'Building with Nature' Coastal Protection

'Building with Nature' Coastal Protection

The rising sea level and loss of mangrove forests are endangering the Weg naar Zee resort of the district Wanica, Suriname. This resort is well-known as the “vegetable-garden” of Paramaribo, the capitol of Suriname.

Due to frequent inundation, resulting from dam breach and/or overtopping of the dam during high water, the productivity of the farmers in this resort is decreasing. In addition, a community of fishermen is found here, whose conditions are worsening due to the strong on-going coastal erosion. There are also two important religious and cultural sites in this area: the pilgrimage of the Hindus and a traditional crematory.

The upwelling due to the storm surges and heightened spring tide cause increasingly high damage. This is especially true for locations where mangroves have been removed. The waves approach the shoreline with minimum loss of energy and hit hard on the shoreline. Since the coast is comprised of fine sediments originated from the Amazon catchment area, a relatively weak disturbance in the hydrology (and the hydraulic of sea water) may affect the unprotected soil at the shoreline. 

If sustainable measures remain lacking, these adverse developments will encroach further to other areas such as the north of Paramaribo. Untill the 'Building with Nature' project started no other mitigation measures have been taken in this area, only protection measures. Prior to 2013, earthen dams were constructed to protect the land from inundation, however these measures proved to be ineffective. In 2013, decisions were made to initiate concrete constructions. However, these constructions have been ineffective under the present climatic and geological conditions.

The Building with Nature Project: objectives
The main objective of this project is to prove the application opportunities of a soft technique to mitigate coastal erosion (drastically) through application of wave breaking and sediment trapping, thereby promoting the rehabilitation of the mangrove ecosystem. The hypothesis is that protection of the coast can only be obtained if there is a balance between deposition and erosion.

The above mentioned approach is based on the continue flow of sediments along the coastline in the west ward direction. Huge amounts of Amazon river sediment is passing by. Making use of this opportunity may approve to be a sustainable solution for coastal protection and coastal management in the future. This approach will further enhance the mitigation process through formation of additional new lands where mangrove will grow, an ecosystem which provides breeding and feeding place for a number of species, including the migrating birds from the north. 

Proposed Solution: Building with Nature
A narrow wooden dam, will be implanted in the shallow waters adjacent to the coastline of Weg naar Zee. This soft structure is called a sediment trapping unit (STU). This STU will mimic the root system of the mangrove in such a way that promotes deposition of the sediments. During the flood when the turbulent seawater, laden with sediment, penetrates into this sediment trapping construction, it becomes less turbulent or even tranquil, in the same way when the sea water penetrates mangroves; this promotes the depositions of the sediments.

The water flow out of the “sediment trapping system” is relatively weak and clean. The coast of Suriname experiences a diurnal tide, indicating that twice a day the flood and ebb tide occurs, bringing a huge amount of suspended sediments to the coastline. When this STU is established, degradation of the immediate coastline and the coastal zone is expected to reduce drastically, thereby creating new hydraulic conditions for mangrove juveniles to grow. With the recovery of mangroves, many species will return to this area and the ecosystem services may once again contribute to the livelihood of the community. In addition, the shoreline will get naturally adapted as the sea level will keep rising. Disaster risks due to climate change will be lower.

The deposition of sediment and return of mangroves will be monitored by the Department of Infrastructure of the Faculty of Technological Sciences of the Anton de Kom University of Suriname (AdeKUS), resulting in a new set of data. During the development of the STU’s open access data, products, tools and approaches will be used.

The largest part (3000 or more people) of the local community will benefit from this protection, including local farmers, bee keepers, and individuals associated with the Pilgrimage and the cremation sites. In a later stadium, the community will be trained in restoration techniques of the STU’s.

Conservation International aims to reduce the vulnerability of local communities by assessing the potential for Eco system based adaptation solutions for disaster reduction. We have done EbA pilots in the Philippines, South Africa and Brazil and are now implementing the developed EbA solutions for disaster reduction in other countries, like Suriname.

