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The Impact of Sea Level Rise on Developing Countries: A Comparative Analysis – A World Bank Report 2007

In February 2007 The World Bank published a Working Paper called – “The Impact of Sea Level Rise on Developing Countries: A Comparative Analysis” (WPS4136), written by Susmita Dasgupta, Beniot Laplante, Craig Meisner, David Wheeler and Jianping Yan. This is an important study of the impact of climate change. The Paper sees sea level rise due to climate change as a serious global threat.  In the summary the authors state that continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions and associated global warming could well promote sea-level rise of 1 to 3 metres in this century and the unexpectedly rapid breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets might produce a sea-level rise of 5 metres by 2100.

The paper assesses the consequences of continued sea level rise (SLR) for 84 developing countries and the inundation zones for 1 to 5 metres of sea level rise have been calculated.  The results of this work are the conclusion that hundreds of millions of people in the developing world are likely to be displaced by sea level rise within the 21st century and the accompanying economic and ecological damage will be severe for many.  A small number of countries will experience severe impacts, including Vietnam, Egypt and The Bahamas, but the impact of sea level rise are potentially catastrophic for many other countries, including China and the authors say, “the absolute magnitudes of potential impacts are very large.” The regions of East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa will be badly affected.  The paper notes that, “there is little evidence that the international community has seriously considered the implications of SLR for population location  and infrastructure planning in the developing countries.”

The paper notes that the loss of ice from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets has recently been shown to be greater than that expected even a few years ago, it states that “recent research and expert opinion indicate that significant SLR may occur earlier than previously thought.”  The authors note the problems of any such analysis of the impact of sea level rise on the economies of countries, and caution that their approach undoubtedly underestimates the future impacts of sea level rise in most cases because of population and economic growth in these areas and because they do not consider the impacts of storm surges.

The Carribbean

Some countries would face severe loss of land, in the case of The Bahamas a 1 metre seal level rise would affect 11% of the land area, and this rises to 60% for a 5 metre sea level rise.  Suriname and Guyana would also be very badly affected as most of their populations live in low-lying areas.

The Middle East

In the Middle East Egypt would be worse affected, a 1 metre rise in sea level would affect 10% of the population, mainly in the Nile Delta, a 5 metre rise affects 20% of the Egyptian population.  About 5% of the population of the UAE and Tunisia would be impacted by a 1 metre rise. About 12% of the UAE population would be affected by a 5 metre rise in sea level and just under 10% of Qatar’s population by the same rise.  In the UAE the paper projects that about 13% of the urban areas will be affected by a 5 metre rise, and nearly 12% in Egypt.

The impact on Egyptian agriculture will be particularly severe, with a 1 metre rise about 12.5% of Egypt’s agricultural production would be affected and this figure rises to 35% with a 5 metre rise in sea level. This would come at a time when Egypt will in any case experience population pressures unless it’s birth rate falls dramatically.

Sub-Saharan Africa

With the exception of The Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Sierra Leone, Sub-Saharan Africa is unlikely to face severe impacts from sea level rise up to 5 metres. Mauritania would experience a significant population impact, even 1 metre of seal level rise will affect about 8% of its population, a 5 metre rise would affect about 21% of the population, a figure that would exceed 22% in The Gambia.

East Asia

In this region Vietnam is the most vulnerable country, a 5 metre rise would affect up to 16% of its land area, mainly in the Mekong and Red River Deltas, most the of land southwest of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) would be severely affected.  Over 10% of the Vietnamese population would be affected by a 1 metre rise and this reaches 35% with a 5 metre rise, the authors note, “The impacts on Vietnam’s GDP and urban extent closely follow the impact on its population.”  The country next affected is Taiwan, where about 5% of the land area will inundated, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia will lose around 4% of their land area, and this will particularly impact the large cities of Bangkok, Jakarta, and the low-lying areas of Shanghai.  The affect on urban areas will exceed 40% in Vietnam with a 5 metre rise, will affect about 17% in Thailand, and about 1% in Indonesia and just over 10% in Taiwan.

South Asia

The paper notes that within South Asia Bangladesh is the most vulnerable to sea level rise, a 5 metre rise affects about 11% of the country’s area. A 5 metre rise would affect over 9% of the population and have a similar effect on Bangladesh’s GDP and agriculture. There was no information given for The Maldives, but that country is unlikely to survive any significant rise in sea level.


The authors note that East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa would experience the largest percentage impacts from sea level rise.  The impact on GDP “is much larger in East Asia than in any other region of the world, reaching 10.2% with a 5m SLR.”

They conclude that, “Among all of the indicators used in this paper, Vietnam ranks among the top 5 most impacted countries, with the A.R. of Egypt, Suriname and The Bahamas consistently ranking amongst the highest.”  As I mentioned there are no figures for The Maldives, which is probably the most impacted country of all.

The paper highlights two important implications of these findings:

  1. the overall magnitudes for the developing world are sobering: Within this century, hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced by SLR; accompanying economic and ecological damage will be severe for many.  The world has not previously faced a crisis on this scale, and planning for adaptation should begin immediately.
  2. international resource allocation strategies should recognize the skewed impact distribution that is documented in this paper – resources should be allocated according to the threat.

The paper ends with the warning that these results are not speculative.  “The current atmospheric concentration of GHG’s [gas house gases] is sufficient to drive global warming well into the next century, and much higher concentrations will undoubtedly be reached before any global agreement can be implemented.  For precautionary planning, SLR in the range of 1m – 3 m should therefore be regarded as realistic.  To date, however, there is little evidence that the international community has seriously considered the implications for population location and infrastructure planning in many developing countries.”

I found this a particularly useful and informative paper.  I think that 5 metres of sea level rise is possible, and given the research published on the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, in the twelve months since the paper was published, we may be looking at the possibility of even higher figures, perhaps even 6 or 7 metres by the end of the century.

I am surprised that the plight of The Maldives was overlooked, and I feel that a future series of research papers could look into the threats to the great coastal megacities of the developing world; Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta, the cities of the Pearl River, Lagos, Calcutta, and so on, and suggest responses.

The thought of relocating these multitudes in such a relatively short time is  almost too difficult to comprehend, but we must face this challenge and face it now, not in twenty year’s time when the sea starts to inundate these coastal areas.  Governments should start to zone the areas to be abandoned and ban new construction in any area less than 5 (or 10?) metres above sea level, infrastructure projects should be relocated now, railways, major highways, airports and plans should be put in place to protect docks and structures such as bridges.

The World Bank could make a start by zoning the low-lying parts of the developing world as areas where it will not invest, except to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise.

The World Bank:
World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4136, February 2007.

About Andrew Palmer (275 Articles)
Book by Andrew Palmer explores today's fundamental & systemic problems of the world. Proposes a framework for understanding the forces that are driving change.

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