Rising Sea Levels Could Wash Away 20 Million People

Moyna’s home in Bangladesh is completely surrounded by contaminated floodwater. Here, the 10-year-old is taking a bath – the only way she knows to try to keep clean. (Rafiqur Rahman Raqu/DFID/Flickr)

Last week, a report in Nature Geoscience revealed that polar ice may be melting faster than previously thought, leading to a more significant rise in sea levels throughout the course of the century. We asked our Sustainability Roundtable to discuss the implications of the warming of the oceans and the subsequent rise in sea levels. What will these phenomena mean for the future development of Asian countries? Are there opportunities for regional cooperation in dealing with the consequences of these environmental changes?

Rohit Viswanath is a foreign policy analyst with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) in New Delhi.

There is no doubt that Asian countries will be among the most severely affected by global warming and the consequent melting of polar ice and snow caps.

The Himalayas in South Asia have the largest deposits of glaciers outside the polar region, which are fast melting due to climate change. Escalating incidences of flash floods, glacial lake outbursts and river flooding have been the most immediate visible impact.

These occurrences are a serious threat to the perennial South Asian river systems of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. Reduced availability of potable water and for agriculture are the most intimidating effects, going forward, leading to enormous food shortages and therefore forced mass migration of communities. According to the IPCC, if the current warming rates are maintained, the glaciers of the Himalayas will melt away and could shrink from 500,000 sq km (193,000 sq mi) at present to 100,000 sq km (38,000 sq mi) by 2350.

Complicating this are rising sea levels, which make matters worse by threatening the survival of many coastal and deltaic regions.  According to certain estimates, if sea levels rise one meter by 2050 as projected by some climate models, 18 per cent of Bangladesh's coastal area will be underwater and 20 million people will be displaced. The submerging of New Moore Island in the rising waters of the Bay of Bengal last year should serve as an urgent wake-up call to Asian countries.

Given that most economies in the region are in a growth trajectory, such disasters could wreak havoc on development.  Needless to say, governments in the region must come together to promote best conservation practices, expand the forest cover, and adopt clean technologies. International cooperation through forums like SAARC and BIMSTEC can also contribute a great deal to protecting common heritage like the ecosystem of the Sundarbans.

Since oceanic islands face the greatest danger from rising seas, agreements need to be put in place through international cooperation mechanisms for easy migration of populations from such islands to safer zones as risks increase. This must be accorded highest priority.