Category Human rights

How coastal communities are adapting to a changing weather

Polar bears in the North Pole, sighted by the USS Honolulu.

Global warming and the global climate crisis continue to make headlines in news outlets: from increasing floods, to droughts and fires. By the end of the century, global temperatures are expected to increase 4C under the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

21.5 million people were displaced each year between 2008 and 2016 by some form of weather-related incident, including floods, storms, wildfires or extreme temperatures.

There is a correlation between higher temperatures and an increase in the number of natural disasters.

With some locations becoming drier with decreased rainfall patterns, and others more susceptive to being flooded, communities that were previously unaffected by natural disasters are more likely to suffer climate-related shocks in coming years.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, cities like Wilmington, Annapolis, Maryland, Sandy Hook and Atlantic City have seen a 10-fold increase in flood frequency since the 1950s, according to the EPA.

A study on the impact of climate change on European coasts estimated a 30-fold increase in damage from coastal flooding by mid-century and a 700-fold increase by the end of the century on a current path trajectory, with a $1 trillion price tag, without any future flood protection measures.

Malé, the capital of the Republic of Maldives. Photo by Timo Newton-Syms from Helsinki, Finland and Chalfont St Giles, Bucks, UK

Coastal area residents, particularly in developing countries and small nation states, are increasingly more vulnerable to these calamities.

In 2015, India and China respectively had 3.7 and 3.6 million people displaced from disasters. It is expected that over 140 million people will be climate-related migrants by 2050 in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

Indigenous communities are increasingly exposed to sea-level rise in areas like Panama, Louisiana, and low-lying islands in Asia and the Pacific, where 80% of the world’s 370 million indigenous people live, forcing them to move farther and higher inland.

In the Guna Yala region, off the Atlantic coast of Panama, 49 Guna communities have witnessed a 15cm rise of sea level rise in recent years. It is estimated that 28,000 people in the region will need to relocate to the mainland in the coming years, not only due to sea-level rise, but also because of deteriorating coral reefs and a diminished fishing output that these communities rely on.

Rural communities in developing nations are also distressed by changing weather patterns. The Isle of Jean Charles, in Louisiana, once the only home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, has shrunk from 34 square miles, to less than half a square mile. The Biloxis have been relocating to higher ground for the last couple of decades, with support from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD) accompanied by a $48.3 million grant to acquire new land some 12 feet above sea level.

Adapting to sea-level rise

As global temperatures keep rising in coming years, natural disasters will steadily increase. However, the world is better prepared to handle natural disasters. According to the International Disasters Database, the number of global casualties related to natural disasters has been contracting, partly due to better early-warning systems that facilitate faster evacuations.

In 2018, nearly half of all deaths from disasters took place in Indonesia (5,510 casualties), as a result of tsunamis and earthquakes in the region. In response, President Joko Widodo presented a plan to build a massive sea wall around Jakarta’s coast to abate damage from the sea and to help reduce the ocean from further encroaching on the capital’s coast, currently at a rate of 8 inches per year.

Jakarta joins other cities that advocate for sea walls, whether in the form of massive barriers, or vegetated buffer zones and wetlands that reduce damage from flash floods and hurricanes. In the U.S., following Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on 13 states, many cities along the East Coast received federal funding to better prepare for hurricanes. Cities from New York to Miami are investing millions to protect their coastlines. New York is planning to build a vegetated flood-protection zone around lower Manhattan. Norfolk has a $4 billion coastal resilience work plan underway, while Miami is investing close to half a billion dollars to address sea level rise.

In addition to coastal barriers, some cities implement policies like building codes and zoning laws to ensure schools, hospitals and workplaces are located in safe areas and can withstand the passing of hurricanes and floods. In addition, some cities have other financial instruments to help them recover from hurricanes and storms more quickly — including flood insurance, resilience bonds, or municipal and federal budgets allocated for stormwater management programs.

The Maeslantkering is a storm surge barrier that automatically closes when Rotterdam is threatened by floods. Photo: Dronesupport nl. via Flickr.

Coastal communities will adapt to sea-level rise in different ways. Wealthier cities are more likely to adapt and recover from natural disasters more easily than their counterparts in the Global South, due to their increased technical and financial capacity.

Less prosperous coastal communities, despite being the countries with the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions, are more likely to depend on relocating their populations. Over 200,000 households in Bangladesh have already been forced to relocate.

The Paris Agreement stipulated developed countries would provide aid to developing nations to better prepare for climate change, amounting to $100 billion every year in technical and financial assistance — a responsibility mostly being led by the European Union after the U.S. withdrew from the agreement, and a commitment that has yet to materialize.

Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong, bought land in Fiji as contingency for evacuating the country’s population and to send a message to the rest of the world that the survival of their country is at risk, including the lives of around 100,000 Kiribati citizens. Without adequate funding and technical capacity, more countries might follow suit, relying on relocating their coastal populations, as a way to adapt to coastal flooding.

