Over a hundred people were killed in north India in July this year by the recent flooding across different states – Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi. We watched in horror as roads in the capital became akin to rivers.
Over the recent years, studies by international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as well as the Indian government, have been warning that climate change will result in increased flooding and droughts in South Asia.
Last year, flooding impacted over 33 million people in Pakistan, killing over 1,700 and displacing over 7 million people. In 2020, Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Bangladesh and India, and close to 50,000 families lost their homes in Bangladesh alone. People were also displaced in India and Sri Lanka.
The Maldives, an island nation and the lowest-lying country in the world, is already preparing for possible complete submergence due to climate change in the future, and discussing options to deal with the mass displacement that will result. The landlocked countries Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan are also under increased threats of drought.
Changing climate patterns, due to human-induced increase in global temperatures, clearly have a complete disregard for international borders.
South Asia as a region is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Extreme weather events such as the current flooding in India devastate communities, resulting in internally and internationally displaced populations.
The World Bank estimates a worst-case scenario for South Asia where flooding alone may cost US $215 billion each year by 2030, and by 2050, the Bank projects the region may have up to 40 million climate migrants. As a best-case scenario, it still projects 20 million climate migrants in the region by 2050.
It also estimates that over 800 million people in the region live in areas that can experience extreme weather events by 2050.
The Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2021 ranks India, Pakistan and Bangladesh among the top 20 at-risk countries. Another study by ActionAid and Climate Action Network South Asia projects the number of climate displacements at 45 million in India alone. South Asia needs a humane and actionable policy framework to deal with this climate change-induced migration.
Among the countries in the region, only Afghanistan is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocols.
While the 1951 Convention and its protocols provide an international normative framework for the treatment of refugees who are under a threat to life, its scope is limited by the criteria it uses: movement must be across international borders and the persecution must be along the lines of race, nationality, political opinion, nationality or membership in a social group.
Those displaced by climate change are often termed ‘climate refugees’ in research discourse and are not covered by either the 1951 Refugee Convention or by the international norms for the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Most of the climate migration in South Asia is projected to be internal within countries. However, climate change is also expected to fuel migration from neighbouring Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives into India.
An effective response to these projected climate migrations involves two steps. The first is to recognise migration as a natural response to change in circumstance. People migrate for various reasons such as education, employment, family reunification, political persecution, conflict, etc., and climate migration must also be acknowledged as a legitimate response to threats to life and well-being.
While there are a number of adaptation initiatives operational in the region at the initiative of the governments and organisations such as the World Bank and the IOM, further cooperation between South Asian countries is needed to effectively adapt to the new reality of climate migration.
The second step is for South Asian countries to commit to dialogue and discussion to chalk out a plan to adapt to climate migration and come up with a clear policy framework for the same. The strained ties between India and Pakistan in South Asia have hampered regional integration and cooperation in the region.
But given the scale and rapid worsening of the problem of climate change – as north India witnessed this season – means that sustained dialogue between South Asian countries to come up with policy imperatives regarding the rescue, relief and rehabilitation of climate migrants in the region is the practical way to deal with what can in the future become a large humanitarian crisis.
Otherwise, inevitable climate migrations at the scale projected could lead to a worsening security situation in the region due to the already prevalent distrust.
The key here is multilateral official diplomatic discussions between South Asian countries, as well as track II dialogues (sometimes also called ‘backchannel diplomacy’), i.e., discussions between non-state actors as groups or individuals when official diplomatic dialogue does not yield expected positive results.
Institutionalising countries’ responses and developing standard governance regulations in the region, alongside sharing relevant data across countries in the region, are imperative. After all, climate change does not care where the borders lie.
Samah Rafiq is senior teaching fellow and research fellow, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London.