Lohuizan, “the problem is that it seems that the government is moving and not the people.”
Meanwhile, people in coastal Bangladesh are forced to migrate from their homelands to densely-populated inland cities. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research estimates that about 18 million people currently live in the area likely to be affected by flooding caused by sea level rise. Panama is also grappling with migration challenges. The government approved funding to evacuate four of the 300 islands that are a part of the Guna Yala archipelago for reasons that include flooding in the Cartí River, vulnerability to extreme weather conditions, and overpopulation. But budget obstacles and Covid-19 delayed the initiative. In addition, some of the islands’ older population is hesitant to leave their ancestral grounds and culture behind, even as tsunamis and hurricanes grow worse.
Kiribati faces similar challenges, but remains at the forefront of the climate crisis “by acknowledging that climate-induced migration is inevitable,” writes former president of Kiribati Anote Tong, who authored the “Pacific” section of the book. Tong implemented the concept of “migration with dignity,” which was intended to be a community response that would help people successfully adapt to the nations they migrate to by training them to become employable there and educating them to meet the immigration qualifications of specific countries.
Even large, rich nations and cities may not fare well over the coming century. After Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern United States in 2012, New York City officials quickly began plans to build a wall around the lower half of eastern Manhattan. Boston and Philadelphia have similar plans to build flood-resistant waterfronts. But not every city has such an option. Miami, further down the eastern seaboard, is built on porous limestone that allows water to move more freely, and is more vulnerable to flooding in the coming climate crisis. Despite the continuing development of high rises in these cities, places like Miami Beach and some parts of the Bay Area are losing ground, which may ultimately force residents to relocate.
“We kind of have a tendency that we think that the problem really starts when the water is at your feet,” says Lohuizen. “I realized when I was in Panama, but moreover, in Bangladesh, that if the land frequently floods and the water doesn't recede anymore, and if the soil becomes saline, and people can't grow their crops anymore, and then the drinking water becomes brackish, that's enough of a reason for people to start relocating, because they're losing their livelihoods. I can't stress enough that there's a real urgency in that this is happening as we speak.”