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World's First Floating City to Combat Rising Sea Levels

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A "floating city" like this could be built off the coast of French Polynesia. Photo credit: YouTube/seasteading

Sea level rise is an increasing threat to low-lying island nations around the world. Many islands in French Polynesia could lose their coastlines or even disappear due to global warming.

In an effort to adapt to climate change, French Polynesian government officials signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" with San Francisco's Seasteading Institute to jumpstart the development of the world's first self-sufficient floating city.

"Our venture is poised to launch a seasteading industry that will provide environmental resiliency to the millions of people threatened by rising sea levels, provide economic opportunities to people in remote and economically deprived environments, and provide humanity with new opportunities for organizing societies and governments," Seasteading Institute Executive Director Randolph Hencken wrote in a blog post about the agreement signed on Jan. 13.

As described by Ensia, the Seasteading Institute has worked to establish independent city-states in the open ocean since 2008. According to a 2013 survey administered by institute, more than 1,000 people expressed interest in moving to these floating cities.

This vision, however, has its critics, who have described the idea as economically unfeasible "techie island fantasy." Additionally, the project was once attached to controversial Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who threw in around $1.7 million into the concept in 2008, envisioning it as "a sort of libertarian utopia." Thiel, however, is no longer involved.

Even if some consider the idea far-fetched, seasteading has taken a major step in becoming reality. Now that an agreement has been signed, the next step is for the French Polynesian government and the Seasteading Institute to establish a legal structure for these "seazones" to have a "special governing framework" by the end of 2017. Site-specific environmental studies and economic impact studies will also need to be conducted.

Reason.com has posted a copy of the memorandum on its website. "The government of French Polynesia recognizes that the rising waters threaten its lands, its inhabitants and their precious way of life," the document states. "The Government of French Polynesia publicly committed to 'make every effort to preserve the Polynesian natural and cultural heritage to become a global showcase of sustainable development.'"

The memorandum touts that the project "will bring new technologies, new research horizons and new economic activities to French Polynesia."

"The Seasteading Institute's project is an opportunity to develop new living spaces on the sea and offers the possibility of multiplying this type of sustainable habitats in other places," it states. "It opens the capability of gaining new living spaces for countries threatened by rising water levels, overpopulation, or other dangerous phenomena."

While the exact location and construction details were not revealed, the seastead will consist of innovative floating platforms and will utilize renewable energy resources. The video below shows how solar arrays and wave-driven turbines will power the man-made floating city.

If everything goes to plan, construction will start in 2019.

Hencken told Huffington Post that once it's constructed, the floating city can be a major site for oceanographic and climate resilience research and implementation, including experiments with wave and tidal energy, combatting rising ocean heat and acidification, as well as developing new ways to trap atmospheric carbon on the sea floor.

"The possibilities are endless," Hencken said.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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