By Georgina Wade
With global temperatures on the rise combined with a significant increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, investigations into methods of staving off climate change’s most dire consequences are continually in the works. And as an inevitable phenomenon at the moment, adaptation is the key response to minimising the unfavourable effects of climate change.
One such approach in discussion is managed retreat – in other words, deliberately getting out of harm’s way. Managed retreat involves the strategic relocation of assets and people away from areas at risk, enabling restoration of those areas to their natural state.
While migration is far from a simple solution and comes with its own set of complications, a Wisconsin reservation offers a climate success story.
The relocation of Odanah
In 1960, the village of Odanah, Wisconsin was up to its neck in floodwaters. The town, home to thousands of members of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe, had been built on the banks of the Bad River in the middle of a flood plain.
The flood had a magnitude 1.25 times the 100-year recurrence interval and became a turning point in the village’s history.
Three years later, the Bad River Housing Authority was established, and the first displaced families moved into new houses a few miles up the highway. In the next three decades, waves of people would move out of the flood plain until virtually the entire town had relocated to higher ground. And the relocation could not have had more optimal timing, as the real monster, in terms of quantity of water, came through directly afterwards.
Flooding in Wisconsin during the summer of 2016 resulted in damages estimated at $30 million USD with the state governor declaring a State of Emergency after rainfall amounts reaching 12 inches occurred within an eight-hour period.
Nicholas Pinter, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, says that moving out of the flood plain before the big flood is almost unheard of, which is exactly what makes the Odanah success story so unique.
“In a way, Odanah was very successfully moved right before the monster flood, the 2016 flood, came through,” he said. “That saved many hundreds of structures from potential flood damage.”
Quantifying the damage avoided
To fully understand the magnitude of managed retreats on minimising damages, the next step is to quantify the damages avoided. Pinter and James Rees, a student at the University of California, Davis, are hoping that hard numbers will be helpful for other governments trying to make similar decisions.
Long-term risks are notoriously difficult for local governments to plan for due to the complexities and uncertainties involved, and this is especially true for disasters like floods, which have a low likelihood of happening in any given year.
But using Odanah as a focal point, the duo is working at combining old maps with satellite data in an attempt to quantify the amount of damage that would have occurred in 2016 if the town had failed to move prior to the flood.
Use of migration as a risk reduction and adaptation strategy
Estimates vary widely, but between 25 million and 1 billion people could be on the move or permanently displaced due to climate risks by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate, according to a 2015 study.
According to researchers, voluntary migration can lessen the risk of displacement by reducing exposure to climate hazards, and is therefore a contribution to individual and societal adaptation. Serving as an autonomous adaptation strategy, voluntary migration may appear as a reliable fix. But conversely, not everyone is equally able to act in this way to avoid climate impacts, or indeed wants to.
For one, those who lack the resources and networks to escape deteriorating environmental conditions may be unable to move, and therefore trapped in conditions of vulnerability. Migration can be relatively expensive with many social and legal barriers in the way, making it a rather poor bet for households already on the brink. Estimates suggest that the number of people unable to move away from climate change degraded areas may climb into the tens of millions by 2050.
Additionally, forced migration can be connected to loss of land, culture, identity and even sovereignty. In the case of Odanah, the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe’s existence in Wisconsin is itself the result of a relocation forced by invading Europeans who drove them West. More recently, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 prompted relocation by creating incentives for people living on reservations to move away from their allotted land and into cities.
In some parts of the country, entire tribes collapsed as the federal government ordered tribal government to dissolve, and it became financially impossible for families to remain on their land. Although not entirely forced, this can only serve to accentuate the circumstances under which Odanah began moving after the flood of 1960.
The line between voluntary migration and forced displacement from climate change can be difficult to determine. Much movement – and indeed most movement related to environmental factors – is not entirely forced or voluntary, but rather falls somewhere on a continuum between the two, with multiple factors contributing to whether a person moved, where they move, how. But as with the Odanah relocation, what happens when the reasons for residing in a climate catastrophe prone area were unfair to begin with?
One example is Newtok in Alaska, where erosion is forcing the primarily Yup’ik Native village to relocate. As temperatures increase, the frozen permafrost underneath the village, which was established as a consequence for forced settlement, is thawing resulting in about 70 feet of land erosion each year. Since 1994, the Newtok community has been desperately seeking out funding to aid in their relocation to a plot of land 9 miles away. And more than twenty years later, money still remains the largest barrier in their endeavours.
As of March, the village secured more than $15 million USD in funding to begin relocating households to safer ground inland. This amount, however, is still just a fraction of what is required to relocate the entire village. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the total cost of relocation could be as much as $130 million USD.
If there is not enough money to relocate the village collectively, Newtok residents could be forced to scatter, putting their community, culture, the Yup’ik language and identity at risk.
Without clear responsibilities and allocated funds to deal with managed retreat, vulnerable communities will continue to struggle to find permanent solutions to their predicament. Although FEMA has pushed for communities to plan for climate change, the federal government currently doesn’t have policies to deal with issues like relocation. As more communities face similar problems, a legal solution could be the only way to stay above water. And, as Odanah showed, managed retreat can turn out a success.
Cover photo by Commonist/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0): The water tower in Odanah, Wisconsin.