Is Mexico paying for Trump’s wall?

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump declared that if elected he’d build a wall along the US-Mexico border and have Mexico pay for it.

Trump publicly announced various estimates for his border wall. The cost estimates ranged from $8 billion to $25 billion in 2018, a figure that was requested to US congress that year, and one of the reasons for declaring one of the longest government shutdowns lasting over a month until January, 2019.

Some of Trump’s arguments pointed at how a new USMCA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico would somehow cover the costs for the wall. Or that adding a tax on remittances would cover the cost of his border wall.

The math behind Trump’s Mexico will pay for the wall arguments may be flawed and we may never know the actual cost of a 2000-mile fortified wall. However, Mexico has been pressured to comply with Trump’s anti-immigrant demands.

Three of eight border wall prototypes installed near San Diego in 2018. Images: Prototypes

Mexico becomes the wall

Through different strategies, the U.S. federal government has reduced the number of asylum seekers and migrants coming through its southern border.

U.S. asylum requests have been denied more frequently in recent years, reaching their highest denial rate since 2012. In 2018, 65% of asylum requests were denied in courts.

In June, President Trump threatened to impose import tariffs to its southern neighbor if Mexico didn’t drastically curb the flow of immigrants through its territory within a 45-day period.

This “deal” also required Mexico to begin talks with the U.S. on a “safe third country” agreement that would obligate asylum-seekers from Central America to request asylum in Mexico⁠—forfeiting the possibility of asking for asylum in the U.S. for Guatemalan nationals, for example. Such agreement has yet to go through Mexico’s Congress and be approved. The U.S. government has sought the same agreement with Guatemala.

Mexico, coerced by Trump’s tariff threat, sent 6,000 army troops to detain and deport Central American migrants headed north. Forty-five days later, Mexico reported how the migrant flow was reduced 36%, temporarily avoiding import tariffs.

By that point, the U.S. had returned over 50,000 asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for their court hearings, for a period that can last months with the current backlog in asylum applications.

Having U.S. asylum-seekers wait their hearings in Mexico increases the vulnerability of many migrants who are often targeted by criminal groups in Mexico. In late August, a dozen of migrants who had just been sent from the U.S. to Nuevo Laredo, just south of Texas, were picked up by criminal groups directly from the bus were they were transported across the border.

Mexico has deported more Central Americans in recent years than the U.S. Source: CATO.

Mexico at a crossroad

Mexico, threatened with imposed tariffs by the Trump administration and overburdened with the recent influx of migrants from Central America, is at a crossroads for finding solutions with its neighbors north and south.

Between January and July, Mexico received nearly 40,000 asylum requests, the highest number in recent history.

Foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard has acknowledged the poor and overcrowded conditions where migrants are held in one of 60 detention centers in the country — in some facilities nearly 5 times over capacity. In a Chiapas detention center, some 400 migrants were detained in a space designed to hold 80 persons.

Mexico is also facing increasing pressure to ensure the protection of human rights for migrants and asylum-seekers passing through the country. In order for Mexico to sign a “safe third country” with the United States, both countries should pay attention to the current human rights violations migrants are exposed to as they transit through Mexico.

Seeking to address a core reason for migration, Mexico is investing $100-million dollars in agricultural and forestry projects in Central America to create jobs. A similar program is currently being tested in Mexico’s rural regions called Sembrando Vida (Planting Life).

In its first year in operation, the program is employing over 250,000 agricultural workers in a combined area of over 500,000 sq. km. to grow maize and other products, including fruits and wood using sustainable agriculture methods.

Although the construction of a wall has not come to fruition under Trump’s presidency, political pressure on Mexico has proved to be a good strategy to curb migrants from coming into the U.S., at least temporarily.

In recent weeks Mexico has been pushing back, capping the number of U.S. asylum-seekers that can be sent into Mexico to wait their court hearings.

As climate change, a lagging economy and social unrest continue to be leading causes of migration in in Central America, both the U.S. and Mexico may be better off joining forces to address root causes of migration, instead of considering building walls, and whether Mexico will pay for those walls.

Measuring the value of design

In the 20th century the role of designers was majorly understood as that of shape-makers, skilled folks who refine the way objects look. Think car-styling, or how the fashion industry delivers new clothing styles every season. Beyond surface and form, design is a skill that creates new products or services. Design has been embraced by business schools, like Rotman School of Management, and even governments, like Singapore or South Korea have incorporated a design culture to improve on public services.

