By Sonali Huria
Global warming has purportedly put to rest a long standing dispute between India and Bangladesh which had proved to be a significant impediment to the demarcation of the maritime boundary between the two neighbouring states. The disputed island territory of New Moore or South Talpatti as it is known in India and Bangladesh respectively, in the Sunderban Delta, sank in March 2010, thereby ‘settling’ a territorial dispute which has existed between the two states since the 1970s. According to news reports, scientists at the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University confirmed the island’s disappearance, based on satellite imagery, sea patrols and reports received from local fishermen.
The island, located at the mouth of the Hariabhanga River, first emerged in the aftermath of the Bhola cyclone in the Bay of Bengal in 1970; it was discovered by an American satellite in 1974 and had since become a major issue in maritime boundary talks between the two countries, especially since the island was believed to have large potential reserves of oil and gas. Bangladesh and India both laid claim over the island territory and although there were no permanent settlements on the isle given its geological changeability, India is believed to have set up a temporary base of the Border Security Force (BSF) on the tiny deltaic island, undertaking regular visits with naval gun ships.
The news of the island’s disappearance has evoked varied responses – while some in the political and media quarters view the event as an end to a major irritant in India-Bangladesh relations, many, especially environmentalists, have reacted with considerable concern to a development which they regard as a harbinger of worse things to come. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated that a quarter of the low-lying deltaic country’s coastline could be swamped and 15-18 per cent of its land mass submerged if the sea level rises above one meter in the next 50 years, which would displace roughly 30 million people from their homes and farms, thus, swelling the ranks of ‘environmental refugees’ in the region.
The displacement of people in the Sunderban delta due to rising sea waters is believed to have started with the migration of nearly 500,000 people in 1995 from Bhola Island to mainland Bangladesh, after more than half the island, considered Bangladesh’s largest, was covered by invading sea waters. The submergence of the inhabited Lohachara Island in 1996, encroaching sea waters in other smaller islands in the Bay of Bengal, and now South Talpatti are indicative of the colossal security challenge that is in the making. These developments are of significant concern not only to Bangladesh, but also India, since displacement of people from these areas will mean a greater influx of climate refugees into Indian territory apart from affecting agricultural produce in the region, thereby leading to heightened food insecurity in South Asia.
The recent declaration by Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh and his Bangladeshi counterpart, Hasan Mahmud that the two countries will set up an India-Bangladesh Sunderbans Ecosystem Forum this year to address the multiple challenges faced by the ‘ecologically vulnerable’ Sunderban region and its inhabitants, is perhaps indicative of the growing recognition that cooperation between the two countries in the face of this emerging challenge is inevitable. Further, the Union Cabinet has already approved a World Bank-funded Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) project for the preservation of the Sunderbans, aimed at, among other things, preventing the erosion of islands, building storm shelters, and taking measures to improve life opportunities and means of livelihood for the inhabitants of the region.
The upcoming summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) scheduled to be held in Bhutan from 28-30 April 2010 is also expected to have climate change high on its agenda with Bangladesh and Maldives indicating that they might push for the establishment of a regional body to deal with climate change, which these two states are likely to be impacted by the most. The Global Climate Risk Index 2010, compiled by Germanwatch, an international NGO, has ranked Bangladesh as the most vulnerable and severely impacted country on account of ‘extreme weather events’ owing to climate change; it tops the ranking in terms of both, loss to human life and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to the vagaries of climate change.
While the political debate surrounding New Moore island refuses to die down despite its disappearance, especially in view of Bangladesh’s assertion of ‘full sovereignty’ over the island, it is time for states of South Asia to seriously debate a problem which threatens both, human and food security in the region. The sixteenth SAARC Summit might provide the perfect forum to debate the issue and help build an understanding among the countries on how best to address this new security challenge to the states and people of South Asia.
Sonali Huria is a Research Officer, the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies (IPCS) – where this article first appeared – and may be reached at [email protected]