Bracing for the impact
The country must prepare to face the near definite rise in sea levels
Climate change is negatively affecting the health, function and productivity of coastal ecosystems, thus impacting the health and welfare of coastal communities and the billions of people that depend on these natural resources. Moving forward, it will have substantial consequences for the world’s coasts including accelerated coastal erosion and loss of land and property, flooding, saltwater intrusion, shifts in the distribution and abundance of valuable marine habitats, species and biodiversity, and the accelerated spread of exotic and invasive species. Also, global warming will results in more frequent coral bleaching and increased mortality, loss of coastal wetland ecosystems and fishing grounds.
Coastal areas most vulnerable to climate change are low-lying islands, coastal areas and deltas; countries subjected to hurricanes and typhoons; and less developed countries. Relative to other coastal areas, low-lying islands, including many Small Island Developing States (SIDS), are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they have relatively scarce natural resources such as water resources, construction materials and physical space.
Sea level is escalating due to thermal expansion of the ocean, mountain glacier melting, and discharge from ice sheets as a result of global warming. Numerous coastal eco-regions and conservation areas are prophesied to lose over half of their land areas to marine intrusion, particularly under the 6m sea level rise scenario.
Globally, at least 150 million people live within 1 meter of high tide level, and 250 million live within 5 meters of high tide. At greatest risk are the densely populated Asian mega-deltas of rivers including the Yangtze (China), Ganges-Brahmaputra (Bangladesh), Mekong (Cambodia), and Irrawaddy (Myanmar). Other major mega-deltas at risk are the Nile (Egypt), Niger (Africa), and Mississippi (USA).
Sea level rise in India – diminishing coast line and natural eco zones
The Indian sub-continent is expected to lose almost 14,000 sq.km. of land with the rise of a one metre of sea level due to climate change. According to renowned coastal ecologist Zafar-ul Islam and team- the total area loss due to marine intrusion into coastal areas of the Indian sub-continent is estimated at approximately 13,973 sq.km. and 60,497 sq. km. of land area under 1m (metre) and 6m sea-level rise scenarios, respectively.
According to Islam, the threatening sea level rise will directly affect 18 of the 48 eco-regions in India. Under the 1m sea level eco-region inundation range will vary from 19 per cent to 59 per cent, whereas under the 6m sea-level rise scenario, estimates of eco-region inundation range from 27 per cent to 58 per cent. Below the 1m sea level rise situation, the Godavari-Krishna mangrove eco-region is predicted to lose more than a quarter of its area, while the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sundarbans in West Bengal is predicted to lose more than half of its area, accounting more than 27 community based islands. Under the 6m sea level rise scenario, three eco-regions (Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests, Andaman Islands rain forests and Maldives Lakshadweep-Chagos Archipelago tropical moist forest) are predicted to lose more than a quarter of their land areas.
According to Islam, “Out of the 22 coastal conservation areas, nine will be spared from the effects of marine intrusion under 1m sea-level rise, but only one will be spared under a 6m sea-level rise scenario”. In short, India could be among the most impacted countries in case of sea level rise.
Internal displacement of coastal people
As per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels in India are likely to rise at the rate of 2.4 mm a year; in 2050, the total increase will be 38 cm, displacing tens of thousands of people. For nearly 25 per cent of India’s population living along the coast, global warming is an issue of survival rather than a scientific notion. This will result in large scale migration of displaced coastal people. The migrants will bring with them a host of issues that could spark off fresh conflict over limited resources.
According to a recent Australian scientific report, rising sea levels nearly congesting a whole new generation before it is born. Due to advancing sea, 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 leading British scientists had carried out a study in Indian sub continent and found that the rise in sea levels had started affecting pregnant women and altering women’s reproductive anatomy.
Double menace – upsurge of sea level and climate refugees
Almost 67 million people in India live within 50 km of the – ‘low elevation coastal zone’ — comprise coastal regions that are 10 metres above the average sea level. These are the areas that will be submerged first in the event of rising sea levels. Rural and urban populations in equal proportion inhabit them. Even 1-metre rise in sea level could result in nearly 6,000 sq km of India being engulfed with water.
According to Greenpeace Report prepared by Sudhir Rajan from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, advocates that India will face major out-migrations from coastal regions. Highlighting on various scientifically backed estimates of sea level rise, he divides the ‘business as usual’ scenario into three categories: 1m, 3m, and 5m of sea level increases in the year 2100. According to these estimates, around 120 million people will be rendered homeless, by 2100, in Bangladesh and India.
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 Program, International Organization for Migration and Munich Re Foundation jointly launched the “Climate Change, Environment and Migration” initiative to push for formal recognition of climate refugees at international level addressing the issue from policy to practice imperatives.
Anthony Oliver-Smith of the UNU’s Institute of Environment and Human Security says, “There is an urgent need for an internationally accepted definition of the term ‘environment refugee’.”
Norwegian Refugee Council, a prominent humanitarian organization 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 industrialized nations. Meanwhile, a recent WWF-UK lobby has called the UN and its consortium to compensate victims of climate change. The issue of climate refugees is starting to receive political recognition in the European Union.
Coastal adaptation strategies – a plausible way forward
Sea level rise is bound to happen and coastal communities are at high level of risk. Government, NGOs, bi-laterals, multilaterals, scientific bodies and corporates with social agenda must collectively come together to adapt on these anticipating menace. Concerned stakeholders need to have a detailed vulnerability assessment procedure at place, which will efficiently capture situational appraisal of concerned coastal communities. Assessing a coastal area’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change involves understanding of three factors: first, the climate projections for a given region or locale; second, what is at risk (climate change exposure and sensitivity); and third, the capacity of society to cope with the expected or actual climate changes (adaptive capacity). Combined, these three factors define the vulnerability of people.
Tailoring adaptation measures to climate change requires information on climate processes and impacts for specific coastal areas over a timeframe much longer than the typical 5-10 years used for planning and policy. When assessing vulnerability and what to do about it, it is reasonable to use a 100-year timeframe—since we know climate change impacts will grow stronger with time.
Successful adaptation requires setting clear geographic boundaries within which to focus the assessment and actions. Especially difficult in coastal areas, but it is important. Here, the inter connectedness of issues is amplified by the flows of water from rivers and ocean currents.
If policy makers realize the criticality of the issue of climate change and resultant sea level rise and take necessary measures right now, generations to come will pay the price. Limiting the impact of climate change is a global responsibility, and as such, hard to achieve, but India must have a national contingency plan which would reduce the impact of the inevitable on its citizens. It is our responsibility towards coming generations.
The writer is an international research consultant on climate change, urbanization and sustainability issues in Asia, Africa, and Europe