At over 10,000 square kilometres and accounting for 85% of India’s Mangrove forests, the Sundarbans is one of India’s most important biodiversity hotspots. Located in the north-east, the area is also on the front lines of an incoming crisis. A combination of rising sea levels, increasing global temperatures, and inadequate state assistance are all pushing the delicate ecosystem and its residents towards a point of no return. If nothing is done, the residents of the Sundarbans could very well become India’s first climate refugees.
The U.N World Meteorological Organization (UNWMO) estimated that by the year 2100, global temperatures will likely rise by 3–5°C. Given this, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that sea levels could rise anywhere between 0.26m and 0.98m. With an elevation of under one metre, this poses a massive risk for the Sundarbans. However, its residents can already feel the pressure to adapt to an ever-changing landscape.
On the island of Mousuni, a community that primarily relies on agriculture and fishing, over 70% of previously farmable land has become unusable due to increased salinity. The state of West Bengal has also been unable to conduct the necessary infrastructure initiatives to protect the area, leaving it vulnerable to storms like Cyclone Amphan. With farmland sinking beneath the waves, homes being torn due to climate change enhanced storms, and inadequate government assistance, the impoverished are left with just one choice, flee.
The residents of the Sundarbans might still be alright, since India itself remains safe, for now. In the South Pacific, entire countries prepare for the likely future of ceasing to exist. The island nation of Kiribati has already purchased land in Fiji, anticipating transplanting citizens there. The same extends to the nation of Tuvalu, which has also considered shifting to more stable environments like Fiji and Australia. The lack of internationally recognised literature on climate change as a cause of fleeing only adds insult to injury. It’s a symbol of laws from another time failing to address a very 21st-century crisis
The issue of climate refugees hasn’t made any major headlines. Is it because their numbers pale in comparison to those fleeing wars or is it because they’re from “unimportant” nations, we may not know. However, it is clear that the world must look to these issues, for they are a grim reflection of the future to come. With 600 million people living in coastal areas less than 10m above sea level, the refugee crisis of the future could be disastrous. Cities like Mumbai, New York, Lisbon, and Dhaka, all major metropolises with millions of residents, could one day be under the waves.
At this rate, it’s gonna be you and me.
WE are the refugees of the future.