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Last Updated: 07/15/2013Climate Change, Sea Level Rise and Conflict Resolution of South Talpatti/New Moore Island
What happens when rising sea levels submerge an island at the center of an international territorial dispute? Ishak Mia argues that it may lead to conflict resolution.
During the last two decades, scholars in international relations and security studies have made significant contributions towards brining climate change to the center of security discourse by labeling it as a conflict trigger or multiplier. As climate change has already had observable effects on the well-being of individuals and communities in terms of resource degradation, food insecurity, livelihoods vulnerability and often causes internal and cross-border migration, the risk of environmentally-induced conflict is becoming increasingly evident. In scientific literature, there is a growing body of research identifying the relationship between climate change, environmental scarcity and violent conflict. But what about the other side of the coin – will climate change yield peace dividends and prevent conflict? A unique treatment of climate change to a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal demonstrates that climate change can contribute to reduce or resolve conflict between nations. The uninhabited island, which India called the New Moore and Bangladesh referred to as South Talpatti, has recently been submerged by rising sea level and put an end to three-decade-long conflict between two states over islands’ ownership. This unusual example indicates a need for investigations to determine the part played by climate change as peacemaker or conflict resolver. This article, therefore, discusses whether global climate change has a resolution of the territorial conflicts around the world with presenting the South Talpatti/New Moore Island as a case.
History and Issues of Conflict
The Island formed by deposition of sandbars unexpectedly surfaced in the Bay of Bengal in the wake of Bhola cyclone in 1970. Bhola was the deadliest tropical storm in recorded history, killing an estimated 500,000 people, and it catalyzed the Bangladesh war of independence from West Pakistan, which was deeply implicated in its ineffective response to the disaster. The island was about 3.5 km long and 3 km wide, located in mid-channel flow of the estuary of Hariabhanga river that draws the river borderline between India and Bangladesh. Soon after its emergence, India claimed it and was chased by Bangladesh about eight years later amid speculation that there might be oil or natural gas beneath deep its sandy shores. Bangladesh didn’t assert claims to the island until the late 1970s, mostly because the government was engaged in the challenging task of reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war-ravaged country when it became independent in 1971. In no time during this period, India drew Bangladesh’s specific attention to the island. Bangladesh was reportedly told of the ramification of the presence of this island in 1974 on demarcation of sea boundary in the Bay of Bengal when Indian delegation visited Dhaka. Soon thereafter, it came to the fore of media and policymakers’ attention in Bangladesh. National newspapers highlighted the issue with great importance by publishing numerous reports and feature articles. The concerned Bangladesh authorities made tremendous efforts to depict the island was a part of their territory based on scientific data and satellite imageries. Eventually, the President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh raised the matter with the Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai when the two former heads of state met in Dhaka on promoting bilateral ties in 1979.
Bangladesh claimed that the main channel of the Hariabhanga river was flowing through the west side of South Talpatty, whereas India maintained the eastern channel was the main flow. The key issue dividing both sides was the differences of opinion in determining the main flow of Hariabhanga river that let them claim the island as their own. Additionally, there were other arguments laid on both sides of acquiring the right of sovereignty over the island. India asserted that New Moore Island was closer to Indian landmass and the country owned the island since its birth in 1970. Bangladesh similarly stressed that the island was a natural prolongation of its land territory. Such different views of the two sides were sharply expressed in several high-level bilateral meetings held in the late 1970s and early 1980s, turning the issue of ownership into a subject of heated controversy.
In fact, the possibility of using the land-mass and sea around the New Moore Island for securing sea food, mineral resources and natural gas made the island very important in the eyes of India and Bangladesh. The conflict was not merely over controlling the small uninhabited island, but it had more to deal with the possession of natural resources situated within its own territorial limits. In times of scarce national wealth and high population densities, marine resources are immensely important for both India and Bangladesh. As the maritime boundaries of the two countries still remain undemarcated, there was a presumption supported by experts — that any country who could establish the rights of sovereignty over the island would gain control of a larger area of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Bay of Bengal than originally claimed. Maj. Gen. (ret.) Muniruzzaman Khan, director of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, said that any decision about ownership of the island will have a land mass impact on both countries and on the maritime boundary baselines in which EEZs [exclusive economic zones] and continental shelves are calculated. If the island were to be of very little economic and strategic significance, neither India nor Bangladesh would have shown any serious interest in the territory. Considering these factors, the dispute didn’t offer much space for compromise.
