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Coastal refugees

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels in India are expected to rise at the rate of 2.4 mm a year; in 2050, the total increase will be 38 cm, displacing thousands. For nearly 25% of India’s population living along the coast, global warming is a question of survival rather than a scientific theory, says Richard Mahapatra

Biplab Mondal, a migrant from Sagar island in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, now a resident of Delhi’s Govindpuri slums, had a nightmare for 25 years. “Whenever I looked at the sea I thought it would march into our village,” he recalls. So when he migrated to Delhi in 1992, to take up a daily wage job, he started saving to invest in a house that would be permanent.

After 17 years, Biplab’s nightmare has turned into a reality. “My relatives informed me how the sea slowly submerged my home in Sagar. Now there is nothing to call home there,” he says.

In 2009, he spent Rs 70,000 on an illegal hut in the Govindpuri slums. “My hut is illegal, but I am sure that it will not be submerged, ever.”

Biplab’s hut in Govindpuri is surrounded by the illegal settlements of many of his fellow villagers who have been forced to leave the island due to the invading sea. “In the last 30 years the sea submerged many islands in the Sunderbans. And many of us have migrated to Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai,” Lata Mondal, Biplab’s relative, says.

Biplab and Lata are ‘climate refugees’. So far, India’s climate refugees are from unknown villages in the Sunderbans, Orissa, etc. In a matter of years there will be climate refugees from Mumbai, Chennai and other big coastal cities as these too will face the onslaught of rising sea levels.
Visit any daily wage market in Delhi (desperate assemblies of migrant labourers around key residential areas) and you will find a significant number of people from coastal parts of the country.

The reasons for migration are familiar -- loss of livelihood due to a plethora of disasters like cyclones, drought, ingress of the sea, and lack of fresh water for agriculture.

“My father migrated to Kolkata after the 1971 cyclone as he couldn’t manage our family of six. He never returned to the village. I struggled hard on our small agricultural plot till 1999. The supercyclone left it completely saline,” says Jagannath Sahu, a resident of Orissa’s Kendrapara district, the worst affected by the 1999 supercyclone.

“Of late, migration to cities from our district has increased as people residing along the sea are finding it difficult to withstand its fury,” Sahu adds. There have been reports of sea ingress claiming over 15 village settlements in this one district.

Coastal blues

It’s a familiar story all along India’s 8,000-odd-km coastline comprising nine states and two island groups. Indeed, the reality of rising sea levels due to global warming is fast sinking in. For nearly 25% of India’s population residing along the coast it’s a question of survival rather than a scientific theory.

The likely fallout: a flood of migrants from these parts to other areas in India. Once known as islands of hope, coastal cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata will be forced to accommodate more migrants. This means the added pressure of rising populations in urban pockets that already lack basic amenities. The migrants will bring with them a host of issues that could spark off fresh conflict.

Last year, an Australian scientist came out with a startling finding that hinted at rising sea levels virtually choking a whole new generation before it is born. He postulates that as the sea advances, people will be forced to drink saline water leading to more miscarriages among pregnant women living in coastal areas.

“There will be a severe problem of potable water and people will drink salty water. This will adversely impact pregnancy in coastal India,” says Anthony J McMichael of the Australian National University, Canberra, and an author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

According to McMichael, a group of British scientists had carried out a survey in Bangladesh and found that surges in sea levels had started affecting pregnant women there. “We don’t have any research data on India, but the situation will not be very different,” he told the media in New Delhi.

Rise and rise

Increases in sea level are due mostly to thermal expansion -- that is, the warming of sea water causing it to expand in volume. Observations since 1961 show that the ocean has warmed up to a depth of at least 3,000 metres and has been absorbing more than 80% of heat added to the climate system. This causes water to expand and sea levels to rise. Melting glaciers add to rising levels.

Sea level rise will have multiple impacts. It will inundate coastal settlements, aggravate flood situations, erode beaches, further impacting settlements, and will leave vast swathes of land and water sources saline. The net result will be the displacement of people from these densely populated areas.

According to IPCC reports, a sea level increase of between 15 cm and 38 cm will displace tens of thousands of people along the country’s coastline and threaten drinking water sources in many coastal states. The IPCC-IV Working Group-II says that sea level rise is a high possibility, with 90% probability. “The largest number of people affected by sea level rise will be in the heavily populated large deltas of Asia and Africa,” the report says. This includes the cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Sea levels in India will rise at the rate of 2.4 mm per year, according to the IPCC. In 2050, the rise will be 38 cm. The UN second working report predicts huge coastal erosion by rising sea levels (about 40 cm) resulting from faster melting glaciers in the Himalaya-Hindukush ranges. “It could adversely affect half-a-million people in India because of excessive flooding in coastal areas, and it can increase salinity of groundwater in the Sunderbans and surface water in coastal areas,” says R K Pachauri, chairperson of the IPCC.

The IPCC goes on to estimate that sea levels in 2100 will be around 40 cm higher than they are today, causing an additional 80 million coastal residents in Asia alone to be affected by flooding, most of them in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh and India. Greenpeace says a rise of 3-5 metres is ‘not out of the question at the end of the century’, with a 4-5 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures.

To new land

Millions of people in India live within 50 km of the coast. The area -- referred to as the ‘low elevation coastal zone’ -- comprises coastal regions that are 10 metres above the average sea level. These are areas that will be submerged first in the event of rising sea levels. They are inhabited by rural and urban populations in equal proportion. A 1-metre rise in sea level could result in nearly 6,000 sq km of India being flooded.

