How Mauritius, a Small Island Developing State, is adapting to sea level rise

Riviere des galets mauritius, high waves looming on small blue house and green trees on coast, climate change induced sea level rise affecting mauritius

The last report of the IPCC on sea-level change presents dark visions on future sea levels: 95% of the world ocean will probably rise by the end of the 21st century and 70% of coastlines will experience a sea-level change within 20% of the global mean sea-level change. For the small islands, sea-level rise is not only a question of constructing seawalls or moving inland, but it is also now a fight to preserve land sovereignty and to simply survive. As a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a high dependency on marine resources, Mauritius has come up with several strategies to face sea-level rise.

SIDS as a special case

Since the 1992 Rio Conference of the United Nations, SIDS were recognized as a special case in Chapter 17G of Agenda 21 both for their environment and development. Following that, one of the most threatened nations, the Maldivians, have been raising issues on the urgency to mitigate carbon emissions and find ways to adapt to sea-level rise or lose their land. As an atoll nation with an average height of 1.5 m above means sea level, leaders of the Maldives have always been on the forefront regarding sea level rise issues. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives stated before the 2009 UN conference ‘You know that with a sea-level rise of over 1.5 m hundreds of millions of people would be dead. They would simply be wiped out’.

Even though the SIDS combined release less than 1% of total greenhouse gases, they are the ones facing the most challenges. Their particular characteristics including small size, remoteness, limited resource base and vulnerability to climate change impacts exacerbate the effects of sea-level rise. What’s more, most of the SIDS are located in the tropical and sub-tropical belt and are frequently impacted by cyclones. To make matters worse, a larger portion of their settlements, infrastructure, agricultural land and business centres are located on the coasts and many of them depend on the sea directly and indirectly for their livelihoods.

For islands like Fiji, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Maldives and Kiribati, the reality of becoming homeless is imminent. Pointing to the existential threat that Tuvalu is facing, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres states ‘Nowhere have I seen the heartbreaking impacts of the global climate emergency more starkly than in Tuvalu, where I met families whose homes are threatened by relentless rising seas’.

Sea level rise in Mauritius

The island of Mauritius has not been left untouched by rising sea levels. Sea levels in Mauritius have been monitored since 1986 by tide gauges and as from 1993, altimetry data has been gathered. The latest publication on sea levels in Mauritius records that there has been a mean sea level rise in the range of 3.8 mm yr-1 from 1988 to 2014 with various fluctuations in between those years. For instance, from 1987 to 2003 there was a -0.7 mm yr-1 drop but the sea level rose sharply to 5.0 mm yr-1 after 2003. The Second National Communication of Mauritius forecasts rises of 16 cm by 2050, 35 cm by 2080 and 49 cm by 2100 based on the IPCC SRES A1F1.

Basically, Mauritius has lost some 20 m of its beach during the past few decades only due to higher tides and dead corals which can no longer perform protection actions. The impacts on the environment and communities have been disastrous leaving denuded coastal zones and affecting coastal residents’ homes and properties. Given the dependence of Mauritius on its sun-sea-sand tourism and its attachment to cultural land, adaptation has become the prime solution to decrease the impacts of sea-level rise.

Adaptation measures to sea level rise in Mauritius

Based on the definition of the IPCC, adaptation refers to the adjustments in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic processes that can cause harm or decrease valuable opportunities. A number of adaptation measures have been implemented on different islands depending on factors such as the economic value of losses, the overall cost-effectiveness of a particular project and the number of lives to save. But basically, the IPCC CZMS classifies adaptation strategies into protection, accommodation and avoidance (and planned retreat).

Protection measures

One of the most vulnerable regions to sea level rise in Mauritius is Riviere des Galets, a small coastal village located on the south coast. Every time the sea becomes rough, violent waves hit the shore, flood houses and damage residents’ properties. As it is, this particular portion of Mauritius lacks coral reefs, so seawalls have always been in place to protect the village. Over the past years only, waves have become stronger and damaged the seawalls. Consequently, with funds from the UNDP, the government of Mauritius has rebuilt a higher and stronger seawall to cushion the dangerous lashes of the ocean.

Moreover, Mauritius Island is famous for its beautiful white beaches, yet, over the years, a significant increase in the sea level has been noted resulting in today’s thin beach strips and degraded sites. To combat this, the Ministry of Environment has undertaken several beach re-profiling projects at Grand Bay, Baie du Tombeau and Baie du Cap, beach rehabilitation works at Grand Sable, Bois des Amourettes and Deux Freres and several adaptation studies at various beaches to identify and characterize sandbanks, construct erosion control measures and storm-water evacuation mechanisms. At the Mon Choisy beach, one of the most frequented beaches of the island where erosion has been disastrous, dune and vegetation restoration has been undertaken in addition to the installation of 900 reef balls to decrease erosion and encourage marine life to develop.

Two of the most threatened sites in Mauritius, Grand Sable and Quatre Soeurs, located in low-lying areas in the south-east, are severely affected by coastal flooding and storm surge. As villagers have inhabited this region for quite a long time, construction has been undertaken on the rim of the coast resulting in property damage and community stress during flooding events. As a long term strategy, mangrove trees have been planted over 1 ha, counting 20,000 trees over the Grand Port belt, to protect against the rising sea, high waves and storm surge.

Accommodation

As a rapidly developing nation, Mauritius actively encourages development projects for economic profits. Nevertheless, the EIA/PER mechanism has been set in place under the Environment Protection Act to regulate large-scale projects in the coastal zone, and district and municipal councils have the responsibility to issue building and land use permits for these projects. Concerning the community of Quatre Soeurs, a refuge centre has been recently built to serve as an emergency stop during calamities and protect the communities during these events. On a national level, there has been the development of a National Coastal Adaptation Strategy for the coastal zone of Mauritius and Rodrigues to promote and enhance resilience measures. Also, since coral reefs are the first line of defence against the surging sea, marine water quality is being monitored by the fisheries division at various sites around the island to ensure that pollution level is kept low for coral polyps to grow and thus build reefs.

Avoidance

As a means to protect assets and reduce the impacts of sea-level rise on communities, the National Development Strategy and Planning Policy Guidance on all new developments has been legally enforced in Mauritius. As such, all new projects must respect a setback distance of 30 m from the high water mark for the construction of any hard structure. Also, as part of the coastal setback policy, levelling and removal of sand dunes are prohibited. Finally, even though Mauritius is a densely populated island, relocation has been considered for the most affected regions. In Riviere des Galets for instance, communities have been advised to move out for their own protection, but due to cultural ties to their property, they have refused to relocate.

Combined efforts make adaptation a success

While all the above-mentioned points are initiatives undertaken by the government of Mauritius throughout the years to adapt to sea-level rise, NGOs, private firms and community groups also back up this effort. For instance, many NGOs and hotels are actively involved in mangrove plantation, beach and gully cleaning, ocean monitoring and community resilience activities. Oftentimes, their indignation against certain projects such as development in pristine coastal environment as exemplified by the NGO AKNL prevents certain development projects to go through which could have led to severe environmental and economic damage in the long run. If Mauritius is making significant progress in adapting to sea level rise with increased community resilience, it is due to the combined efforts of all stakeholders, public and private, involved.

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