Indian Decade

Death of an Island

The submergence of an island upends conflict and climate conventional wisdom.

In an article I wrote last month I mentioned the danger of climate change-induced border wars among nations. My argument was that many of the countries with glacial borders may see changing international boundaries as a result of glaciers melting, changes that could trigger conflicts. Yet strangely just the opposite thing has happened between India and Bangladesh.

New Moore Island, or Purbasha, in the Bay of Bengal, became a major flashpoint in India-Bangladesh ties nearly three decades ago, yet has now been completely swallowed by the rising sea. So it’s good riddance to a diplomatic row that had led to a major showdown between the two neighbours in 1981, when India sent naval ships to the island. India was promptly accused of behaving like Big Brother and flexing its military muscle against a smaller, weaker neighbour for a 3.5 kilometre-long by 3 kilometre-wide island that was never permanently settled.

The island was first noticed by satellite images in 1974, though experts claimed that the island was at least 50 years-old. At that time also, the island surface was just two meters above the sea level. Ironically, the news of the death of the island has also come by way of satellite images.

The news is bound to be shocking for the Sunderbans delta, spread across West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh, which is shrinking at an alarming rate. The Sunderbans area has shrunk from 6,569.799 sq km in 1969 to 6,359.552 sq km in 2009. Indian scientific projections suggest that more areas in the country are going to be submerged within a decade by rising sea levels.