Disputed island disappears under rising sea

NEW DELHI — An island disputed by both India and Bangladesh has been claimed instead by the ocean, marking a rare instance where suspected climate change may contribute to the easing of a conflict.

What the Indians call New Moore island and the Bangladeshis call South Talpatti lies in the Bay of Bengal, a region with large potential reserves of gas and oil. Satellite imagery shows the island now submerged, says Sugata Hazra, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Calcutta.

“We can see the island still at lowest-tide level, and it has dispersed within the sea,” says Professor Hazra. “It is below the high-tide level.”

He blames the loss of the uninhabited island – and several others in recent years – to rising sea levels and surface temperatures in the northern Bay of Bengal. “Climate change is one of the major impacting factors,” he says, adding that “it may not be solely responsible.”

Decades-old boundary dispute
The islands in the area are the unstable creations of the Bhramaputra river delta. New Moore first emerged on satellite images in 1974, and in 1981 India sent naval ships to plant a flag. The island has become central to a broader maritime dispute intensifying as a United Nations deadline of 2011 looms for resolving the issue.

Any decision about ownership of the island “will have a land mass impact on both countries and on the maritime boundary baselines in which EEZs [exclusive economic zones] and continental shelves are calculated,” says Maj. Gen. (ret.) Muniruzzaman Khan, director of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.

India and Burma (Myanmar) submitted maritime boundary claims last year that would deny Bangladesh any continental shelf as well as an independent gateway to the Indian Ocean, says General Khan, adding that Bangladesh almost came to blows with Burma over it. Bangladesh has until 2011 to submit its maritime claims under the UN Oceans and Law of the Sea treaty.

Peace dividend?
Experts have long warned that climate change would exacerbate such conflicts over territory and natural resources. Scenarios have included expanding deserts on tribally disputed African lands, dwindling glacial runoff in rivers shared by India and Pakistan, and island refugees from places like the Maldives demanding a new homeland.

In this case, it’s too early to know if the disappearance of the island could help ease the maritime dispute between India and Bangladesh, says Khan.

Hazra calls climate change the greatest threat to humankind after nuclear war. But he also sees in the case of New Moore island a possible peace dividend of climate change. “If somebody could [figure out how] it would stop all kinds of war, that will also help us reduce emissions,” he adds with a laugh.

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