In 1978-1980, both countries had gone through serious claims and counter-claims over its proprietorship and embroiled in a diplomatic tussle. The dispute also contributed to the growth of anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh by fuelling fears of India’s alleged desire to acquire Bangladesh’s territory. During then-Indian Minister of External Affairs Narashima Rao visited Bangladesh on 16th August, 1980 amid anti-Indian demonstrations. Major cities were filled with protests against India’s rival claim of South Talpatti Island and the Dhaka office of Air India was ransacked by an angry mob. This resulted in more focus on troubled island during a negotiation between Narashima Rao and his Bangladeshi counterpart over unsettled bilateral disputes. In a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister to Dhaka on August 18, 1980, it was announced that after study of the additional information exchanged between the two governments, further discussion would take place with a view to settling it peacefully at an early date. But after the change of government, India distanced itself from its commitment to conducting a joint survey.
To resolve the matter by force, India dispatched a naval frigate known as ‘INS Sandhayak’ to the disputed territory on May 9, 1981. A small team of military personnel landed there and hoisted Indian flag in order to establish India’s ownership over the island. Such act of physical force made the situation very alarming, aggravating the possibility of military conflict in the region. India refereed the ‘INS Sandhayak’ as an oceanographic survey vessel, cruised mainly in the area to collect data and other traits of the island. Bangladesh, on the other hand, responded quickly to the survey by saying that India’s unilateral action in South Talpatti was a flagrant violation of the agreements and understanding between the two governments. It demanded immediate withdrawal of all Indian troops from the island and Indian warships from the territorial waters of Bangladesh. The change in India’s stance also evoked sharp reactions among politicians and common people in Bangladesh. A series of protest rallies and meetings was organized by different political parties in front of the Indian High Commission office in Dacca, demanding an immediate withdrawal of the Indian force off the island.
India, however, firmly rejected Bangladesh’s objection to pull its presence out of the island as it fell well under the jurisdiction of Indian territory. This prompted Bangladesh’s government to deploy three gunboats - Bishakhali, Patuakhali, and Noakhali in the area on May 12, 13 and 14 which threatened the Indian survey ship ‘INS Sandhayak’. The action was leveled as “gunboat diplomacy” on the part of Bangladesh. India perceived it as a threat to its own territorial security and reacted with sending six naval ships including a Petya class anti-submarine frigate called “INS Andaman” to assist “INS Sandhayak”. Both sides were alarmed by the apparent chances of naval skirmish and accused the other of acting in a provocative manner by sending warships into each other’s territorial waters. During this time of high military tensions, the government of Bangladesh published a White Paper on South Talpatty and submitted to the Parliament on May 16, 1981. The Paper convincingly argued the merits of Bangladesh’s case. It also proposed a joint survey to delineate the ownership of the island. Denying the Bangladesh proposal, in a Note Verbale, the government of India argued that the island had owned by India since 1971 and hence it found no justification for conducting a joint survey. The Note Verbale was handed-over to the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi by Indian Ministry of External Affairs in May 1981.
Fortunately, such aggravated condition for potentials of an armed conflict was avoided through diplomatic efforts. As the two countries decided to undertake all necessary steps for settling the dispute peacefully, naval forces of the respective sides were withdrawn right away. A high-level talk between the foreign ministers of the two countries took place on 11 September, 1981. There was ultimately nothing that they could gain to resolve the dispute of rightful ownership—rather, Indian naval ships started patrolling waters around the island occasionally. It is an undeniable fact that Bangladesh can not compete with India in terms of military force. Again in 1982, Lt. General Hossain Mohammad Ershad of Bangladesh and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India held negotiations in New Delhi, but the leaders were unable to come up with solutions over New Moore Island. By the mid-1980s to late 1990s, the issue was somewhere far off away in a corner because of shifting the tension to land border where India began erecting a barbed-wire fence despite Bangladesh’s objection. Since then, tension along the Indo-Bangladesh frontier has often been intolerable, sparking sometimes violent confrontation between the Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) and the Indian Border Security Force (BSF).
In 1998, the issue once again became a focus of tension after the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) established a base on the island and the Indian navy started visiting the island regularly. The presence of BSF was not only to serious breach of the solemn agreements concluded at the highest political level but also tantamount to serious provocation to Bangladesh. As a result, the quarrel over the island was compounded in 2001 when border skirmishes occurred in Meghalaya state of India and the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. Dhaka accused India of holding territory in the area illegally since 1971. An operation by the Bangladesh troops against the Indian army resulted in the death of 16 Indian and three Bangladeshi soldiers. In 2003, former Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan of Bangladesh identified seven unresolved issues with India in the national parliament including the South Talpatty. Accordingly, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence asked the Bangladesh Navy to ensure Bangladesh’s sovereignty over South Talpatty Island. The Chairman of the Committee said that the island was an integral part of Bangladesh. These claims and counter-claims made by the two sides with unrestrained acts in no way helped to produce settlement. Even at the last bilateral talk on maritime boundary issue held on 16 September 2008, both India and Bangladesh upheld their earlier position, presenting respective historic and legal claims to the island. The dispute finally ended after it was discovered by scientists that the island had disappeared beneath rising seas.