Local donors believe in the project
For this project Conservation International Suriname will partner with AdeKUS: The Anton de Kom University of Suriname. This institute is an authoritative and respected institute in Suriname and the region that stands for high qualified scientific education, research and services to sustainable social development. 

We will work together with the chair “Climate Change and Water” of Professor Siewnath Naipal, resorting under the department of Infrastructure of the Faculty of Technological Sciences (FTeW). The associated partner has the following research lines:
-  climate change and water resources;
-  climate change and adaptation.

The Friends of Green Suriname program have sponsored the construction of the first wooden dam in the pilot phase. After its proven success, the Dutch Embassy and the Staatsolie Foundation for Community Development sponsored the construction of an additional five wooden dams at Weg naar Zee.

The kick-off for the construction of these five wooden dams was given on May 17th. The Minister of Public Works was present and said he is keeping an eye on the project and its results. He gave a compliment to Professor Naipal for his work to protect the coast in this vulnerable area and said he is available for support during the remainder of the project.In a small ceremony the donors placed the first six poles of walaba wood at the mangrove information board.

Our projects

From our blog

  • Today was the day we could finally start laying the foundation of the Sediment Trapping Unit at Weg naar Zee.

    It was early for a Saturdaymorning. At 7 am we gathered. Students of Anton de Kom University. Professor Naipal, about 6 CI staff members and volunteers and quite a lot of press were present at the spot. Getting the wood to where it was needed was harder than we thought. Our feet sank into the mud with every step and eventually I lost my boots. We managed to get quite a bit of work done though, so by 10 am we had managed to build a construction that looked pretty much like a dam. Meanwhile there was a drone flying over our heads filming what we were doing. And a Starnieuws reporter stood right beside us to monitor the process. Because of the tide coming in we have only a certain time slot every day allowing us to carry on building. Through this blog we will keep you updated on our progress. It'll take about a week to build the first unit. If this pilot project proves to be successful, more STU’s will be build. The deposition of sediment and return of mangroves will be monitored by the Department of Infrastructure of the Faculty of Technological Sciences of the Anton de Kom University of Suriname.
  • After a full weeks work the AdeKUS team managed to create the sedimentation basin. On Wednesday we will create the actual structure that will mimic the root structure of the mangroves. This process will take about two weeks. After that the construction activities will be completed. Next time we will give you an update on the monitoring process. If you would like to check it out yourselves, I suggest you keep an eye on the tide that comes in twice a day. For the next few days you will probably be okay if you go down there around 12 am.
  • Mud Baths and Climate Change

    by Whitney Hansen, Student at Harvard University, Massachusetts, U.S.A. and volunteer at CI-Suriname.

    Let’s begin with the bad news.

    Unlike other places in the world, climate change is an incredibly real and palpable threat to relatively flat, coastal countries such as Suriname. The fossil fuel emissions changing the dynamics of our atmosphere from the past twenty years or so are already affecting the coast of Suriname in particular, meaning the emissions during this twenty year period, which have only increased exponentially since the last period, will have much more devastating effects on the country as a whole than what we’ve seen. Rising sea levels, changes in precipitation rate, an increase in wind speeds coming off the ocean, more storms and hurricanes, and unpredictable flooding could force more than half of the population of Paramaribo, the city of Suriname which holds 240,000 of its 540,000 people, out of its current residential space, and do a lot more irreversible damage that I can talk about later.

    Now let’s take a second so I can give a disclaimer.

    As the title might suggest, this intern-written piece is not entirely doom and gloom, so please feel comfortable to continue reading without fear of feelings of hopelessness or outright devastation. The point of this piece, unlike so many other blog entries written by young, burgeoning scientists attending liberal colleges in the United States, is not to burden the reader with the gravity of “the situation”. This quirkily titled blog entry, with an inherently presented dichotomy between spa treatments and the singularly largest threat our race has ever faced, is attempting to both educate readers about what’s “all the rage” in combatting climate change in countries like Suriname, and also provide a touch of comedic relief. So, dear reader, please enlighten yourself and lighten your climate-change-burdened spirit by enjoying my exposé on Suriname economy and ecology, ecosystem based adaptation approaches, and the mudflats of Weg naar Zee.

