Environmental geopolitics

That Sinking Feeling


November 23, 2015

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November 2015

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While large countries have a huge landmass where vulnerable communities could be relocated, others such as Bangladesh or island nations such as Maldives and Solomon Seychelles are not so fortunate. These countries could well be the first victims of the threat of climate change.

The world seems to have suddenly woken up to the challenge of climate change ahead of the impending climate change conference in Paris. The attention, however, should be focussed on coastal areas and islands across the world. These areas are facing the ill-effects of rising sea levels and are the first victims of climate change induced natural disaster.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change (IPCC) in its assessment report in 2014 warned that many small island nations are only a few meters above the present sea level. Among the most vulnerable of these island states are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Cook Islands (in the Pacific Ocean), Antigua and Nevis (in the Caribbean Sea) and the Maldives (in the Indian Ocean).

The IPCC concluded that without planned adaptation, the vulnerabilities of small island states would increase. “While an 80-cm sea-level rise could in fact inundate two-thirds of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, a 90-cm sea-level rise could cause 85 pc of Malé, the capital of the Maldives, to be inundated,” it said quoting expert studies. The IPCC projects a sea level rise in the range of 26 to 82 cm by 2100.

Is Maldives doing enough to combat rise in sea level? Not really, believe several global experts. In 1995, Erlet A Cater, in an article in The Geographical Journal, accused the Maldives government of wilful negligence and destruction for the sake of tourism.

Cater identified, “In order to increase tourism levels, Malé increased mining of coral reefs around the islands, selling the dried corals as souvenirs and permitting tourists to travel in and around the fragile reefs. Coral levels plummeted, not only creating an oceanic environmental crisis, but destroying islands’ natural barrier against erosion.”

However, to highlight the imminent danger hovering over the Island nation and draw global attention to the global warming, the then Maldives President Mohammad Nasheed held a cabinet meeting on the sea floor – 20 feet below the surface of a lagoon off the Girifushi Island on October 17, 2009.

Nasheed also vowed to buy land for his 400,000 citizens elsewhere if the coral Island were to be submerged and planned for a fund accordingly. Global media is full of stories how the Island nation is engaged in buying land from Sri Lanka and India due to their proximity in climate, culture and cuisines and Australia on account of its huge land bank.

What the Maldives is doing amounts to deterritorialisation. However, experts have voiced concerns over this, citing reasons such as population pressures, scarce natural resources, law and order and Islamic terrorism. Lindsay Hartley, a US-based senior analyst observed, “As the global population grows and natural resource bases are further strained, which country would give up land to a newly homeless nation? Furthermore, even if land was available, it would need to be economically and environmentally viable for both the Maldivians and the host country before it could be considered a feasible resettlement location.”

Dr Pankaj Jha, director with New Delhi-based Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), wonders whether countries would even like to lease lands for a predominantly Muslim nation like Maldives at a time when the entire globe is gripped by the resurgence of Islamist fundamentalism.

Several innovative options like exclusive economic zones, floating city or ecopolis need to be explored by the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) globally before it is too late (see box). Other options such as reclaiming islands are the costly ones. Germany with the best equipment has not done it. On the other hand, China has been aggressively reclaiming islands in South China Sea to the tune of 4 million square meters of land.

Although accounting for just 0.3 pc of global greenhouse gas emissions, these island communities are on the frontline of climate change but their voices go unheard by the United Nations and the global community.

The Maldives took the initiative to hold the “Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise” in 1989, which was the first of its kind. It also made Maldives the first country to ratify the “Kyoto Protocol”, the international agreement to minimise emission of greenhouse gases.

Three years after former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s speech in October 1987, the UN’s IPCC publicised its first climate change research at the 1990 World Climate Conference. Soon, the world saw the birth of SIDS and the Maldives founded the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in 1990 to advocate on behalf of the SIDS.

Despite these measures, no major movement has been seen to combat climate change. So, at the COP21 global summit, the stakes are higher for these island nations more than others.

India’s role

It is for this reason that Maldives looks up to India unlike the United States which is all about consultancy business while China comes with immediate cheques. “India is only engaged in capacity building unlike other two major players,” asserts Dr Jha while citing how India has helped the Island nation in crisis in the recent years.

According to India’s Foreign ministry, “India has offered assistance to Maldives wherever required. After the tsunami that struck Maldives on December 26, 2004, India was the first country to rush relief aid to Maldives. India provided a budget support aid of EUR 1.42 million in view of the serious financial difficulties faced by Maldives on account of tsunami and related factors.” Similar assistance was given in May 2007 on account of tidal surges. Last year in December, when the water desalination plant in Malé – protected by sea walls and breakwaters – caught fire and ran out of water, India responded with airlifts and ships loaded with fresh water while the plant was repaired.

India’s role also assumes significance in view of the complexities involved with the threat that these island nations face. According to experts, there are three issues involved with the submergence of these island nations. Once an island submerges, the right of exclusive economic zone is wiped out. Also, the Exclusive Economic Zone is a major issue when it comes to fisheries, mineral resources and under water resources. Lastly, building capacities of the coastal communities and how they can be rescued in case of disaster is as crucial.

Another issue is ocean floor mapping and is very important for SIDS as ocean floors hold valuable poly metallic sulphides, copper, tin, gold and rare earths that are used in computers. Exploiting these natural resources will require explorations. Most island nations fear that powerful nations equipped with technology, manpower and finance may exploit them and even demand transit right or want to set up a base in return if they are allowed in the sovereign territory. India, with its space technology and on board exploration equipment, can help these island nations as it is keen to get their support for a permanent seat in United Nations. “India has become a responsible player. It is engaged in helping the manpower in various sectors ranging from ocean exploration to community radio unlike the Chinese who bring their workers to these islands,” Dr Jha observes, adding that Maldivians are concerned but are not paranoid about sea level threats.

According to India’s foreign ministry the proximity of location and improvement in air connectivity between India and Maldives in recent years has led to India being a preferred destination for Maldivians for education, medical treatment, recreation and business. The number of Maldivians seeking long term visa for pursuing higher studies or medical treatment in India has shown a sharp increase over the last two years.

Yet, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Indian Ocean states – Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius – in March this year skipped Maldives as the nation had arrested its popularly elected President Mohamed Nasheed under anti-terror laws for 13 years.

Vikas Kumar, assistant professor at the Banglaore based Azim Premji University and an expert on the politics of the Indian Ocean observes, “Unfortunately, dealing with the threat posed by climate change is not among the priorities of the present government, obsessed as it is with silencing opponents. But in the event of a natural disaster such as the 2004 tsunami, India will have to rush support to the Maldives irrespective of who is in power there.”

Like Maldives, India’s eastern neighbour Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change is also very high. It is for this reason that it ranks at number six on the 2011 UN World Risk Index – the highest within South Asia. UN reports indicate that a sea level rise of 0.5 metres could see Bangladesh lose approximately 11 pc of its land by 2050, which would affect around 15 million people.

Since 1971, millions of Bangladeshis have been settling down in different parts of India crossing the border illegally. Yet, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, the two sides did not consider climate change-induced migration as an issue that needed to be discussed. Instead, India offered grant assistance of EUR 0.71 million from the ‘India Endowment for Climate Change’ for installation of 70,000 improved cook stoves in Bangladesh among other things.

Be it India, Maldives or Bangladesh, no side can afford to brush aside the threat of climate change in order to secure their immediate political gains. Doing so will not only be disastrous, it will also leave the future of billions in jeopardy.




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