Two years ago, Nicola Bayless was taking her evening stroll in Happisburgh, a tiny village on the east coast of England, when much of the cliff fell down.
“It sounded like thunder. Like the click of your fingers and it’s gone. You didn’t stand a chance if you stood underneath, ”she remembers as she sat on the front stairs of her house overlooking the sea.
Known as the English city hardest hit by coastal erosion, Happisburgh is known to lose around 97 meters of its coastal land over the next 20 years.
Bayless, 44, works as a nurse and lives in the hut she inherited from her parents, the Beacon House, one of the few that are left of the village cliff. Every time a piece falls, your entire home shakes.
“Sometimes it happens very late at night and I worry that it might be an earthquake or that someone might enter the house,” she says.
The resident Nicola Bayless in front of her cottage, the Beacon House in Happisburgh [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]It is one of 8,900 properties in England that are in danger of disappearing before the end of the century as the banks quickly erode and the land collapses into the sea. If no action is taken, those numbers could reach 100,000 by 2080, a report by the Climate Change Committee found.
Bayless’ teenage daughters are often reminded that they cannot keep “too much clutter” because one day they will move out. “It’s going to happen pretty soon in the next 20 to 25 years,” she explains. “You can’t stop the sea no matter how hard you try.”
An aerial photo taken during a Coastal Concern Action Group demonstration in Happisburgh calling for proper coastal management [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]Coastal erosion is a natural process, especially along the English soft coast. However, experts blame global warming for accelerating the phenomenon.
Sea levels in the UK have risen 15 cm since 1900 and globally they could rise 1.12 meters by 2100 if emissions targets are not met.
“Unlike flooding, erosion is permanent change that is difficult to deal with,” said Dr. Charlie Thompson, manager of the Southeast Regional Coastal Monitoring Program at the Channel Coastal Observatory.
“Trying to protect yourself from these processes will be technically and economically very difficult,” warned Thompson. Based on recent surveys, she believes that a more adaptive approach is the ultimate solution.
The UK government’s coastal management strategy has changed this year from investing in maritime defenses to relocating vulnerable communities. However, no clear guidance has yet been given on how or when these communities will be relocated. Many people who lose their homes may not get compensation.
In the past 20 years, Happisburgh has lost 35 of its 600 homes to coastal erosion [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]
Fairbourne, the “disused” town
England has one of the fastest rates of erosion in Europe, but the problem is critical across the UK. Fairbourne, a town of 1,000 people between the Welsh mountains and the sea, made national and international headlines about its fate.
A 2013 decision by the local council stipulated that residents would have to be relocated by 2054 as protecting the area from flooding and erosion became increasingly difficult. It will be the first city in the UK to be “shut down” due to climate change.
It was a shock to the community. “If you take this house away from me and don’t give me any compensation, I’ll have to rent in my senior years and that makes it an absolute nightmare,” said resident Mike Thrussell.
The historic Fairbourne Railway train, a tourist attraction for visitors, crosses the village [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]Thrussell, a 65-year-old Welsh fishing journalist, has lived in his Fairbourne home for more than half his life. Thanks to his work, he built a “real affinity with the region” that enables him to spend most of his time on the coast.
Since he found out about the move, his priorities have changed dramatically. He and his partner don’t dare to renovate their kitchen or go on vacation because they fear they will need the money. “You can’t make the basic decisions that normal people make,” said Thrussell.
But many other communities will suffer the same fate. In the UK alone, almost 20 percent of the coast is prone to sea level rise.
“Someone has to think very quickly and deeply about some solutions,” said Thrussell. “You can’t just throw people into a tent in a field.”
Mike Thrussell and Angela Thomas may lose their Fairbourne home and receive no compensation [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]
Britain’s first “climate refugees”
Over the past seven years, Fairbourne property prices have fallen and visitors stop by for the thrill of “disaster tourism”.
The residents received a lot of media attention and were described as “Britain’s first climate refugees”. Many in the community reject the label. “I don’t like that term, I hate it,” said Thrussell, shaking his head. “The problem is, it’s very accurate.”
Fairbourne has one of the longest WWII coastal defenses in Britain [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]Dr. Simon Behrman, a lecturer in asylum law at Royal Holloway University in London, agreed. “The word ‘refugee’ captures the concept of danger. People are being forced to move because their lives are seriously threatened, ”he said.
However, being a refugee is often associated with stigma, especially in developed countries. “It’s a question of political sentiment and narrative,” commented Dr. Avidan Kent, who teaches international law at the University of East Anglia.
However, looking at climate change in Europe “raises awareness that other communities elsewhere are facing similar problems but lack the resources we have here,” said Kent.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risk Report, around 90 percent of the world’s coastal areas will be affected by rising seas. At least 570 cities and 800 million people will be at risk by 2050.
Fairbournes pebble beach; Due to coastal erosion and increased flooding, the Welsh city will be closed until 2054 [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]
Back in 2013, a group of residents founded Fairbourne Moving Forward, a multi-agency project that raises funds to tackle the village’s problems for decades to come.
“Because the subject is pretty scary, the council thought we would just lie down and accept the situation,” said Angela Thomas, Thrussell’s partner. “But it’s not good to bury your head in the sand.”
The villagers of Happisburgh share the same attitude. “We had various public meetings with the entire community. People were extremely excited about the erosion, ”explained Malcolm Kerby.
Eighty-year-old Kerby moved to Happisburgh in 1999 and has lived there since then with his partner, a horse named George and a blind black cat. He is known in the city for founding and coordinating the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG), a civilly organized movement that fights for the renewal of the region’s failed naval defense.
Eighty year old Malcolm Kerby with his horse George [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]During his long tenure at CCAG, Kerby has advocated appropriate coastal management and social justice. In 2009, the group implemented the Coastal Change Pathfinder, a $ 3.9 million project to help the community adapt to the effects of coastal erosion. “It’s not exactly what we wanted full compensation, but it has been a great help to the people,” said Kerby.
The Pathfinder acquired and relocated some vulnerable properties, improved the cliffs, and made contributions to local businesses. The surrounding communities showed interest in the project and it quickly gained national recognition. “What we did was pretty remarkable,” Kerby reflected proudly.
Happisburgh’s eroded cliff and the rock armor it was supposed to defend [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]Nicola Bayless is just as proud of Happisburgh’s community. “Here we all come together and take care of each other in difficult times. You can’t sit and think, “Oh, my house is going to fall into the sea”. It won’t help anyone to be unhappy about it. “
Your plan is to continue living in the hut on the cliff as long as the sea allows.
“People always show it as doom and darkness, but there are many good things down here. I am just happy to live here. “
The historic lighthouse of Happisburgh is the symbol of the village [Gaia Lamperti/Al Jazeera]