    If you’re an American reading this, chances are high you think Suriname is somewhere in Africa or Asia.

    Well, you’re wrong. On both accounts.

    It’s a small, and almost completely pristine country on the northeast coast of South America (and formerly known as Dutch Guiana). It sits between Guyana and French Guiana and, in my personal opinion, outshines them both. It’s a tropical paradise that has remained 90% untouched forest, with an incredibly low-risk malaria rate. It has so much fresh water that it could most likely make a business of selling 1% or less of its water resources and stay sustainable, satiated, and make a bunch of money (but that’s a story for another time). Its coastline might deter the average beach goer since the water is muddy and relatively biologically unexplored, but that’s, surprisingly enough, a very good thing. You see, unlike its two neighbors, Suriname has left its coastline of mudflats and mangroves basically untouched. Looking at places like the Caribbean, Florida, and the south Pacific, the average person who’s also interested in marine biology might know a bit about how mangroves work and why taking them out is a terrible idea (if that’s you, feel free to skip ahead).

    Mangroves are a group of tree species with thick, gnarly roots that can grow in brackish or freshwater, and often have their roots plunging into muddy soils that are underneath sea or water level. The various mangrove species dominate coastal areas that are swampy, brackish, and at the frontline of ocean waves, changing tides, hurricanes, storms, and whatever else the ocean cares to throw at you. Their aforementioned root system tangles together to form a wall against natural ocean threats, a trapping system that controls coastal erosion by securing sediment, a monitoring system for flooding by absorbing and ensnaring fresh, salt, and brackish water alike, and acts as a nursery ground for 80% of the local saltwater fish on the Surinamese market. Because fish enjoy the ecosystem services of the mangroves, primarily protection, just as much as people do.

    We can safely say mangroves are incredibly valuable to Suriname- from protection to provision, the mangroves are vital for the Surinamese economy to thrive and the people to stay safe. If you’re not convinced, then let me tell you a story. If you are convinced, maybe read this part so you can convince your dubious friends.

    Weg naar Zee is one of the two locations where the mangroves were rooted out and the coastline was left exposed. Little by little, mangroves were taken out so that residential houses had a better view and people could develop agricultural land. Problems started popping up almost immediately. Every high spring, flooding devastated the residential area so that people were standing knee to waist-high in water in their living rooms. Erosion posed a direct threat to the community as the coastline was chafed back farther and farther. Then salt infiltration from the ocean reduced the fertility of the soil, meaning all the agricultural developers faced decreases in yield. In the off chance of having a hurricane-like storm, those people were also at the highest risk of casualty or injury from falling objects, trees, or property damage. All in all, it was bad news, and the government’s response wasn’t ideal. They said they’d build a dyke (basically a big wall offshore half-submerged in the ocean) to prevent these problems from harassing the Weg naar Zee people any more.

    Alright so at this point we’ve got Suriname is a cool place, it’s got a lot of mangroves, and not having mangroves is bad. A dyke might sound like a good idea because it’s just a manmade version of mangrove protection. Right?

    Nope. For purposes of this exposé, we can skate over the fact that dykes cost millions of dollars to build, then hundreds of thousands of dollars to regularly maintain, and, generically speaking, more often then not fall into disrepair when they’re eventually battered down into nothingness by the relentless ocean waves and currents. Because objectively speaking, dykes cost a bunch of money to build, then maintain, then they usually tend to fall apart and if there’s no immediate response, the government has to pay to move people out of their houses regardless.

    We all get that spending money is also bad. The dyke already seems like a poor option based on spending alone, but that’s not even the worst part.

    So how about we focus on ecosystem management and ecological services, because that’s way more exciting and educational.

