On Climate Displacement: The View from Dar

A stranger to Dar es Salaam, I found myself wondering around in a rapidly growing city just below the Equator. Despite it technically being winter, to my standards temperatures were still fairly high, ranging between 26°C and 32°C (78°F and 90°F) during my stay. Rainy season had just gone, but the second annual round of rains was not far off. Although I only experienced minor rains while staying in the city for six weeks, the impact of even a little amount of water pouring down was apparent right away. Roads struggled to soak up the rain, creating large puddles and making navigating the city an obstacle.

I could not help but try and imagine what Dar es Salaam would look like during rainy season, when torrential downpours cause flash floods that pester an increasingly large population living on precarious land – at or below sea level. Looking at footage from news channels sketched daunting images of muddy streams flowing through neighborhoods and streets. What really painted the picture of what it’s like to live with such stark environmental threats were the stories our interviewees shared with me.

Leaping back in time, I had a carefree childhood growing up on the southwest coast of the Netherlands. The proximity to the sea always brought me joy; weekends spent building sand castles, playing beach tennis, swimming in the ever so cold North Sea – even reminiscing over being bitten by nasty dark purple jellyfish brings back nostalgic feelings. Through my young eyes, the sea was undoubtedly a good thing.

Growing older I noticed not everyone in my family felt the same way. In 1953, my grandparents witnessed one of the largest floods in Dutch history. Overnight the below sea level land became inundated. Thousands lost their lives, others lost their cattle and land in rural Zeeland – effectively loosing their livelihoods, and even more lost their homes. Each of my grandparents still remember the event vividly; stories of how there weren’t enough sandbags, how my grandmother saw her brand new ice skates floating out of the house while she was watching safely from the attic, how my granddad was sent home from work to help the family flee, and so on.

In the aftermath of the flood, various large-scale infrastructural projects like the Deltawerken were successfully constructed to never allow something like that happen again. Dikes were fortified and have been monitored closely ever since. Had these measures not been implemented, living a normal life in Zeeland would have been virtually impossible. Today the Dutch pride themselves with innovative water management systems and engineering technologies – although a big leap is still to be made in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

I suppose it is safe to say the Dutch, myself included, were and are lucky to live in an economically prosperous society that could afford to develop necessary infrastructure to make occupying low-lying coastal areas feasible and safe. Importantly, the Netherlands wasn’t experiencing population growth rates anywhere near those of Dar es Salaam today, nor does it have a history of being colonized; the long legacy of racial segregation as is still visible in Dar es Salaam now.

This piece is not an attempt to understand Dar es Salaam through a Dutch lens, rather it illustrates how I frame much of my understanding of climate change and environmental inequality: by looking at impacts of water, flooding, and sea level rise, and situating this in a place-bound context. Climate impacts are not a neutral facts or an environmental ‘given’. Who is at risk is often dependent on social and historical processes that disadvantage certain groups of people over others.

By talking to long-time residents of Dar es Salaam I slowly began to understand how many poor families living on low-lying coastal areas are caught in a vicious circle: they rely on cheap land close to the city center which is also very prone to flooding, as they do not have the means to move away, and are place-attached because most economic opportunities are near the city center. Their social networks and community ties contribute to their survival on precarious land, thus state-led displacement puts them at even more risk. Although I cannot emphasize enough the important of recognizing the differences between their experiences, all of their livelihoods are in some way challenged by a changing climate. The government lacks the means to effectively address these issues and is struggling to grapple with the high pace of urbanization. But perhaps most frustratingly is the prospect that these impacts are only going to worsen if we continue in the direction we are heading for now.

In the end what I am trying to say here are two things. First, climate change is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere – but often closer than you think. It is in your own backyard, but is also felt (albeit differently) on the other side of the globe. Its impacts may not always be what you think they are. Personally I always thought rising sea levels were the largest climatic threat to my home country. When in reality, increasing heat waves have taken far more European lives in the past decade, particularly the elderly. Second, climate change does not impact everyone equally. Those parts of the world that have contributed relatively little to global warming are now already feeling the effects of other countries’ actions – something that is becoming increasingly apparent in Dar es Salaam.