Saturday, 8 May 2010

The watery demise of an island

Our environmental specialist Stuart Hawkslee examines the impact of rising sea levels on politics.

Stuart Hawkslee
The FET, Saturday 8th May
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How can you determine whether two countries engaged in a territorial dispute truly care for the land in question? In the case of a small island in the Bay of Bengal, it appears that neither India nor Bangladesh were quite as concerned as their military threats in the 1980s suggested.

Known as New Moore to the Indians, and South Talpatti to the Bangladeshis, this small island once warranted regular visits from Indian naval gunships. Presumably it was believed that valuable natural resources might lie beneath the surface.

However, if either country had maintained even a passing interest in this once contested territory, they might have noticed that it is no longer there. Less than thirty years after its appearance in the 1970s, it has retreated back below the waves.

While New South Moorpatti’s passing generated little interest, some quite heated disputes could plausibly be brought to a close by rising sea levels. The Israel-Palestine conflict springs to mind. The coastal Gaza Strip is at risk, not to mention the West Bank, much of which is already below sea level.

What about Britain’s remaining overseas interests? Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are sources of tension to this day. It is good to know that climate change, for all the damage that it may cause, could potentially improve our relations with Spain and Argentina.

But is this such a bad thing? Would we really prefer to be eating like the apostles, with a few bits of bread and the odd potato? Thirteen Easter eggs is an awful lot, especially when consumed in the space of four days, but the occasional waffle?

Some disputes, however, seem destined to be resolved through other means. Tibet’s struggle for independence from the People’s Republic of China, for example. With the rate of sea level increase as it is, it would take well over a million years (and an as yet undiscovered source of extra water) for the Tibetan capital Lhasa to be submerged.

As it happens, much of the Earth’s low-lying land is disputed by no one at all. What is there to be gained from the loss of the Netherlands, Micronesia or New York? If the Fens are swallowed up by the North Sea, the only dispute that will be avoided is the Boat Race. Would that be worth it? I think not.

Unlike New South Moorpatti, Cambridge would be missed, and so would many of these places threatened by rising sea levels. Such as Norwich, or Bury St Edmunds. And perhaps also Florida. And if in a million years or so Tibet follows them, and if anyone is still alive to see it, I expect that Tibet would be missed as well.

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