However styled, or invisible the outcomes of design might be, design has the ability to deliver financial value. For many years the Design Management Institute tracked how design-driven companies, like Apple, IBM, Nike, Starbucks, or Procter & Gamble outperformed others in the Standard & Poors 500 index by over 200% between 2005 and 2015. In their studies, designers have a seat at the C-level of these corporations and are able to consistently innovate across their industries.

Graph of Design Value Index 2005-2015
Design Value Index 2005-2015


How can designers demonstrate the value of the work they do?

Ultimately, designers can demonstrate value on a before-after basis, before and after a product re-design. For instance, increase in sales of a product, customer satisfaction, overall revenue growth.  The Design Management Institute has a tool to help frame how designers add value in four parameters: revenue, customer experience, organizational learning, and processes. 

In another project I was personally involved in (The Sustainable Design Standard), a cohort of designers created a framework for evaluating the value of design incling metrics beyond financial value. Based on the premise that designers can also create social, cultural, and environmental value, we created metrics to determine whether designers are helping create products that are healthy, that promote human rights, or that do a lesser damage to the environment. Spoiler alert: Virtually all products designed today are not sustainable.

Provenance is a good example of how designers can gauge the performance of the things they design. The Provenance tool enables both consumers and companies to trace who and how products were made. The tool visualizes the supply chain of participating products and is connected to a verifiable database that rates suppliers and materials.

Provenance app

Designers are known for their skills to create attractive products. As the design practice continues to evolve this century, we can expect the design industry to lead the way in making complex information easy-to-understand and actionable.

Progress in poverty reduction

This year marks a halfway point in world poverty reduction. In 2000 a global goal was declared halve extreme poverty by 2015, based on levels present in 1990. This goal was reached in 2010, five years ahead of schedule. By 2030 the new goal set by the majority of countries is to end extreme poverty. This would mean just 3% of people in the world would be considered extremely poor.

This 2030 projection requires a continuous economic growth of 4% per year worldwide. This optimistic scenario would have its peaks and valleys. The African continent, for example, would still have a 14% extreme poverty level. Other countries would have poverty rates well under 1%.

One of the key challenges to end extreme poverty is to de-couple economic growth from environmental degradation. The countries with the highest poverty levels just happen to depend on the exploitation of natural resources, whether in the form of forests, agricultural products, minerals or fossil fuels.

From a sustainability standpoint, the greatest challenge these countries have is to diversify their economies to achieve economic growth and reduce their contribution to global warming that would result in even more damage to the natural resources they depend on before they get hit by drought, hurricanes or other natural disasters.

The annual cost of environmental degradation — stemming from air, water and land pollution — increased 50% between 1990 and 2010. Only 25% of world’s countries, mainly the richer countries, achieved economic growth while reducing their environmental impact.

Source: Ending Extreme Poverty and Sharing Prosperity: Progress and Policies. World Bank Group. October, 2015.

Sanitary towels by SHE


One of the best investments in developing countries is education since it prepares young people with skills for their adulthood. However, many women and teenagers in several countries lose school days and work during their menstrual period since they lack sanitary towels. If they exist in their community, they are often not within reach.

That is why many women prefer to stay at home during those days and avoid embarrassing moments in public or use non-hygienic products as an alternative: rags, pieces of bark, or even mud, resulting in potential infections. The shortage of these products in these countries results in labor or school losses of up to 50 days a year, up to five years of a person’s life.

Elizabeth Scharpf decided to do something about it. Instead of creating a charitable organization for its cause, Scharpf decided to address this situation from the perspective of business, a solution that can work in the long term. Scharpf is a social entrepreneur with two Harvard masters and with experience in organizations such as the World Bank and the Clinton Foundation. The 33-year-old entrepreneur started an experiment in Rwanda in 2009.

With a small team of friends Scharpf experimented with different materials to make their own female towels. They tested yucca leaf fibers, pieces of cloth, bark fibers and leaves from the banana tree and placed them in a blender, one material at a time, to test which was more absorbent. Fiber from banana leaf was the best option, also proving to be a cheap, biodegradable and a readily-available material in the region.

The organization she started was called Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), where she continues to develop their health product in collaboration with a team of students and alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called Komera that seeks to improve the manufacturing process. Part of the challenge is not just to make towels at a low cost. They also work on ways to make it a viable business.

By offering these sanitary-towel-making machines to entrepreneurial women by means of a loan, they can acquire a business that manufactures and distributes this product. For each business, or franchise, SHE estimates that 100 jobs are generated, benefiting 100,000 women and young people. The current price of these towels in Rwanda is between $2 and $ 3 for a pack of 10. SHE hopes to reduce the sale price to 75 cents with this product.

In their first tests in Rwanda, they have received comments from women mentioning that the product appears to be of inferior quality to imported towels. SHE and Komera are working to improve the appearance of the towels, making them more round and adding wings for greater acceptance. Last year, SHE received the CurryStone Design Award for its initiative and innovation potential.