Page last updated at 21:30 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Rising sea levels: A tale of two cities

By Kate McGeown in Maputo and Michael Hirst in Rotterdam

One of Vasco Mula's dams
Vasco Mula knows that his dams are just a temporary solution

Vasco Mula is the leader of a Mozambican community that farms a large area of land where the Limpopo river meets the sea.

The soil has always been good farming land - able to grow rice, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions and many other staple crops.

But every year, more and more salt water from the sea is getting into the irrigation channels, affecting the harvest.

"We mainly grow rice here, and rice needs a lot of water - water that's not salty," Mr Mula said.

His solution is to build little dams across the irrigation channels - rudimentary structures made from mud, twigs and bits of sheet metal - to keep the fresh water and sea water apart.

The community has asked for more permanent help from the government and foreign aid organisations - but right now they know they can only rely on themselves.

Mozambique map

The situation is very different in affluent Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, people seem confident the government will help them withstand the effects of climate change.

"I trust the government because the Dutch are the world number one at dealing with water," said Rotterdam restaurant owner Metin Kekeg.

Shop worker Jenn Tshau added: "In some areas I doubt the safety, but here in Rotterdam I feel safe."

Since the deadly Dutch storm surge of 1953, the risk of flooding has been considered a national issue.

Citizens do not even need to insure their homes against flooding, as the government is seen as ultimately responsible for their protection.

Water management expert Piet Dircke estimates the country's new flood defence system will cost about 1bn euros a year for the next century - but this is still a tiny percentage of Dutch gross domestic product.

Lesson from the floods

It is not that the government in Mozambique is doing nothing. With limited resources, it is slowly starting programmes to adapt to climate change , and if communities push hard enough, they can sometimes get additional government money for their own projects.

Maniquenique school
Hundreds of people can crowd onto the roof of the Maniquenique school

A good example of what can be achieved if a community works together is the elevated school in the village of Maniquenique, further up the Limpopo river from Vasco Mula's farmland.

After the devastating floods that killed more than 700 Mozambicans in 2000, the inhabitants of Maniquenique decided to ensure they never went through such trauma again.

With money and help from the local government and UN Habitat, they constructed a building on concrete "stilts", which doubles as a school during the dry season and a place of refuge in the event of another flood. Even the roof was designed to hold hundreds of people.

"Everyone in the community came to help build it," said teacher and local community leader Luisa Paulo Langer, "not just the people living near the school - everyone."

Versions of this simple design could be used up and down the coast, and in other delta areas, as the effects of climate change start to increase the risk of flooding.

Another way people can adapt to the changing environment is to alter the selection of crops they grow.

Dam in Rotterdam
Dams in the Netherlands are some of the most sophisticated in the world

About 70% of Mozambique's population live in rural areas, the vast majority of whom farm the land for a living and are dependent on certain climatic conditions.

Some are already finding they need to grow different crops. Mr Mula, for example, can no longer farm garlic and sweet potatoes in certain fields because of the salt.

And it is not just rising sea levels that are causing this change. People in southern Mozambique may well suffer increased drought, and some communities are already switching from growing maize to sorghum, which consumes substantially less water.

"This is not just about what people grow - this will have a profound affect on the culture of the area too," said Professor Antonio Queface, one of the authors of a national report on the impact of climate change.

Forewarned is forearmed

If people are going to adapt to climate change successfully, they need to know what they are up against.

"Education is completely key, and there's no doubt communities that know what will happen can prepare much better than those that don't," said Professor Rui Brito, an environmental expert at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.

Most people in the West have at least a basic knowledge of the impact of global warming.

In Mozambique, things are rather different. "Vast numbers of people don't know what you're even talking about," said Antonio Reina, the director of Livaningo a local environmental organisation.

"I actually don't know why the sea is rising. I only know that it is, and the problem seems to be getting worse," said Selva, a 23-year-old man on the beach in Maputo.

In many cases - even if people are vaguely aware that something is happening - they are simply too poor to do anything about climate change, or even see the issue as a priority.

After all, why worry about something that might happen in a year, or even 10 or 20 years', time when you do not have adequate food and shelter for your family right now?

In the words of Professor Brito: "The main fight now is still poverty, not climate change."

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