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Rising sea levels in Asia poses big future-challenge for Aus: mass migration of enviro refugees

Posted by gmarkets on 8 October, 2007

Rising sea levels posed far wider challenges to regional security than the survival of small island states in the Western Pacific, wrote Bryan Furnass in The Canberra Times (3/10/2007, p.13).Coastal dwellers: Most of Asia’s densest aggregation of people and productive lands lived at or near the coast, including the cities of Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore, Mumbai and Dhaka. The areas under greatest threat were the Yellow and Yangtze river deltas in China, Manila Bay in the Philippines, the low-lying coastal fringes of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Java in Indonesia, and the Mekong, Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy deltas in Vietnam.

Grim scenarios: Present estimates based on IPCC reports suggested that 150 million people may be at risk from inundation. The worst case scenario would be if global warming exceeded 2C, leading to melting of the West Antarctic Ice shelf. This would result in massive mortality around the Pacific Basin, either directly from flooding or indirectly via food deprivation, infectious diseases or human conflict. Asian inhabitants were likely to seek refuge from rising sea levels by migrating inland or to neighbouring countries with similar cultural and political systems, although experience of the tsunami which devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh in early 2005 suggested that survivors may not have the physical resources or mental resolve to move very far from their homes. No opportunity for local migration existed for Pacific Islanders.

Moral obligation for Aus: Australia and New Zealand clearly had a moral obligation to accept many of them as refugees if their homelands were threatened by inundation from rising sea levels. Some of them – from Tokelaua and Tuvalu – already have negotiated rights to enter NewZealand, and the Marshallese can settle in the United States. Only the inhabitants of Kiribati had no existing migration options and may seek entry into Australia or New Zealand. An optimistic scenario for environmental refugees landing in northern Australia would require extensive consultation with, and acceptance by, local Aboriginal communities.

Northern food-bowl: With higher than average rainfall expected in the north, the long experience of horticulture by the new settlers, combined with Aboriginal knowledge of landscapes and Western expertise in building construction, renewable energy and water technologies might result in the emergence of self-sustaining communities. This could even lead to the transportation of surplus foodstuffs via the Ghan railway to drought-stricken areas in the south, Furnass added.

Reference: Dr Bryan Furnass AM is a retired physician with an interest in environmental health. He was the foundation director of the Australian National University Health service. Background material for this article came from Alan Dupont and Gramm Pearman’s book Heating up the planet (2006).

The Canberra Times, 3/10/2007, p. 13

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