By Rhea Kumar:
Once upon a time there was an island. An island with picturesque surroundings and happy, hard working people. Removed from the hustle and bustle of mainland life, it was but a pinprick on the map of the world, but for its people, it was the whole universe. Then one day, this beautiful island disappeared underwater.
This short story may remind you of the myth of Atlantis, the ancient island in the Mediterranean Sea that sank under water due to the wrath of the Gods. Yet today, many islands and coastal areas across the world are meeting the same fate as the Atlantis.
Here are some alarming facts. In the next 20 years, Venice, the city of canals and gondolas, may sink up to 3.2 inches relative to the sea. The city has been sinking at a steady rate of 2 mm per year, owing to various natural factors, and has also experienced floods in recent times, but the rate of sinking is set to double in the next few years due to sea level rises. That means Venice may disappear off the face of the earth in a century’s time! Venice is also tilting alarmingly towards the east, according to recent studies.
Unfortunately, inhabitants of many other islands are also rapidly running out of time. As many as 90 other Indian islands in the Bay of Bengal are at ‘real risk’ of disappearing in the next century. The island of Pondicherry faces similar threats as do other low lying coastal areas across the world. There are several causes behind this little known but flabbergasting phenomenon: including tectonic movements in the Adriatic sea, compression of land due to heavy construction, the changing course of rivers and soil erosion and sinking due to groundwater depletion. The causes vary from place to place and study to study, but one common cause that runs across all these instances is global warming. Global warming has had a twofold effect on these islands: it has increased the sea surface temperatures and led to melting of glaciers. The end result is rising sea levels, leading to flooding, sinking and rapid disappearance of islands.
You may think that the disappearance of a few remote islands is no major catastrophe. You may also think that a century is a long time, too long for us to be so concerned. Yet consider this, many of these islands have already become uninhabitable due to excessive flooding and erosion, creating a fresh stream of refugees, the `climate refugees’. In the Sunderbans, people are being deported to other islands as their homes get washed under the sand. They enjoy no security of tenure in their new homes, and are often evicted by the government to make way for construction projects.
The damageÂ doesn’tÂ stop there, it is likely to come much closer home and sooner than we may anticipate. The problem has already extended beyond coastal areas into hamlets in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. And it is set to hit mainland cities too. For centuries, the mangroves in the Sunderbans have protected the mainland from large tropical storms. The disappearance of islands in the Sunderbans and the subsequent destruction of mangroves have increased the threat of devastating storms hitting nearby cities like Kolkata or Dhaka. Which means that your city and your home could be the next target.
So, what is the solution? In Venice, city leaders are investing about 2 to 3 million Euros in installing heavy steel gates to block water from flooding Venice. Pondicherry is planning to bring in artificial sand reserves to bring down the rate of coastal erosion, a technology that it is borrowing from France. Yet these measures are short term and will only stop the floods for another 20-30 years. What we need is a sustainable and long term solution to save these islands from becoming another Atlantis. The future of these islands, their people, and to a considerable extent, the entire human civilization, is at stake.
The only solutions that can help us achieve this are the ones that address the root cause, global warming. Nations and industries need to shift their production processes to incorporate alternative andÂ EcoÂ friendly forms of technology that cut their carbon footprint, and thereby reduce global warming. An interesting theory put forward by Princeton University is that of ‘stabilization wedges’. This proposes that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced from a variety of sources with technologies available in the next few decades, rather than relying on an enormous change in a single area. They suggest seven wedges that could each reduce and stabilize emissions: improvements in energy efficiency of vehicles, increased use of wind and solar power, hydrogen produced from renewable sources, biofuels (produced from crops), natural gas, nuclear power and planting more trees for storing carbon dioxide (called carbon sequestration).
And we, as individuals, need to be a little more vigilant and discerning when utilizing energy. This does not necessarily mean a lower standard of living or returning to the primitive ages. If we could just switch off extra lights and fans, walk short distances and use public transport more frequently, we would have given our due to the earth, to humanity and to posterity.
The annual climate change conferences in the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol regularly witness a power game between developed and developing countries, as each block presses the other to reduce its carbon emissions. While delegates in crisp suits and trendy dresses debate on the nuances of clauses and sub-clauses, somewhere, another family is losing their home. Another farmer is watching his crop go to ruin. Another piazza sinks slowly into the sea. And another island is turning into the next Atlantis.