    Ever heard of ecosystem based adaptation approaches?

    If you have, you’re one of the few, so congratulations.

    Here’s a quote for the vast majority of politely intrigued readers who are probably put off by this boring name, but still want to learn about what it is: “ecosystem-based adaptation approaches provide flexible, cost-effective, and broadly applicable alternatives for buffering the impacts of climate change, while overcoming many drawbacks of hard infrastructure.”

    I can imagine that quote did little in the way of stimulating excitement, so let me put it this way. Ecosystem based adaptation approaches is a fancy name for humans manipulating natural ecosystems to protect people, industries, economies, countries, and all the while letting nature thrive. Sounds too good to be true, right?

    In some ways, it could be. But in one particular case the Surinamese coast is finding that EbA’s are exactly what it needs.

    This quote referenced a “hard approach” - hard approaches are generally human-made constructs that, as their name suggests, can be incredibly inflexible and not self-sustaining. Like dykes! They can be irreversibly mismatched to future projections of how climate change can affect a given area if the predictions are inaccurate, and then have negative or unforeseen consequences on both humanity and nature, and require constant maintenance, money, and monitoring. This is what we want to avoid.

    In the game of climate change damage control where the statistics we know are essentially a range of predictions into an unknown future, flexibility and adaptability are key.

    Merely glancing at the quote referenced above, ecosystem based adaptation approaches are already off to a good start: flexible, cost-effective, and broadly applicable. The whole idea is to use an ecosystem, like the mangrove ecosystem, and harness the services it provides for human benefit.

    We’ve looked at the basic services mangroves provide, but what do they need in order to help us?

    First off, they need to be there. As in, don’t rip them from the coast. But if you’re in an area like Weg naar Zee, what can one mangrove-loving individual possibly do to bring the mangroves back to provide protection from the ocean, erosion, and flooding?

    Professor Naipal, hydrology expert and mangrove specialist extraordinaire, has several answers for you, and a boisterously contagious laugh to accompany aforementioned answers.

    Mangroves everywhere really need three things to survive: sunlight, freshwater, and sediment. Sunlight and freshwater are obvious botanical requirements, but the sediment is essentially the replacement for soil. Because plants everywhere, even the ones with their roots sticking a foot or two under water, need nutrients from soil.

    Suriname isn’t part of the Amazonian river basin, but the Amazon impacts it nonetheless. The rich and plentiful sediment pushed out from the Amazon river mouth into the Northeast Atlantic travels westward, making deposits along the Guiana Basin (the Basin being French Guiana, then Suriname, and Guyana last). This sediment lets the whole Northeast Atlantic coast of South America rebuild itself from erosion, because the mangroves trap the sediment in their roots and use the nutrients to survive. The mangroves along the Surinamese coast then use the inordinate amount of water from the Suriname river and other freshwater sources in several estuarine systems and brackish water systems to stay healthy.

    Suriname has the water. In fact, Suriname has the most fresh water per capita than any other country in the world, and luckily climate change hasn’t impact rainfall precipitation to any noticeable effect.


    But the availability of sediment could become a problem.

    If the government builds a dyke, yes it (temporarily) protects the coast from ocean threats, but it also completely blocks off the sediment deposits. The dyke might be able to trap sediment from eroding off the coast, but the added strain of holding up a coast’s-worth of soil, plus combatting waves and high velocity winds, only adds to the coast of monitoring and maintaining the dyke.

    Suriname’s incredibly dynamic and flexible coast needs a self-sustaining answer to keep it healthy. That answer is called a sediment-trapping device.

    A sediment-trapping device is a series of tall, wooden polls sunken into the mud flats right off the shoreline, and lined up in pairs to create a double-bordered box with a small opening at one end facing the open ocean. The area between the sets of poles are then filled up with sticks and branches, to create a permeable dam-like structure. The bottle-neck feature allows water to enter the square, and then decrease its water velocity and carrying capacity, so that when the water leaks out through the sticks and branches all the sediment remains trapped behind. This simple yet ingenious design stimulates sediment trapping and natural mangrove growth, while also allowing humans to manipulate mangrove growth at a faster pace. Professor Naipal has overseen the construction of a prototype sediment-trapping device 200 meters deep and 150 meters wide at Weg naar Zee, in an attempt to prove to the government an alternative approach to dyke-construction.

