'Kutubdia’ is Gone

Kutubdia island in the Bay of Bengal of Bangladesh is now a row of mangrove trees. It is all that remains of a coastal village that for generations was home to 250 families. The land had been slowly eroding for decades, and was finally engulfed by the ever rising tide, five years ago. The villagers were forced to flee their land. The low-level island of Kutubdia has one of the fastest-ever sea level rises in the world. Some years ago, the island had mango, betel nut and coconut trees. The villagers are now landless. Without regular food supplies, they fish to survive. Village families move home four to five times a year, to escape storm surges. Water enters the village huts in every high tide, especially in the rainy season. A half-built mosque lies abandoned, with its cement foundation washed away. UN scientists predict some of the worst impacts of climate change will occur in South-East Asia, Bangladesh and India. More than 25 million people in Bangladesh will be at risk from sea level rise by 2050. Kutubdia’s 100,000 islanders contribute the least to carbon emission as most do not even have access to a regular electricity supply.

A sea level rise of 8 mm over twenty years has been recorded at Cox Bazar, a town 50 miles away on the mainland. Fishermen of Ali Akbar Dail in Kutubdia no longer fish in the shallow waters around the island, because catches are dwindling, which they believed is linked to the water warming. They now travel 10 to 15 hours, to the deep sea. 2016 witnessed an increase in storm warnings, forcing them back to land, and cutting their earnings further. In December 2016, eighty nine fishermen who left for the deep sea, did not return. Instead of the usual one cyclone, 2016 saw four cyclones. Kutubdia’s climate change refugees or migrants are now living in makeshift corrugated and bamboo huts, in a shanty town called Kutubdia ‘para’ (neighbourhood), behind Cox Bazar airport, site of the longest stretch of sandy beach in the world. The local government wants them to move, so that it can build a bigger airport, to service the growing tourist industry.

They are refugees without wars or riots. They are climate refugees. They are the victims of global warming and sea-level rise. The international community is more concerned about war refugees and how to rehabilitate them. Afghan refugees are languishing in Pakistani camps while Syrian refugees have a harrowing time to have a roof over their heads in the West. But climate refugees are multiplying with every passing year. With UN adopting pious resolutions to tackle global warming and major green house gas emitters refusing to cut emissions, sea-level rise is a hard reality and all the coastal districts in India and Bangladesh, particularly in the low-lying  deltaic region, will see exodus of climate refugees not in the distant future.

In truth many islets in West Bengal and adjoining Bangladesh have already vanished in the sea. It is a matter of time, more and more ‘Kutubdias’ will come into focus.

Traditional parties—left, right and centre—world over have been reluctant to take up issues related to global warming, sea-level rise and climate refugees. If sustainability is a political goal as it is highlighted in all international conferences dedicated to growth and development, global energy consumption must be reduced by 60% and that 80% of the remaining fossil fuels must remain in the ground. If equality is added as a political goal to sustainability, the US and Canada should reduce their energy consumption by 90% and Europe, Japan, Australia and other developed countries by 75%. No, that is not going to happen. Nobody is interested in reducing energy consumption. In other words global warming will remain a fact of life. So is sea-level rise. The Kyoto protocol failed. And the Paris Agreement was vague, not to be taken seriously. Many called it a great fraud. Meanwhile people living in coastal areas will become climate refugees.

‘‘Human society stares at three tipping points—peak oil, global warming and inequaltiy. In 10 years, a third of the world’s population will face severe water scarcity and the other two thirds will be water stressed. Fish catch has declined due to ocean desertification.

Energy overdraw has knocked the carbon cycle out of shape and only half of the CO2 emission is being sequestered back to earth, the other half is accumulating in the atmosphere to cause gloabl warming, which if unchecked, will have severe impacts, including creating millions of climate refugees, [like Kutubdia] massive food and water shortage, hunger, malnutrion, increased morbidity and mortality, mass species extinction etc. Fixing the carbon cycle will take hundres of years.

Any of the three tipping points have the potential to cause civilisation regress or even collapse. Civilisational collapses have happened in the past, e.g., Mayan, Roman and Polynesian civilisations. While in the past such collapses were confined to one civilisation, a collapse today will be global and the damage to society will be incalculable’’.

Vol. 49, No.40, April 9 - 15, 2017