The coming crisis

From Bangladesh to India … and then the rest?
Events running up to the UN's climate-focused Bali Summit, held in December 2007, raised the issue for the first time at the public level: climate change could pose a global security risk. Since then, the possibilities have been panicking experts, with no easy solution at hand. Today, however, the topic remains a matter for experts and commentators to discuss, rather than being part of the general discourse. The month of the Bali Summit, journalists Alexander T J Lennon and Julianne Smith wrote, "Climate scientists tend to think in decades; national security experts in days or years at best. This difference helps explain why climate change is rarely considered a national security challenge. Yet the links are inescapable. One that is even less frequently discussed is the connection of global change to the threat of terrorism."
Let us briefly engage in a thought experiment on this intriguing, worrying line of reasoning. To some in the Western world, the fear seems to be that the jihadists could take advantage of the emerging crisis over climate change. The threat is not just Western, however, but rather global – and Southasia seems to be particularly vulnerable to potential militant actions. What could set off such a trend in motion could lie in certain inevitabilities of climate change. Southasia will be hit very badly by global warming, and the effects will be manifested through dramatic declines in crop production, losses of homes and lands, rises in vector-borne diseases and malnutrition, all of which will undoubtedly lead to attempted immigration to 'safer' places. However, the capacity of many impoverished countries to provide alternative spaces for such displaced populations is very low; as such, the fleeing to better-off areas would almost certainly follow historic precedent and point to movements across borders as well as continents.
Indeed, though current estimates of the potential numbers vary, the emergence of 'climate-change refugees' seems almost impossible to avoid. And 'emergence' here could be a misnomer, as many are worried that the grounds could already be set. One UN study from 2005, for instance, has suggested that there could already be some 20 million environment refugees worldwide. Worldwide, how high could that outflow of displaced reach? With relatively minimal work having yet been done on the subject, no one really knows. According to some studies, it could reach as high as 150 million people by 2050. Yet even if the number turns out to be far lower, such an exodus could easily end up being a principal trigger in generating conflict.

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How are neighbouring countries to react? Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at Bradford University, has warned that any attempt by nation states to build 'fortress walls' to keep out climate-change refugees would be doomed to fail. "If 60 million of 140 million people could not survive in Bangladesh, yet they were kept there," he writes, "you would have gigantic human suffering and progressive, very deep radicalisation – very, very angry people. And that is not in anybody's security interest." Indeed, some may even wonder if Bangladesh, in such a situation, could not be 'contained', like an island state. In fact, of course, the opposite situation is true: Bangladesh is inextricably linked to India.
Somalia simulation
In this regard, the critical country for Southasia is Bangladesh, given both its location in a low-lying delta and its high population density. If millions are affected in Bangladesh, they will be forced to move to areas that remain unaffected. However, if we keep in mind that the impact will be far higher once the 'safe' areas are inundated with displaced individuals, the probable magnitude of the crisis becomes still more dire. Furthermore, the coping capacity within Bangladesh is limited not just in terms of physical infrastructure, but in terms of the political structure as well. Under such conditions, and depending on what is taking place in the country's politics at the time, sustaining the Bangladeshi state could prove nigh impossible, perhaps leading it to becoming an environmental Somalia.
While border-fencing would almost certainly be a part of India's approach to stopping climate refugees – as the Indian state is already encasing Bangladesh in a fence to block migrants – one doubts how successful this could ultimately be without incurring large-scale human cost. In analysing security needs, one needs to take into account existing trends of contemporary militancy. In Southasia, there are today several sources of extremist violence including Islamic, Maoist and ethnic. As such, the region's vulnerability to such threats is already very high. If refugees from Bangladesh find that they cannot go to India, what would be the likely consequences? Even assuming international intervention, many would almost certainly end up perishing, perhaps as many as several million Bangladeshis. How would the region's militant groups respond to such as situation?
If India were to commence large-scale stopping of refugees at its borders, such an action would inevitably demonise the country as one directly denying the opportunity for people to escape almost certain death. In turn, the region's Islamist groups would begin to argue that 'Hindu India' was stopping Muslim Bangladeshis from entering its territory, and thus condemning them to death. Suddenly, this would no longer be an issue of climate change, but rather one of mass-based communalism.
From there, the dominoes could fall quickly. As has taken place at certain points in the past, many angry Bangladeshis would undoubtedly find acceptable an explanation for the situation based in an alleged Muslim-Hindu antagonism; and so, revenge killings could take place against Hindus in Bangladesh, already considered 'proxy Indians' by many. But if Hindus were to be attacked in Bangladesh, Muslims in India could quickly be targeted by Hindu extremists in a tit-for-tat cycle of revenge. When large-scale social violence occurs – as can be seen today in Darfur, Somalia and other places – Bangladesh too could quickly spiral down into chaos, with neither the resources nor the socio-political structure necessary to right itself.
Communal meltdown
Could India afford to refuse sanctuaries to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, which would certainly be a demand of many Hindu Indians? And if the state were to do so, how would Indian Muslims react? Millions of Muslims, including Bengali Muslims in India, would simultaneously become increasingly susceptible to arguments that the Indian state had chosen one community over the other. Such a scenario would almost certainly work to the benefit of regional and global Islamist propaganda networks. India already has problems with crossborder militancy from Pakistan and Bangladesh. If it were to begin to refuse entry to climate-change refugees, the country would suddenly have to face a far larger extremist problem from both – and with a far larger hostile population within, to boot.
On the other hand, if even some refugees were to enter India, this would most likely exacerbate the situation that is already extant in the Indian Northeast, where Bangladeshi/Muslim refugees and migrants have become a major cause of social friction. Not only would attacks on refugees increase, but the resident insurgencies would also strengthen, as this would be seen as a failure on the part of the Indian state to protect the communities of the Northeast from the new influx of refugees. The echo effect across the border would likely escalate the crisis.
Regardless of the exact details of the doomsday scenario presented above, the fact of the matter is that India simply cannot afford a flood of millions of climate-change refugees. Already, the Indian state has limited capacity – and, of course, its broader economic objectives would quickly vanish. As such, New Delhi would find itself in a violent catch-22: it could neither allow entry of new refugees, not could it counter the result of refusing to do so. Living next door to Bangladesh, can India handle the problems, apart from challenges in the context of climate change? It may not fail but could it prevent itself from being overwhelmed? And if India were to be overwhelmed, could the region survive in any conventional sense?
Meanwhile, the recovery from the global economic crash of 2008 is today largely being powered, or at least led, by the growth of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. If nothing else, this certainly underlines just how inter-dependent today's global economy truly is. In a decade, India may occupy the same position that China does today in this matrix. In that case, the devastation of India would almost certainly deal a terrible blow to the global economy – one that, it must be assumed, would already be reeling from the additional challenges posed by climate change, including potentially from a spike in crisis-initiated militancy elsewhere.
Outlandish possibilities? Perhaps, or perhaps only in part. The worrying thing is that, at the moment, what is known is largely what is encapsulated in scientific reports on how the average global temperatures are slowly creeping up. For the scientists, extrapolation from there tends to focus on the melting of ice, the lowering of river waters, and the increased vagaries of climate. But despite the fact that the social and political ramifications of these changes could be just as worrying, such issues are hardly being discussed – much less planned for.
~ Afsan Chowdhury is on the editorial board of Himal Southasian.
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