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Calcutta, India



Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

Given the accelerated rate of melting that we are seeing in the world during the early years of this century, we could be looking at a rise in sea level of some five feet during this century. If sea level rise is three feet it will cover close to half the rice land in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has 151 million people. Imagine such a large share of that population losing its rice harvest.

What this will translate into is the massive displacement of people, not thousands, or hundreds of thousands but tens of millions. In Bangladesh it’s difficult to imagine compressing that population into a much smaller area.

V. Ramaswamy, Community Organizer

Over the last two decades or so, impoverished Bangladeshis also keep coming into India for livelihood. They may be here for just a day, or a few days, or a few months, so for the poor boundaries don't really matter. When they have to survive, they will scale any boundaries. They will go over them, through them, or under them because poverty does not recognize boundaries.

At night, the streets of Calcutta come alive. However, behind the shimmering mask of endless neon, there’s a place writer Rudyard Kipling called “the city of dreadful night.” In the unflinching light of day, the enormous difficulties facing 15 million inhabitants seem overwhelming.

Despite all the hardships, Calcutta has always been a major destination for illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Over the border near the city, Bangladesh is country defined by water. At its heart is a series of rivers and streams that rise in the Himalayas and slowly make their way to the Bay of Bengal. Here in the delta, the rhythms of life have not changed in centuries.

Monsoons of Bangladesh
Monsoons of Bangladesh

For two months each year, monsoons sweep across three quarters of Bangladesh. Though as many as twenty-five million are sometimes left homeless by the floods, the country has always managed to cope with these annual events. However there's a geographic reality that Bangladesh can never escape, most of the country is only a few feet above sea level.

In the future, when sea level rise inundates the lowlands of Bangladesh, millions will be forced to seek shelter in unflooded cities. Many will come to the country's capital, Dhaka. But the teeming streets and back alleys of Dhaka won't be able to handle the influx of migrants. Of its nine million citizens, three million already live in extreme poverty, with no electricity, no running water, and no toilets.

In a city already prone to political violence, as food shortages put extreme pressure on the population, riots will undoubtedly break out. So once again, millions of environmental migrants will be forced to find a new home. Only this time their destination will cross political boundaries, into neighboring India.

Streets of Calcutta
Streets of Calcutta

The flight of tens or even hundreds of millions of sea level rise refugees may be many decades away, but what will happen when sea level rise leaves tens of millions homeless and angry? How will they cross a border that will undoubtedly become more secure?


Read more about The State of the Planet's Oceans:
Introduction | Aveiro | Belize | Calcutta | Dry Tortugas | Greenland | Lima | New Bedford


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Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization | State of the Planet's Oceans | State of the Ocean's Animals
State of the Planet's Wildlife | The State of the Planet | Future Conditional | On the Brink | Hot Zones
Seas of Grass | Land of Plenty, Land of Want | Urban Explosion | Rivers of Destiny

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