In addition to conflicts over resources, border disputes, and civil war, the South Asia region is also predicted to be one of the most vulnerable areas in climate change models. Without a doubt, it is a neighborhood where tensions and stakes are high. Such issues are high on the agenda for the Government of India as a matter of national security and regional stability. For example, water wars could be the next issue of contention between India and Pakistan. Alternatively, there has been a growing concern over some of the most dire climate change models which predict that certain predictions may cause a dangerous rise in ‘environmental refugees‘– people who are displaced due to climate-related impacts such as rising sea levels.
The country of Bangladesh (India’s eastern border neighbor) and the island nation of the Maldives (off the west coast of India) are said to be at high risk of producing some of the largest numbers of such refugees. As a low lying nation, Bangladesh is particularly at risk to rising sea levels given its proximity to the Himalayan region (facing threats of glacial melting) and long coastal border with the Indian Ocean. A Greenpeace report broadly estimates that more than 120 billion people in India and Bangladesh will be homeless due to climate change. Others report that 22 million Bangladeshis could be displaced by 2050.
The environmental refugee debate comes with its share of skeptics. With the uncertainty over climate change models and ‘impacts,’ estimates of possible refugees is debatable. I think is that there is reason to be cautious in whole-heartedly accepting these numbers (and labels) as there are so many ‘ifs, ands, ors, and buts’. For example, Nepal, India’s northern border neighbor, experienced an exceptionally dry winter that some say was caused by the mixture of increased slash-burn agriculture tactics and climate change patterns- yet lack of data and inconsistencies limits conclusive statements.
In addition, while these suggestions may attract political attention and promote climate change policies under the label of ‘national security’ concerns, it can also produce unintended tensions between countries and encourage protectionist attitudes. In doing so, those that may be most affected are the ones that will be the most hurt.
What can be done?
The capacity of all governments in the region to cope with climate-related displacements or increased refugee populations is limited, yet there are some positives. Under the banner ‘the right to survive,’ Bangladesh has advocated for stronger support and funds from the international community. It also produced its own national plan for tackling climate change in 2008 with a heavy focus on adaptation and mitigation strategies. Positive partnerships in other issues between India and Bangladesh also exist as initial stepping stones- such as a recently renewed treaty on transboundary water navigation between the two countries to strengthen trade. The island nation of Maldives has also been active in the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funded ‘Global Island Partnership,’ which has also advocated for stronger international support and funds. Possible resettlement of island nations’ populations remains to be a contentious topic among policy makers.
Those who are discussing the issue have suggested that the international community look into developing a legal framework to formally protect climate refugees in the future- opening up communication among normally defensive stakeholders. Additionally, building adaptive capacity continues to be a key strategy alongside broader climate change goals. In essence, the issue requires a ‘plan for the worst, hope for the best’ attitude. While currently hidden between the lines of climate change policies, the issue of climate change refugees will become more prominent.