In a study for Greenpeace, Sudhir Chella Rajan from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, suggests that India will face major out-migrations from coastal regions. Taking note of various current estimates of sea level rise, he divides the ‘business as usual’ scenario into three categories: 1 m, 3 m, and 5 m of sea level increases in the year 2100. This is basically low, medium and high, respectively. According to these estimates, around 120 million people will be rendered homeless by 2100 in Bangladesh and India (see accompanying table).

Table 1

Migrants (assuming phased movement)
  1 mt sea rise in 2100 3 mt sea rise in 2100 5 mt sea rise in 2100
2010 23,723 33,212 42,701
2015 36,850 51,591 66,332
2020 149,675 209,545 269,415
2025 316,617 443,264 569,911
2030 589,419 825,186 1,060,954
2035 1,209,244 1,692,942 2,176,640
2040 2,221,491 3,110,088 3,998,684
2045 3,607,278 5,050,189 6,493,100
2050 4,365,833 6,112,166 7,858,499
2055 5,259,326 7,363,057 9,466,787
2060 6,313,208 8,838,492 11,363,775
2065 7,557,351 10,580,292 13,603,232
2070 9,026,801 12,637,521 16,248,241
2075 19,762,637 15,067,691 19,372,746
2080 12,812,968 17,938,156 23,063,343
2085 15,234,067 21,327,694 27,421,321
2090 18,091,665 25,328,331 32,564,997
2095 21,462,425 30,047,395 38,632,365
2100 24,027,847 33,638,968 43,250,124
Source: Blue Alert, Sudhir Chella Rajan, IIT, Madras, Greenpeace, 2008

“Climate change is going to lead to bigger human migration than we’ve ever seen before,” Koko Warner from the UN University said during a conference in Poznan, Poland, on the sidelines of the December 1-12, 2008, summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Using data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Warner estimates that around 24 million people around the world have already become climate refugees. The International Organisation for Migration, a UN body, says that the number of people forced out of their homes by the effects of climate change may touch 200 million by 2050. According to the international NGO Christian Aid, the number could climb to 700 million after 2050.

Warner says: “India is one of the hotspots for forced migration due to climate change, with people displaced by drought, floods and a rising sea.”
As the focus on climate refugees increases, particularly as a result of sea level rise, India finds herself in a disadvantageous position. The estimated high impact on Bangladesh’s coasts means more refugees from that country to India. There are already a substantial number of Bangladeshi migrants in India.
Cardiff University’s Dr Hefin Jones, a climate change expert focusing on environmental refugees, says India will have to cope with around 15 million refugees from Bangladesh by 2050. In its 2007 report, the IPCC says that by 2050 the estimated rise in sea level in coastal areas of Bangladesh will be 1 metre, and by 2100 it will be around 2 metres. As a result, Jones says, the sea will submerge most of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta that supports around 120 million people.

That’s not all the future holds. According to a recent document ‘Human Impact Report: Climate Change’ by the Global Humanitarian Forum, Geneva (the report estimates the human impacts of climate change), the impact of climate change will increase in the next 20 years. “Rising sea levels, which affect relatively few people today, are expected to impact large populations in the future,” it warns. As water takes time to warm up, in the next few years the rise in sea temperatures will catch up leading to an expansion in sea volume. And more devastation.

Table 2

Vulnerable region Migrant levels in 2100
West Bengal 10 million
Coastal Maharashtra (around Mumbai) 10-12 million
Coastal Tamil Nadu 10 million
Coastal Andhra Pradesh 6 million
Gujarat 5.5 million
Coastal Orissa 4 million
Western Rajasthan 1.4 million
Northern Karnataka 1.3 million
Madhya Pradesh 1.2 million
Interior Maharashtra 1 million
Northern Andhra Pradesh 1 million
Southern Bihar 1 million
Source: Blue Alert, Sudhir Chella Rajan, IIT, Madras, Greenpeace, 2008


Climate refugees exist, but the world does not recognise them

It’s a unique situation. Increases in sea level will trigger an unprecedented number of refugees across the globe. But they can’t receive international support or help as they are currently not recognised as refugees by various multilateral forums. UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, is helpless as the 1951 charter of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t recognise climate or environmental refugees. It also doesn’t want to acknowledge them as that would entail the huge task of managing them. At present, around 15 million political refugees have to be looked after; climate or environmental refugees would add another 25 million to its jurisdiction.

There do, however, seem to be some international efforts at bringing the issue of climate and environmental refugees to the forefront. The United Nations University (UNU), United Nations Environment Programme, International Organisation for Migration and Munich Re Foundation launched the Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance in October 2008 to push for formal recognition of climate refugees.

Anthony Oliver-Smith of the United Nations University’s Institute of Environment and Human Security says: “There is an urgent need for an internationally accepted definition of the term ‘environment refugee’.”

There were calls for talks on climate refugees during the last UNFCCC meeting in Poznan, Poland. Professor Atiq Rahman, director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, and a member of the IPCC, says: “The rich nations must open up their boundaries for climate refugees.” He suggests a new mechanism that will allow developed countries to trade their carbon emissions for permission for climate refugees in their lands.

Norwegian Refugee Council, a prominent humanitarian organisation in Norway that works with global refugee issues, has been advocating an international convention to protect the rights of climate refugees. It suggests an international environment migration fund contributed to by industrialised nations.

Meanwhile, a WWF-UK study released in December 2008 has asked for a new UN pact to compensate victims of climate change. The issue of climate refugees is starting to receive political recognition in the European Union.

(Richard Mahapatra is an environmental writer and researcher. He is currently  with WaterAid India) 

Infochange News & Features, April 2010