    Conservation International, an enthusiastic supporter of ecosystem-based adaptation approaches, jumped on board to fund Naipal, and was so excited the CI-Suriname office even sent out a team of five office workers to help Naipal jumpstart construction.

    And I was on that team.

    With me, the over-eager American intern, were Mirjiam Gommers, communications coordinator, Ramses Man, development manager, Sheila Marhe, technical director, and Soraya Wijntuin, a fellow volunteer but soon-to-be staff member.

    Plunging through mud in jeans and tennis shoes, the five of us traversed the less than 20 meter distance of untreated wastewater discharge, old car tires, waist-deep mud banks, and odorous peat smells to the construction site in about a half hour, getting stuck more than once, and losing a couple of shoes along the way. The construction site itself was just more mud; albeit runnier and less limb-trapping-prone, it was still relatively thick and deep nonetheless. Our team of five, assisted by four of Naipal’s hired hands, Steven Gaines from the US Embassy, and Naipal himself dragged over and implanted an incredibly short series of poles into the mud considering how long we were there for. The work was much harder than we’d anticipated, and gave us an excessive amount of splinters. We worried that the device wouldn’t be completed in time, and blamed the time-lapse video done in Indonesia** for giving us a false impression of how quickly we could work.

    Staatsolie, Suriname’s national oil company, came to the rescue the day after we left. They commissioned their own machine, free of charge, to assist Naipal in setting the poles. The work was done in a fraction of the time it would’ve taken a group of humans to complete it, and the sediment-trapping device is now complete. I like to think that the pictures of the five muddy CI volunteers helped jumpstart Staatsolie’s rescue by eliciting a certain amount of pity and questions about what exactly was in the mud that covered nearly our whole bodies, but either way I’m proud to have been involved. Even if the work I performed over the course of two hours was pulling two poles less then 3 meters, failing to set either of those poles, getting stuck twice, and falling backwards into the mud, I give myself an A for effort.

    I lied.

    This end part is pretty depressing, but now that I’ve got your attention I hope you keep reading ahead (I added in the last paragraph to warm your heart with some sappy clichés, at the very least).

    To give you a full picture, let’s dance briefly with doom and gloom, and look into precise statistics and other convincing scientific data that prove the relevancy of this tactic for Suriname and other countries in similar situations. To begin, I’d like to give some bad news that might make you completely question world leadership, which is ok because we, the people, have been screwed over.

    Within the past five years, the foremost scientists, experts, world leaders, and business heads all came to the conclusion that if we passed 350 PPM of gas emissions, things would be unspeakably bad. It was a unanimous “yeah, let’s just not go past 350 and then we won’t have to talk about it, right? Right. Ok.”

    Turns out nobody listened to their own advice.

    Because, ladies and gentlemen, we the people (but mostly the industry people) of the planet are have now set a record high emission of 400 PPM of gas this year! We have surpassed the already extreme limit we set for ourselves, and are entering into a stage of highly variable predictions of disaster.

    Again, this piece is about Suriname. So, for a country that is a middle-class, 2nd world country on the way to economic stability and wealth, the answer given to their government by our fabulously leading-by-example nations such as America and nations in the EU is to fight for economic wealth and prosperity so that you have the money to survive climate change later.

    You might be wondering right now, why not just worry about solving climate change instead of making money to survive it later?

    Great question. Probably because our world is irrevocably submerged in capitalism.

