A Public Health Policy Approach To Rising Sea Levels

by Sarah Whitney

Robin Kundis Craig (2010) concludes that it is absurd to expect governments to put policies in place now that predict and manage the long-term effects of rising sea levels. Craig argues that governments can prevent the extent of damages caused by rising sea levels by implementing a policy focusing directly on public health. She notes that scientists are still unsure exactly how high the seas will rise. Their predictions, she states, are uncertain as they are based upon scientific assumptions and factors like the effect of current and future mitigation methods, (the methods combating greenhouse gas emission). Craig also states that it is unreasonable to define adaptive measures to govern climate change almost three centuries from now as new information will inevitably arise. One can reasonably assume however, that humans will still retain the same basic desires such as health and comfortable living conditions in the distant future. This assumption can be used to form a preventative policy that benefits society without the need to fully comprehend all the uncertainties of rising sea levels. A public health approach aimed at the needs and concerns of humans is an adaptable policy that can remain stable as the discoveries and effects of climate change arise.

In general, rising sea levels are caused by an increase in global temperatures. This increase melts polar ice caps and glaciers, which in turn causes an influx of freshwater into oceans and adds to the total body of water. While rising sea levels may not be consistent around the world, in general seas are increasing at an accelerating rate. Rising sea levels cause the erosion of shorelines, mass flooding, and an increase of salinity in water quality. These effects destroy coastal habitats, contaminate drinking water, and increase the force and damages caused by coastal storms.

One of the main public health concerns of rising sea levels is saltwater intrusion upon drinking water. Instead of focusing on the effects of increased salinity on estuaries and biodiversity, governments can focus on the humanities as a more stable approach that will additionally benefit the environment. Coastal communities depend largely upon local freshwater from aquifers, lakes and rivers for drinking water, which will all be affected by climate change. Current management deals with saltwater intrusion by storing freshwater in reservoirs and releasing it during droughts. This method is likely to become impractical in the future where there are decreases in the supply of freshwater. The government needs to begin to prepare for these effects by implementing methods for water conservation, identify and construct proper water supply infrastructure, and identify alternate sources of water.

An increase in sea level in tandem with increasing global temperatures threatens the public health of humans by the immergence and spread of diseases. Mosquito born diseases, like dengue fever and malaria, are projected to become rampant as shallow water transforms into greater, stagnant, warm bodies of water, aka the ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. Water born diseases like Cholera and Vibrio vulnificus are projected to be exposed to a new and extensive population through the rise of sea levels. As these communities are currently unequipped to deal with such epidemics, a policy to promote doctoral training of such diseases will allow coastal communities to implement control measures if problems arise.

Finally, due to the impacts of rising sea levels on the landscape of coastlines it is imperative that governments create policies addressing the control of damages caused by an increase in the force of coastal storms. Rising sea levels causes erosion, eliminating protective barriers for infrastructure and coastal communities, and also increase vulnerability to flooding. As seen in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, floods transport toxins from local industries causing air quality and soil contamination issues directly affecting human health. Requiring industries to have waterproof storage facilities for toxins, and focusing on the cleanup of coastal Superfund sites can reduce the health effects of strong coastal storms.

By focusing on public health through water quality, disease prevention, and limiting health concerns of natural disasters, governments should be able to control the harmful effects of rising-sea levels without full knowledge of their effects. While politicians debate or ignore the issue of climate change, governments can implement these precautions to protect the public from the more predictable effects of rising sea levels.


Craig, R. 2010. A Public Health Perspective On Sea-Level Rise: Starting Points For Climate Change Adaptation. Widener Law Review. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=71684447-c3dc-4c10-958c-652fb2e79814%40sessionmgr4001&vid=10&hid=4212

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