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October 2013: Belize to Babbacombe - from one extreme to another

Over the summer I led a group of 30 third year geography students on a fieldtrip to Belize – the only English speaking country in Central America with a population of around 350,000 in an area the size of Wales.  Despite enjoying a stunning natural environment (forests and coral barrier reef) and rich cultural heritage (Mayan, Creole, Mestizo and Garifuna) Belize faces significant challenges arising from climate change.  With a low lying coast and periodic hurricanes the population and economy of Belize City is vulnerable to flooding with some of the poorer areas lying below sea level.  Following Hurricane Hattie in 1961, which killed100’s and damaged or destroyed 80% of the city’s buildings, the British colonial and fledging self-government took the decision to build a new capital some 50 miles inland.  After diplomatic wrangling and a series of bureaucratic delays the government eventually transferred its operations to the newly planned ‘garden city’ of Belmopan in 1970.  

Today, despite clear risks to life and livelihoods, 70,000 people live in Belize City while the population of Belmopan has only reached 15,000 largely as the result of an influx of refugees and migrants wanting to escape from civil war and unrest in Central America.  It seems protection from natural hazards is not enough to dissuade people living at risk of coastal flooding – event which are going to become more common as a result of global warming.  However plans are afoot to direct continuing urban growth to less vulnerable locations.

This brings me to Babbacombe which I visited last weekend to be confronted by the sight of the remains of a house tottering precariously above a major cliff fall caused by last autumn’s intense rainfall event. It seems that living on the coast holds inherent risks.  That maybe fine if it means abandoning farmland to the sea but it’s a different matter when it comes to prime real estate in cities like London or Shanghai which will require heavy investment to raise their flood defences.  

It is clear that how we plan and manage human settlement on the coast is going to become an increasingly pressing issue globally and one where Plymouth University is uniquely placed to assist, particularly given our recent success in becoming the UK’s newest fully accredited Planning School offering specialist modules in marine and coastal planning and regeneration. Sign up now!

Chris Balch, Professor of Planning at Plymouth University and Chair of the ISSR Management Team

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