Global Warming, Climate Refugees, Migrations – And Beyond: Need for national-level planning


It is well established that global warming (GW) is driving climate change (CC). Thinkers believe that in coming years, GW-CC will adversely affect societies and nations on a global scale like nothing before.

Important among the IPCC-predicted long-term effects of GW-CC, as applicable to India, are:

(1) Rise in sea level due to polar ice-melt, leading to coastal erosion or submergence,

(2) Melt and recession of Himalayan glaciers, leading to depleted non-monsoon river flow,

(3) Rainfall pattern disruption, leading to desertification of large areas, and

(4) Extreme events like severe cyclonic storms.

The effect of these four will be on the biosphere in general, but more specifically on human life (including health) and livelihoods; forests, green cover and water bodies; food & water resources; property; and on social, economic and political structures.

Their combined effect boggles the mind. The questions agitating thoughtful persons are: # When serious outcomes may commence, and # Whether the so-called tipping point has already been reached.

India’s June 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) does not go beyond simply taking cognizance of migration of affected coastal communities. This article focuses on migration affecting lives and livelihoods, as one outcome of GW-CC, in the Indian and South Asia regional context.

A mean sea level (MSL) rise of 15-cm to 38-cm is expected along India’s coast by 2050. However, before MSL rises by even 10-cm, ocean wave-action and coastal erosion would have invaded land and seriously impacted lives and livelihoods. Indeed already, gradual and barely noticeable, but relentless rise in MSL has caused coastal erosion in many places on our 7,500-km coastline, resulting in loss of land. The Sunderbans region, partly in West Bengal and partly in Bangladesh, is especially seriously affected, and migrations are a reality, putting a strain on already scarce resources of all sorts. This will only increase in the future.

Similarly, rising average temperatures, water-stress and floods will cause increased rural to urban migrations.

India has 13 coastal cities including Mumbai on the West coast, and 8 coastal cities including Chennai on the East coast, besides dozens of coastal towns. These will all be affected by sea level rise combined with flood during monsoon or due to extreme-event rainfall, because urban growth blocks natural watercourses which carry rainfall runoff into the sea. Over time, this will lead to slowdown/shutdown of different livelihood and economic activities, causing migration of affected people of all socio-economic sections for shelter and livelihood.

Apart from coastal urban settlements, people living in low-lying coastal rural areas and in hundreds of fishing villages on mainland India and its island territories, will be forced to move inland, away from the coast, and get classed as “migrants”.

Over the past many years, the annual monsoon river flooding in Brahmaputra, Ganga and their tributaries, and in several peninsular rivers, regularly dislocates normal life. Additionally, the extreme events of very heavy unseasonal rains due to GW-CC has caused very serious flood disasters, forcing people to move or migrate. The courses of Ganga and its major tributaries undergo shift within their flood plains from year to year due to annual flood flow. These shifts  cause erosion-loss of land in one area and “new” land exposed in a different area. This magnifies the vulnerability and distress of people who perforce live or work in the flood-plains, including those who are “protected” by embankments.

It is beyond dispute that almost all the coastal-erosion and flood-affected people are from the lowest economic sections, and are poor-to-very-poor. Due to loss of land and livelihood, they migrate to small towns and cities. These migrants are in addition to the migrants who have been leaving rural areas permanently because of the unviability of agriculture (happening for a variety of reasons which have been discussed threadbare elsewhere), and due to displacement caused by infrastructure and industrial projects.

According to a December 2020 report by Climate Action Network South Asia & Action Aid, an estimated 14-million people may have already migrated internally due to slow-onset impacts, such as sea-level rise, water stress, crop-yield reduction, ecosystem degradation and habitat loss, and drought.

Migrants are unwelcome in the destinations to which they are forced by circumstances to migrate in search of food, shelter and livelihood. They are considered encroachers by individuals, society and governments. The resultant competition for scarce basics of land/shelter, food-water, livelihood, etc., continues to cause fresh problems, or increases existing social tensions within and among all rural and urban societies and communities.

It will not be an over-statement that migrations caused by GW-CC will dwarf past migrations. In coming years, migrations in terms of sheer numbers, whether from neighbouring countries into India or refuge-seekers from India’s coastal areas and other environmentally degraded areas, will lead to extremely challenging socio-economic situations at all levels from local to national. Besides affecting individuals and societies, it will severely impact our nation’s economy.

GW-CC migrations aggravating already difficult-to-manage internal conflicts may well lead to unmanageable law and order situations, rupture the social fabric, and compromise both internal and external security.

This is undoubtedly a bleak scenario, but it is realistic, not pessimistic.

The future depends on what we do in the present

GW-CC induced migration has cross-border implications. Therefore, border security and diplomatic initiatives need assessment at the highest level, and integration into strategic planning by the National Security Council. The situations posed by GW-CC may need to be war-gamed, and addressed not only as national calamities, but cause for overarching regional concern affecting South Asia.

India could provide leadership in integrating SAARC and other regional bodies to proactively plan mitigation of massive and unprecedented migration which is likely to follow GW-CC catastrophes. Such an initiative may provide India additional diplomatic advantage and leverage in international fora. The National Security Council would do well to give this matter very serious and immediate consideration, and strategize for handling regional and domestic conflict/security situations.

Beyond migration, survival

There is no evidence that indicates serious consideration having been given to strategizing now, for future generations. The NAPCC is woefully inadequate, and does not point in the right direction. Neglect of planning for the future is the real disaster which needs to be managed.

Political leaders and opinion-makers need to acquire practical wisdom to understand that GW-CC is an existential threat to most living species and certainly to human societies. The threat is growing, not receding. Measures based on that understanding need implementation to mitigate the effects of GW-CC, to find an effective transition to “deep adaptation” necessary for species survival.

Political leaders and opinion-makers may also understand that technology cannot solve human social problems, and that only genuine implementation of the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, are the way forward. Changing or tweaking existing economic, legal and political systems will not reach beyond partisan benefit. Protecting, preserving and conserving natural resources and bio-diversity, to ensure egalitarian provision of the basic needs of water & food security, clothing & shelter, and health, education, welfare and employment, for all.

These matters are simultaneously urgent and important. Is any leader even capable of hearing, leave alone listening, amid the distractions of petty politicking and self-congratulatory grandstanding at public expense?

Major General S.G.Vombatkere (Retd), VSM, writes on development and strategy.

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