    Point is, we’ve now reached the stage where we’ve got 400 PPM gas emissions clogging our atmosphere, and Suriname, the struggling to succeed underdog nation that we’re all rooting for, hasn’t succeeded. Its economy is not particularly rich, its government does not have enough international support, and its getting pressure to rectify these problems by delving deeper into the oil industry and gold mining industry, both unsustainable and not-climate-change-preventative. Nations like this one, the low-lying, coastal countries that aren’t contributing at all to climate change (and in Suriname’s case, is actually acting as a carbon sink for the rest of world- you’re welcome) are going to get screwed over.

    Let’s start with a generic number. 50 centimeters.

    A 50 centimeter rise in water depth in front of the coastline will, together with changes in wind pattern and wind intensity, result in intensified wave attacks, land loss, salination, and loss of biodiversity on immediate coast. This includes loss of mangroves.

    A reduced mangrove population, and reduced protection against swell will lead to large scale erosion of 370 km.

    No less than 52% of the 2.9 million shore birds wintering in South America were observed along the coast of Suriname, in the mangrove forests. They won’t come back anymore. Sad face.

    Just to give you some reminders real fast before I drop the heavy stuff, the backbone of Suriname’s economy is found in the coastal zone, where the majority of the population is concentrated (this includes agriculture, fishing, oil, and city-based GDP’s).

    Suriname is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to low lying coastal zone, and will be more vulnerable if the mangroves are gone.

    A 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature means a 70 centimeter rise in ocean level. But like I said earlier on, we’ve easily passed a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature, thanks to our 400 PPM gas emissions, and are moving on to…

    A 4 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, which means a 100 centimeter rise in sea level.

    A rising sea level of 1 meter (or 100 centimeters for you non-math people) means 10,000 million USD capital loss for Paramaribo, and the emigration of close to a whooping 80% of the city population.

    Damage to the economy, to the GDP earners for the country, to the people, to peoples’ house property and livelihoods, to the history of the city of Paramaribo, to the majority of the country’s population- the country would be left in tatters.

    Why did I finish with such a depressing list of figures, you might ask?

    Because a lot of this can be prevented by mangroves, the super-tree, the most beautiful wall of gnarly, tangled roots you’ll ever see. Give them some space to grow, give them some space behind where they are now to grow when the sea level rises, and they can make an impact. They can’t stop the flooding or save the whole city, but they can do something to minimize damage. And that’s why CI Suriname funded (and kind of helped to construct) the sediment trapping device.

    The world is what it is, whether anybody is happy with it. 400 PPM is not going to be good news anywhere (just look at all the islands in the South Pacific going underwater and ask them how they feel about it), but life should be about finding your own path in limiting the damage that you’ve been born into. So sometimes, when combatting climate change and what feels like inevitable disaster, all it takes is a mud bath in a mud-sewage-combination of questionable liquids to feel like maybe you actually can help make a difference and give one country, the best country, a better chance.

    Whitney Hansen is a junior attending Harvard University concentrating in Integrative Biology. She enjoys her dog Lupa, singing in all-female acapella groups, and guacamole. Her most recent discovery in baka bana and saoto soup has caused her to question all of the culinary decisions she’s ever made. She has experience in international field species research, volunteering in conservation-centered offices, working in dog shelters, and communicating solely with sarcasm.

    For conversations about dog behavior and psychology, Harvard, questions about Javanese food, or questions concerning this article, please contact Whitney Hansen at whitneyhansen17@gmail.com.


    Climate Change, Vulnerability, and Disaster Risk Reduction a presentation by S. Naipal

    Suriname Green: economic development that leverages natural assets, while maintaining Suriname’s status as the greenest nation on earth by the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation, Produced with support from Conservation International

    Netherlands Climate Change Assistance Program, Phase 2: Promotion of sustainable livelihood within the coastal zone of Suriname, with emphasis on Greater Paramaribo and the immediate region by S Naipal and H Uiterloo

    1st National Communication Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by NIMOS

    Ecosystem Based Adaptation paper by L. Rawisch (CI volunteer)

    Harnessing nature to help people adapt to climate change by Holly Jones, David Hole, Erika Zavaleta