Fencing out climate change: India's porous 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh is marked at points with a fence that could come under fire as climate change continues to create more refugees from Bangladesh. Image: FLICKR/--SAM--
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The fourth in a series of stories on Bangladesh and climate migration.
BHOMRA, Bangladesh – A high, heavily reinforced barbed wire fence cuts a jagged line through an otherwise empty field of tall grass and tamarind plants here. Climate change didn't bring this fence, but it is providing a fresh reason for its existence and ongoing expansion.
On this side of the fence, rising sea levels caused by climate change are beginning to inundate low-lying Bangladesh. Scientists estimate that by midcentury as many as 15 million people could be displaced.
On the other side of the fence, India isn't taking any chances. Already alarmed about illegal immigration, it is nearing completion of about 2,100 miles worth of high-tech fencing along its long and porous border with Bangladesh.
"Bangladesh is a country that could provide more climate refugees than anywhere else on earth," said Isabel Hilton, an environmental commentator whose London-based nonprofit promotes climate change dialogue in China and throughout Asia.
"What that fence says to me is, wherever those people are going to go, they're not going to India," Hilton said.
The prospect of international migration is a touchy subject in Bangladesh. But for national security experts, it's the most feared global consequence of climate change. As warming temperatures deplete water supplies and alter land use, military analysts warn, already-vulnerable communities in Asia and Africa could descend into conflicts and even wars as more people clamor for increasingly scarce resources.
A distant issue, or today's problem?
Research on how climate change might spark conflict is still in its infancy, and it often tends to be thin and speculative. Indeed, a growing body of international conflict experts say the threat is greatly overblown. Nevertheless, the international security argument has become a sharp weapon in the arsenal of climate change activists who want a global emissions treaty.
Just last month, Lord Nicholas Stern, the eminent climate change economist, warned that failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could bring "an extended world war."
But in Bangladesh, where most of the country is less than 20 feet above sea level, many analysts say leaders appear caught between wanting to ring alarm bells about climate change and a desire to avoid the touchy and seemingly unresolvable issue of migration.
India claims that about 5 million Bangladeshis already are living there illegally, while Bangladesh officials say the numbers are wildly exaggerated. The issue is a constant source of tension between the nations. Climate change isn't helping.
"This question of migration to India is one of the topics that is a heated debate in our country, because we believe people are not moving to India," said Abdul Kalam Azad, a senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies. He and others describe climate migration as a distant issue earning an inordinate amount of media hype.
Rabab Fatima, South Asia representative for the International Organization for Migration, said the political sensitivity has led to a dearth of studies on what climate change will mean for migration patterns in Bangladesh.
"The country is not yet prepared to know how to deal with it," she said. The prevailing attitude, she said, is that "climate change is a big problem. Migration is a big problem. Let's not link it. Let it happen in the next generation."
'We are in trouble here'
In the border village of Harinagar, on the other hand, cross-border climate migration is an everyday cause of stress and concern. Almost every person in this cluster of mud and thatch homes has a relative who has illegally crossed the Ichamati River to find work in India.