The Intersection of Littoral Instability and Climate Change in the Bay of Bengal

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Climate change, regardless of its causes, poses a major security concern throughout the globe.

This is especially the case in the heavily populated littoral regions of the developing world, which are often located in the tropics, at low elevation, and prone to severe weather events. These include monsoon flooding and tropical cyclones. Due to a geographic location in warmer climates, these regions harbor the secondary risk of water and vector-borne diseases such as cholera and dengue in the aftermath of extreme weather events. These environmental and man-made risks of extreme weather and urban sprawl in close proximity to cost lines and flood zones present a significant security challenge for the countries affected, and the international community due to the potential for mass migration and associated instability.

The intersection of climatic extremes, dense littoral populations, and underdevelopment is most clearly represented in the Bay of Bengal. At present, the two countries suffering the greatest impacts of underdevelopment and climatic instability are Bangladesh and Myanmar (Nishimura 2015). Much of Bangladesh is prone to flooding. However, due to the fertility of the flood zones and expanding population dependent on agriculture, a significant population resides in areas at direct or secondary risk of extreme weather. The long term threat of rising sea levels puts up to 40% of arable land at risk for submersion, and up to 18 million people at risk for displacement (Ibid). At present, as many as 20 million people are facing water insecurity due to salinization of drinking water (Ibid). In comparison, Myanmar has a significant population in the Irrawaddy river delta and in close proximity to the coastline. Myanmar also currently ranks third on the Global Climate Risk Index four countries most affected by climate change in the period of 1997 to 2016 (Global Climate Risk Index 2018).

Especially in the case of Myanmar, the region is already characterized by mass migration. Nearly a million refugees from the Rohingya ethnic group have been displaced from Myanmar to Bangladesh (UNHCR 2018). Although the basis for this displacement is strongly connected to internal security policies propagated by the military of Myanmar, it is a significant problem in that a large population has been displaced due to political insecurity to a region already affected by environmental insecurity. Additionally, it is likely indicative of potential future political and social insecurity problems that will arise as resources, such as arable land become scarcer in the region. This may provide a motivation on the part of different groups to form factional solidarity. Rising tension could potentially lead to extremism and violent conflict as well as mass displacement and migration.

In the specific context of the current Rohingya crisis, much of the issue is centered on national level policies motivated by domestic security concerns and political maneuvering. Due to the transnational impacts of future climate change, these issues will present state-centric security problems in terms of regional migration, illicit activity, and potential violent extremism. However, effective mitigation and response require a human security-centered approach. Disaster prevention in terms of improved infrastructure must be a key focus, as well as all the other elements of human security required to sustain survivable and resilient communities. In doing so, there is a legal framework as set forth by international conventions and treaties. However, several states have not signed, or openly do not comply with international conventions, such as in the case of several Association of Southeast Asia member states This is especially the case regarding migrants and refugees. Therefore, as has been the case in many other contexts (Ogata 2015), ensuring human security in the case of the Bay of Bengal will require a significant operation focus to link the desired endstates as set forth by international norms to tangible outcomes for those at greatest risk.


Nishimura, Lauren. 2015. “Climate Change and Migration Across the Bay of Bengal.” Accessed 8 November 2018.

Ogata, Sadako. 2015. “Striving for Human Security.” UN Chronicle 52, 1/2: 25–27.

Relief Web. “Global Climate Risk Index 2018: Who Suffers Most From Extreme Weather Events? Weather-related Loss Events in 2016 and 1997 to 2016.” Accessed 8 November, 2018.

UNHCR. “Rohingya Emergency.” Accessed 8 November, 2018.

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