Humanity is faced with the harsh reality of climate change and demographic pressures. Apprehensions about entire island nations being submerged under rising sea levels are no longer subjects for Hollywood blockbusters; the chickens have finally come home to roost.
For some time now, experts have been speculating upon creating living spaces amidst the vast oceanic surfaces of the globe by constructing ‘floating cities’. By itself, the thought may seem attractive, since a swelling number of ‘climate refugees’ threaten to exacerbate the housing crisis that plagues modern cities. But the devil lies in implementing this dream.
Over the years, many regions, particularly coastal cities, have been steadily expanding into the seas through land reclamation. The artificial islands created off Dubai's shoreline to build exclusive housing for the world’s crème de la creme, is a prime example. The seabed is elevated by dumping sand, rocks, and cement. While this creates real estate from water, its long-term ecological effects have not been fully taken into account. Fears abound that such large-scale land reclamation will decimate marine ecosystems, disrupt food chains, and reduce the quality of water. It could also render the region more vulnerable to rising sea levels and earthquakes through soil liquefaction.
In a 2019 United Nations initiative, research was undertaken on sustainable ‘floating cities’, as part of the Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat). A round table was convened to discuss the ‘Oceanix City,’ a project designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. It envisages the construction of hexagonal floating platforms, where upto 300 people can be hosted on each platform. It will be anchored to the ocean floor using biorock; an ecologically-friendly material that can be grown using ocean minerals. It is believed that the threat from rising seas or tsunamis can be neutralised if the platforms are located a few miles offshore, as expert studies indicate that quake-triggered waves are more devastating in shallow waters.
Apart from promising to facilitate meaningful dialogues between impacted communities, scientists and governments, the proponents of this project claim that the city will be fully aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Towards this end, they have envisioned a closed-loop system that grows its own food, harvests its own energy, recycles its own waste, and reuses water.
OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLE?
The concept of a floating city is not new. In 1967, the legendary architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller proposed a floating city anchored off the Tokyo coast and connected to the mainland through bridges. In the 1970s, Michael Oliver, a real-estate mogul, tried to create a sovereign micro-nation off the coast of Tonga, where it would be free from taxes, welfare and subsidies. In fact, even now, there are small-scale floating communities scattered across the world, such as the fishing villages of Vietnam and the Philippines, floating dairy farms of the Netherlands, and the Lake community in Puno.
The more modern concept of a large-scale, sustainable floating city can be traced to the ‘Seasteading Movement’, a vision spearheaded by the Seasteading Institute. It seeks to carve out floating societies with significant political autonomy and libertarian structures. In 2017, the Institute signed an MoU with the government of French Polynesia, to build the first seastead in its territorial waters. However, this project did not take off, as it was difficult to muster state support for the concept of politically autonomous territories.
Funding such a revolutionary idea would be a risky venture with very few investors willing to bet on it; more so because the capital cost of such a project is astronomically high. It is estimated that a small floating city for 300 residents could cost a whopping $ 167 million. Even if there are people willing to invest, such high costs can only be afforded by the rich and the famous. This defeats the entire objective of providing affordable housing to climate refugees.
A floating city is also premised on the success of advanced technologies, many of which are still at a nascent stage. Passive desalination is a case in point. For projects like the Oceanix City, scalability is another major challenge. Even though the concept is not new, the ones that already exist operate on a much smaller scale. The proponents of Oceanix City hope that it will be possible to prefabricate and mass-produce the platforms in a factory and tow it to the ideal location, dramatically cutting down the cost.
From a governance and regulatory point of view, floating cities could prove to be a Gordian knot. If history is any indication, Silicon Valley capitalists tend to view floating cities as territories outside national jurisdiction, where privacy regulations, government oversight and tax regimes do not apply. Predictably, this brings them at odds with state authorities.
In fact, as recently as 2019, an American bitcoin trader and his partner came head-to-head with the authorities in Thailand about a seastead prototype they had constructed in the Andaman Sea. According to the authorities, the structure had violated Thailand’s sovereignty and interfered with international shipping routes.
Even from the perspective of international law, there are certain ambiguities regarding the concept of floating cities. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), it would be illegal to construct sovereign cities within 24 nautical miles off a coastal state. Even within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), only coastal states have the authority to construct artificial islands, installations or structures. They also have exclusive rights to exploit natural resources, effectively precluding independent floating states from engaging in resource extraction or harnessing of energy.
Technical wherewithal notwithstanding, it is theoretically possible for autonomous cities to be built on the high seas. However, most nation-states are unlikely to recognise their sovereignty, which is one of the most important criteria for achieving statehood. Alternatively, floating cities can be viewed as extensions of mainland cities. In such cases, their governance structure will have to be worked out from scratch, due to lack of a precedent.
COVID-19 has accentuated the dangers that can arise from crowded housing. This is particularly true for countries with a high population density. In the wake of the pandemic, there are suggestions that floating platforms can be usefully deployed as emergency housing and quarantine facilities. To walk this talk, however, the immediate priority should be to overcome financial, technological, and regulatory burdens.
- With every passing day, it becomes more important to develop a sustainable and climate-resilient solution for tackling spatial, ecological, and economic challenges that confront mankind. The key lies in working harmoniously with the ocean, as opposed to fighting it.
- Even though there are small floating communities across the world, projects like Oceanix City operate at a much larger scale. As a result, commercial and technological barriers need to be clearly identified and addressed. A balance should be struck between community interests and cost-efficiency.
- Floating cities should not be a cover to exploit postmodern critiques of law, wherein inhabitants pick and choose the regulatory structures that apply to them. The world is not yet ready for settlements that exist beyond the pale of state authorities.