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A global 'national security' issue lurks at Bangladesh's border

The fourth in a series of stories on Bangladesh and climate migration. Next week: solutions.

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.

Shushanto, 27, said her brother decided last year that he could no longer support his family by casting the river for shrimp fry. He left for India with his wife and child, and a few months later Shushanto's parents joined them. The men do construction work in the town of Gauramganagar, outside Kolkata.

"We are in trouble here. If the water comes up, we will have to move, as well," said Shushanto, who lost part of her home in a September flood. "I don't really want to go, but if the situation arises where I have to go, that's where we'll go."

Villagers readily acknowledge that in this region, which is so close to the border that Indian SIM cards work in Bangladesh cell phones, families have always traversed nations. After all, they share language and customs with their neighbors in India's West Bengal.

Bangladesh officials insist that they haven't detected any new dynamic in such back-and-forth border crossings.

"Even their tigers traverse the same territory," said Azad. "Given the fact that there's a porous border, there could be some possibility that people are moving to India, but moving for a job and coming back."

Some villagers agree. Shumitra, whose two sons moved to India last year for work, said she believes they will return to Harinagar "when there is work." Others say they're not so sure.

Gaurpodomando, 35, whose uncles, brothers and father are living in the same town of Gauramganagar in India, said his family has stopped talking about when they might return home. Instead, he said, his brothers are pushing him to join them in India. Shushanto said she doesn't expect her brother to come back to Harinagar. And even Shumitra, looking longingly at a photograph of her sons and insisting that her sons will come home soon, admits she's prepared to give up her life in Bangladesh.

"They'll be back," she said of her boys and sighed. "But if it doesn't work out for us here, then we'll have to go there."

India sees coastal flooding as 'a national security issue'

India, for its part, sees climate change bringing multiple threats. Rivers feeding both Bangladesh and Pakistan pass through India, but threaten to dry up because of melting glaciers. Meanwhile, the country can barely handle demands for resources from its own citizens and argues that it shouldn't have to accept the victims of a problem caused by the industrialized world.

"If one-third of Bangladesh is flooded, India can soak in some of the refugees, but not all," Retired Air Marshal A.K. Singh, the former commander of India's air force, told a London conference recently. "Low-lying coastal area flooding is a national security issue."

So far, about 1,600 miles of border fencing has been completed, with the work scheduled for completion by March 2010. India maintains that its purpose is to protect the country against smuggling and terrorism as well as illegal immigration. But its fence -- much like the one the United States is building along the Mexican border -- has provoked bitter debate.

"For the countries that build fences, it's not really a way to control immigration but a way to reassure the electorate," said Francois Gemenne, a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris.

"They're more symbolic than really an effective immigration tool."

But Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said the prospect of large-scale migration from Bangladesh represents a real threat to India, and it's one the West should take seriously.

"There are a lot of countries that would like to see India weakened," like China and Pakistan, Paskal said. She argued that if Bangladesh is destabilized by climate change, Islamic radical elements are more likely to prey on vulnerable communities. That, she said, could easily lead to more deadly attacks like the one in Mumbai, India, earlier this year.

An 'adaptive capacity' at work

Bangladesh officials, meanwhile, say the fence and everything it represents are just distractions. The country needs to build embankments, they say. It needs cyclone shelters and rice research. And it needs to address the already explosive internal migration to its capital city, Dhaka, an issue that rarely makes it into dramatic climate change reports.

"Prevention isn't sexy," said Omar Rahman, president of the Independent University, Bangladesh, in Dhaka.

"We shouldn't close our eyes to the possibility of [mass migration] happening, but I don't think it should distract from more immediate needs," he said.

Niels Veenis, first secretary for water management at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Bangladesh, said he sees some signs of progress. A participatory water management project in parts of the country, he noted, has been helping communities wrest infrastructure maintenance out of the hands of underfunded, undermanned central governments and into their own hands.

As to the larger threat of mass migration, Veenis said, "The threat is there. If you don't manage the threat, then yes, you're looking at a very dire situation. But Bangladesh has been given the natural tools to do something."

Paskal, of the Royal Institute, said Bangladesh, by pouring money and research into new ways to deal with climate change, is actually protecting the world from conflict.

"We need a stable India, and [climate migration] has the potential to destabilize India," she said. "If we try to put pressure on India to take in refugees, we're undermining our credibility in India's eyes."

But, Paskal said, Bangladesh "is a nation of serious, hard-working people. It is their adaptive capacity that is cushioning us from some of the worst impacts."

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