Daniela Paredes Grijalva
Photo credit: Daniela Paredes Grijalva, 2022
Concerns around climate change impacts are increasingly coming to the surface with heat waves and flood events on the rise. The place we call home, Earth, is being transformed, in some cases in irreversible ways. Ecological and social systems are put to test; some readjusting, others collapsing. In the midst of it all, we - individuals and societies - are undertaking efforts to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change, and increasingly have to adapt to climate stresses that the world has not been able to avoid by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Sometimes it is too late, and we are confronted with losses and damages to the places we call home. Loss and damage may threaten the enjoyment of human rights like access to clean water, health, or adequate housing. Against this backdrop it becomes imperative to explore how we understand home and the ability to live there in the context of environmental change.
What does habitability mean from a people-centered perspective? Is there a point at which people decide a place is no longer habitable? What will happen to places deemed uninhabitable? Will they only be abandoned temporarily, or will people be unable to return? These are just some of the key questions that emerged from spending time with different actors including residents, migrants, community organizers, indigenous peoples, government officials, development and disaster practitioners, during fieldwork in Indonesia for my PhD research project. In what follows, I will discuss some of the emerging lessons learnt.
To start with, it is fundamental to understand what the notion of habitability entails for a group of people living in a region of the world where environmental change takes on dramatic dimensions. While some specific areas of the world have already faced drastic worsening environmental, social, economic and political conditions, for people living in relatively stable environments these circumstances may seem far-fetched. But for Indonesia, an archipelago located in the ring of fire and in the tropics, they are all too real. In fact, Indonesia is exposed not only to tectonic risks, but also to sea level rise, floods, tropical cyclones, and extreme heat to mention a few. In the ND-GAIN index, which combines vulnerability to climate change with readiness to improve resilience, the country ranked 100 out 181 countries for 2022. Indonesia is the 4th most populous country worldwide and by 2050 will have over 300 million citizens according to the World Bank. Almost one out of every 5 people live in low elevation coastal zones and would be at risk of losing their homes to sea level rise. As far as this is a simplified correlation and it actually gets more complicated than that, these numbers can surely give a sense of what I am getting at.
The fieldwork in Sulawesi
For my research I went to Sulawesi, one of the over 17,000 islands that comprise the Indonesian archipelago. It is located at the convergence of four tectonic plates and sees its fair share of earthquakes and related phenomena such as tsunamis, land subsidence, and even soil liquefaction as occurred in 2018. The area has seen mining, overfishing and deforestation, affecting 60% of the island’s mangroves and thus constituting some of the main drivers of environmental degradation. Extreme temperature has increased and precipitation patterns, related to El Niño, vary greatly. Combine these environmental stresses with high dependency on natural resources and one of Asia’s fastest growing inequality rates, the result is a very high disaster risk zone. For instance, when coastal areas, already affected by sea level rise, experience land subsidence after earthquakes, the effects are dramatic and include not only infrastructure sinking but also salinization of water sources. To complicate matters, the varied geology of the island includes steep hills and low-lying valleys with their own microclimates. The experiences of inhabitants of this region vary too, as whether a place is livable or not is not only determined by physical variables but equally so by social ones. Building on such premises, in this piece I will explore two narratives of life and habitability through human rights lenses.
The provincial capital of Central Sulawesi Palu sits in such a low-lying valley cornered by hills on both sides and facing a narrow bay. Palu can get really hot. In fact, it is often among the top 3 hottest cities nationwide. In the first week of 2022 it made headlines with the hottest temperature recorded for the year with 36°C. While the number may not be shocking for equatorial locations, it is significant that January has historically been the “coolest” month. When you combine that temperature with 75% average humidity you ultimately get a heat index of 56° which already ranks as dangerous if exposed to for extended periods according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of course, uneven developments across the area with different concentrations of greenery to absorb heat also influence the felt temperature and the possibility to cool down, especially overnight. While I was there, I often heard popular expressions referring to the intensity of the heat such as: “Well, today there are two suns out.” During an even hotter day when warm water comes out of the faucet, people would say things like “Today there are 5 suns out in Palu. Stay home and hydrate well”.
Understanding Habitability: The voices of Zacky and Tina
During my fieldwork in 2022 I met Zacky, a teacher turned community organizer, and his sister Tina, a street seller. I discussed with them what makes them define their place “home”, and how climate-induced risks might shape that perception.
Zacky meets me during the early morning hours, “when it is still fresh”, as he tells me. He has brought fresh orange juice to stay healthy. “You know, during the pandemic we realized the best we could do was to take care of our health and prevent getting sick. - he says with a smile and a tilt of the head that implies other options were not available. He was not born in Palu, but in a city 30km away, also on the seaside, with considerable patches of mangroves. He moved to Palu for education purposes and has not left since. I ask him where his home is and the answer is anything but simple. While his main residence is Palu, he is often on the move to spend time with his family and friends, or to work on projects. He lives a translocal life, nothing out of the ordinary for this region. His contacts extend well beyond the island across international borders.
