Ten years ago I produced and presented a documentary series on the River Thames, coupling the river’s rich history with its 21st century self, couched in an ad hoc journey from sea to source. It was a fascinating and compelling three weeks of filming which began in the Thames estuary, once the centre of world trade.
It was striking then how relatively quiet the tidal waters of the Thames were, compared to the oft-recounted glory days of the London docks when all manner of cargo passed through. Rubber, tobacco, ivory, ostrich feathers, rags for the paper industry, sugar cane for processing at the Tate and Lyle factory, an extraordinary panoply of goods were continually being delivered to miles and miles of wharves and docklands. In the 18th century it was said you could cross the river simply by stepping from ship to ship, such was the congestion of shipping.
It is a different story today but the Thames estuary still plays its part. The Port of London handles a huge quantity of cargo every year - 50 million tonnes of containers, cars, food, fuel and more besides. It's the busiest waterway in Britain. And whether it’s the Thames or the Nile Delta, the Seine or the St Lawrence, estuaries still provide crucial economic hubs around the world. Sixty percent of the world’s population live along estuaries and coastal areas. Of the 32 largest cities in the world, 22 are located on estuaries. Indeed 90% of Europe’s international trade passes through, you guessed it, estuaries and their adjacent ports.
But along this current of goods and income also flows a growing challenge. How to strike a balance between economic development and environmental stewardship? Estuaries are the nurseries of the sea, providing vital nesting, breeding and feeding habitats for land and marine life. As the effects of our changing climate kick in, for some this will mean a threefold assault in the years ahead: floodwaters from inland, storm surges from the ocean and increased precipitation from above, all framed in rising sea levels. You should never attribute climate change as the cause of a single weather event like Hurricane Sandy or Cyclone Nargis (though many do), but the devastation they caused may have given us an expensive glimpse of the future.
So, how to protect the world’s most environmentally and economically important areas? Not surprisingly it is the Dutch who are ahead of the game. One solution is to harness natural features such as sand bars, oyster beds and reed marshes.
“Ten years ago the trend towards eco-engineering faltered,” said landscape ecologist Victor Beumer, with the Dutch delta and advisory body Deltares. “But now the combination of climate change and the need for cost effective solutions has resulted in more interest than ever before.”
Beumer was speaking at the Global Estuaries Forum in Deauville, France. He told James Murray of Business Green (www.businessgreen.com): “Now most countries are developing at hybrid solutions. You have the original dyke or hard structure and know that in 20 years it won’t be able to cope with rising sea levels and higher waves. A hybrid approach with natural solutions in front of the civil engineering reduces the need to heighten the dyke.”
Of course Netherlands’ techniques of holding back the sea will differ to those of say, Shanghai. But around the world centres of commerce are looking very hard at the implications of climate change and we’ll hear more and more in the coming years about monumental efforts taken to counter its impacts. Although predictably it will be controversial.
I hosted a panel featuring Ann Swanson who’s been the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission for 26 years. Her catchment contains a mere 17 million people. Also speaking was Betty Sutton, administrator of St Lawrence Seaway Corporation which crosses the US and Canadian border 27 times. Imagine the issues of governance in both those regions, how many different interests want a piece of the action, the challenges of the decision making process in balancing the economic needs with those of the environment.
“We’re using the words of sustainable development but not yet implementing them,” said Julia Marton-Lefevre, the director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
In other words we’re talking the talk but not yet walking the sustainable walk. But commerce might yet lead the way.