Rising Tide is a harrowing documentary account of climate change

Water Water Everywhere

Rising Tide is a harrowing documentary account of climate change

A mother and her daughter at Bainpara,Bangladesh, their former village. Some houses remain but most were swallowed by cyclone Alia. After cyclone Aila hit Bangladesh in May 2009, 60,000 people are still displaced in the Dakop district. This is almost the total population of Dakop. The cyclone hit the area with a surge of 33 feet and the water since then has hardly receded; due to this people lost their land and therefor their means of living. Bangladesh has a total of 6.5 million displaced residents due to flooding and rising sea levels. (Kadir van Lohuizen [Bainpara, Bangladesh] 2011 © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR)

Extreme weather events are occurring with ever greater frequency across the globe: wildfires rage uncontrolled across swaths of cherished habitats, and heavy rains, often coupled with cyclone-strength winds, are uprooting areas of human settlement and leaving near-total destruction in their wake. The climate is changing and perhaps the greatest (or most visible) manifestation of our warming world are rising sea levels that threaten to inundate coastlines and, in certain circumstances, render entire countries inhabitable. Rising Tide: Visualizing the Human Costs of Climate Change, currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York, is a traveling exhibition of Dutch photographer Kadir van Lohuizen’s exhaustive work documenting the damage wrought, and yet to come.

The project began in 2011 during a separate transmedia study of migration from Central America northward to the United States. Travel through the region revealed rising sea levels and temperatures as a primary culprit for the decline of agricultural productivity, and, in turn, growing political instability and poverty—factors driving out-migration. For Van Lohuizen, such circumstances begged the question that if the climate crisis is occurring in real-time in this corner of the world, then it must also be doing so elsewhere. To that effect, Rising Tide documents the dramatic consequences of climate change in Greenland, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Fiji, Amsterdam, Panama, Miami, and neighborhoods across New York City.

Image of rising waters through drainage system in Miami as a man crouches in drain
King tide at Miami beach, the water in the street comes over the poorly maintained seawall at Indian Creek and up through the drainage system. Workers are checking if the drainage system is not blocked. (Kadir van Lohuizen [Miami, Florida] 2014 © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR)
The documentary footage on display is striking. Photography, video, and drone images, and good old-fashioned journalism present a panopticon of the lived impact of rising sea levels and governmental ineptitude in addressing the crisis. In the Pacific, we see the island nations of Kiribati and Fiji engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to hold the creeping ocean at bay with sandbags and raised homes. In Bangladesh and Indonesia, two of the most densely populated countries in the world, Van Lohuizen captures in haunting detail the devastation of low-lying villages and agricultural land through the processes of erosion and soil salination, and the subsequent migration (or flight) to similarly threatened urban centers.

The impact of rising sea levels and climate change is disproportionately falling on less-developed nations that have played a minor role, if any, in the degradation of the environment. That crime largely lies with the Global North and is perhaps why Van Lohuizen’s depiction of inaction in such regions is all the more exasperating. For example, Miami is built atop a foundation of porous limestone that even the mightiest of seawalls are incapable of protecting in the long run—it is expected that Miami Beach and the bay area will have to be evacuated by 2060—yet the carbon-laden building boom continues unabated. For New York, where the exhibition is currently located, Van Lohuizen highlights governmental failure to translate the near-catastrophic experience of Hurricane Sandy into a comprehensive flood control and mitigation strategy.

Image of sandbag flood control in Kiribati
Children play on a beach where sandbags have been placed to hold back the ocean at Temwaiku, a vulnerable village on South Tarawa in Kiribati. In February, waves washed away this bulwark and rolled inland, leaving behind flooded homes, salty soil, and tainted wells. (Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR for New York Times Climate change/sea-level rise in Kiribati)

Van Lohuizen deployed several strategies to effectively highlight what the future holds for coastal areas. Most of the footage was captured at high tide to more accurately capture what a six-foot increase in sea levels will resemble only decades in the future. Aerial photography and video are deployed to further that point, a technique achieved first through the use of kites and, later, drones.

“Rivers and oceans will find their own way through the land,” noted Van Lohuizen. “The question is whether what we hope to save is affordable and worth the cost.”

Rising Tide: Visualizing the Human Costs of Climate Change
The Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue
Through January 2, 2022