Sea level Rise and Conflict Resolution
One of the major consequences of climate change has been shrinking of mountain glaciers rapidly, which in turn leads to higher sea levels. A recent study shows that sea levels have been rising by 3.2mm per year for the last 30 years. This has brought to costal areas and ocean islands a greater risk of drowning. Tiny low-laying islands are especially vulnerable to disappearance, some of which have been the source of long-running conflicts between nations. It is predicted that sea level rise linked to global warming will leave a hope for peaceful adjustment of controversial territorial and maritime disputes in the near future. The recent disappearance of troublesome South Talpatti/New Moore Island indicates the validity of that prediction.
In 2010, the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in India confirmed the submergence of the island by satellite imagery, sea patrols and observations of seasoned fishermen. Its scientists claimed that sea level rise resulting from climate change was “surely” a factor in the island inundation. Studies also revealed an alarming increase in the rate at which sea levels have risen over the past decade in the Bay of Bengal. Until 2000, the sea levels rose about 3mm a year, but over the last decade they have been rising about 5mm annually. Oceanographers believe that such faster rate of rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal than elsewhere was responsible for sinking the island dramatically. The recent satellite images prove the entire island is now under water.
Some experts think the island inundation is a good sign that there are no more arguments left for India and Bangladesh in the question of the disputes over ownership rights. Neither country has made assertion yet after the island vanishes into sea. Thus, it can be said that climate change has resolved the dispute for them. In words of Professor Sugata Hazra of the School of Oceanographic Studies, “Decades of negotiation between the two countries could not resolve the dispute. Climate change has obliterated the very source of it”. He also sees in the case of New Moore Island a possible peace dividend of climate change. Ben Arnoldy, deputy international editor of the Christian Science Monitor, characterized the disappearance of the island as “a rare instance where suspected climate change may contribute to the easing of a conflict”. This is indeed the first case in which climate change appears to have settled an intractable territorial conflict that had gone on for more than thirty years between India and Bangladesh. Like South Talpatti/New Moore, there are already dozens of low-lying islands in the world claimed by more than one country and have been longstanding source of friction between the claimant states. There is still, however, no effective international resolution to settle the differences and claims among the states. It has been speculated that sea-level rise might yield unlocked for benefits in terms of its impact on contentious territorial and maritime disputes. In particular, multiple territorial and maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea and East China Sea, revolve around sovereignty over small, isolated and, critically, frequently low-lying islands.
The dispute over sovereignty to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea is the most complicated and long one that started in the early 1970s, but continues to plague Sino-ASEAN relations. The islands territory comprises of more than 100 uninhabited small islands and faces ownership claims from Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The parties have so far been unable to put the sovereignty issue aside and work together to find a peaceful solution. But climate change will have an impact on prospects for settling disputes between them. According to Diplomat, an Asia-Pacific-focused publication, tense dispute over South China Sea (SCS) territories may soon be rendered obsolete by climate change driven sea-level rise. With imminent sea-level rise on the horizon, the low-lying islands of the South China Sea will likely disappear and scuttle the conflicting claims. Schofield and Arsana hold the similar view that the small insular features at the center of these disputes may well be threatened with inundation through sea level rise, potentially removing the key driver for these disputes, the territory at stake, from the equation. The prospect of sea-level rise entirely submerging the fundamental focus of dispute, the islands themselves, and thus arguably resolving the conflict, represents an alluring prospect. It is worth considering that prospect of climate change in order to identify its role as conflict resolver, especially when the changing elements of global environment are largely blamed for driving different types of conflicts.
There is no doubt that climate change is happening and consequently, sea levels are rising. It poses new challenges for developing nations not only in terms of adapting to shrinking resources but also in terms of facing different types of conflict. Security experts have long warned that climate change will exacerbate existing tensions within and between nations. But the recent incident of submerging the disputed South Talpatti/New Moore Island in the Bay of Bengal is bringing more attention to the issue that climate change has a few positive effects as well and it can do to help ease tension between nations. There is need for research on both theoretical and empirical grounds to better understand how climate change affects small islands in conflicts, potentially curtailing the ability of claimant states to acquire territorial dominion, and thus making peace. This will offer lessons for countries fighting over small island territories that, if they don’t seek compromise, climate change will soon act as conflict resolver for them.
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 Clive Schofield and Andi Arsana (2012).
Ishak Mia is an Independent Analyst and resides in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He previously worked at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI), Finland. Ishak Mia holds an International MA Degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from the Universitat Jaume-I, Spain.