We speak about the earthquake and disaster of 2018, about the stone mining, deforestation, and how all that deeply affected the environment in his surroundings. “Things have changed a lot," he tells me. The 7.5 Richter Scale earthquake resulted in areas experiencing a downlift while others experienced an uplift. Some coastal areas that were already exposed to rising sea levels and erosion are now already underwater after the downlift. Concrete foundations of homes washed at the ocean shore are scenes of today. The areas that experienced downlift serve as real world labs to what coastal erosion combined with sea level rise may look like in the future. “It’s like fast-forwarding climate change”, Zacky says.
Some of the people that lost their homes back then moved searching for refuge with relatives, or friends, eventually ending up in temporary shelters. Some have now relocated to new homes built by the government. “Not everyone is so lucky”, Zacky tells me. Yet others are unwilling to leave the temporary shelter and move to the resettlement locations, as they still own land close to the beach; while they may not be able to rebuild their homes exactly where they were before, for them it is still worth sticking around for a while. As a matter of fact, living close to the seaside also means that it is easier to maintain livelihoods depending on fishing, whether at sea or casting nets from the shore.
As Zacky explains this to me, my analytical brain tries to compute all these factors. They are many and complicated. The land where the houses were originally built seems stable to the naked eye, but it is also right at the seaside exposed to sea level rise, right where tsunami waves hit in 2018 and they may very well hit again given the tectonic composition of this part of the world. In the meantime, coastal erosion and sea level rise remain real threats for the mid and long term. The government has declared these areas “red zones”, which means that no buildings and no overnight stays are no longer allowed. “But this is the land title my sister owns”, Zacky explains. “Should she give it up and let others define how much risk she should take?” In fact, she would rather stay living in the crammed temporary shelter with her family as she has done for the past 4 years.
When Tina, his sister, thinks about their old home and the way they live now, she can only shake her head. They had a house and land. Now they live in the official temporary shelters built by the local government: barrack style housing in an open field with few shade-giving trees. Access to water and transportation is limited. A thin plywood sheet separates their home from that of the neighbor’s. There is not much privacy, and the zinc roofs make the already hot and humid weather even more unbearable. Tina and her family are entitled to the human right to adequate housing, but in this situation there are many boxes left unticked.
“We had to leave our home because a disaster destroyed it. We cannot move back because it is classified as dangerous. But here we also face dangers. When it rains much in the hills, it floods here. Now, we live in something that you cannot really call a home”.
The temporary mosque, the largest roofed space in the compound, shifts from religious to educational, to social space, depending on the occasion. “What else to do but accept the circumstances and adapt?” She tells me. In the future she hopes she can build a new home either exactly where her old one was or perhaps a bit more inland. She is aware of the risks of living with an encroaching ocean as her neighbor. She is also aware of the advantages. Again, she tells me, “nearby is where her land titles are”. What would happen if she agreed to relocate elsewhere? Her experience so far has taught her to be wary of promises made by strangers. Not only that, but relocation schemes of the past have shown her that the process to obtain land titles can be arduous and frustrating. She is the head of the household, but many formal public systems do not recognize her as such, de facto excluding her from services and programs. No, going through that would mean risking even more. Her family will stay put. I met them several days later inland in the city. They go there sometimes. Tina sells snacks she makes in one of the shared kitchens in the temporary shelter compound and her daughter is meeting up with local artists to show them her sketches of what it feels like to live in protracted displacement. Her drawings include memories of the tsunami, but also of the intense heat and flash floods tumbling from deforested hills.
Zacky has no land titles, he rents. “We drink up our orange juice. The heat of the day is crawling in. Palu is getting hotter and hotter”, he tells me. “The heat affects our health. And all the stone mining at the beach front, all that fine dust, that goes into our lungs and affects us too! I think I may have to leave Palu at one point when it gets too hot and the air is too dirty.”
What ultimately makes a place uninhabitable? Uninhabitable for whom? And who gets to decide what that means? What I gather from some of these conversations is that habitability is envisioned differently by different people in different circumstances, that people’s perceptions do not always align with risk assessments that only define habitability from a physical standpoint, and that these perceptions may even change over time. Zacky is committed to his students and his region, he would not want to leave home, but environmental changes he experiences daily in his surroundings seriously affect his health, thus constituting a concrete reason to consider leaving. For Tina and her family the living conditions at the temporary shelter are terrible: the heat is unbearable, they are “safe” from tsunami risk but exposed to flooding, the room is small and there is no privacy. Yet, their situation is now not as terrible as the idea of losing the only land they own.
The right to property and adequate housing, trust in institutions, high temperatures, clean air, environmental degradation, and freedom of choice are all elements that intersect in these stories. Consequently, when assessing habitability in the context of environmental change, it is vital to take a human-centered approach that may better reflect the diverse and multiple needs of concerned individuals and populations, and ensure their voices are being heard and listened to.
About the author: Daniela Paredes Grijalva is a visiting scientist at the EMIC division of the United Nations University Institute for the Environment and Human Security. She is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Vienna. In her research, Daniela combines a people centered approach and fieldwork to better understand the interactions between mobilities and environmental change.