Strange case of the disappearing islands

By Cleo Paskal

Global warming may have far-reaching consequences, but possible international conflicts are avoidable

Tuvalu, an island in danger. Photo / NASA
Tuvalu, an island in danger. Photo / NASA

In September 2009 it was reported that, in spite of being on maps for centuries, the tiny island of Bermeja, in the Gulf of Mexico, could no longer be found.

The Mexican Government sent out planes and boats and used satellites to try to find it but it was gone. And, along with it, a large claim Mexico was making in the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the Gulf. Some in Mexico said that, clearly, the CIA had blown up their island to subvert their stake.

The United States' response was clear: no island, no claim.

New Moore Island was a hotly contested island in the Bay of Bengal. Claimed by both India and Bangladesh, it was in a geostrategic position, at the mouth of the Hariabhanga river, the boundary between the two countries. For decades the two countries manoeuvred for control. No more.

A few weeks ago, news broke that New Moore Island had disappeared, probably due to rising sea levels. And when the island disappeared, so did the claims.

With rising sea levels, the problem of land loss potentially leading to maritime zone loss is likely to come up more and more often. This is especially true in the Pacific, where there are entire nations composed of tiny, low-lying islands. One may think of Kiribati as a small country, but because its islands are well scattered over a large section of the Pacific, it has a maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) approximately the size of India. That's a lot of fish, seabed mining rights, shipping lanes and geostrategic positioning (it's not an accident that China had a much-valued base in Kiribati).

As islands submerge, seabed rights could be lost, valuable and culturally important territorial fishing grounds could pass in to international waters, and, in the most extreme case - say if Tuvalu is submerged and evacuated - there is the prospect of the legal extinction of an entire country.

If Tuvalu is no longer above sea level, and "no island, no claim" is invoked, Tuvalu could face not only losing its fishing grounds, but cease to exist as a state, thus losing its seat in the United Nations and having its citizens become, literally, stateless.

There may be ways to avoid this, but planning will need to begin now. And the starting point is the main law governing the seas, the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Signed by all major countries except the US, the convention is an exceptional document, offering myriad, detailed guidelines for measuring maritime boundaries and more.

However, the convention operates from the assumption that there will be no major changes to the coastlines and islands upon which claims are made - something that is already not the case.

The way the convention claims the system works is, a country puts in the map of its claims and, assuming it follows the guidelines, the map is accepted. Unless the map is challenged by another country; that is where it can get very political, very quickly.

Assume a nation puts in a map based on existing islands but, in a few years, some of those islands disappear or the coastline floods and retreats. Other countries may threaten to challenge that nation's claim unless it gives them concessions in other areas, for example in the UN.

Or, if other nations want access to the waters themselves, they may challenge the claims regardless. It may be possible to attenuate some of these problems by freezing borders at a given point in time (say as per satellite imagery from 2005), but many complications will remain.

Because the convention didn't take environmental change in to account when it was drafted, it may end up creating new geopolitical hotspots. Some are trying to bypass this by finding bilateral or regional solutions.

As with Tuvalu, the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives is composed entirely of low-lying coral atolls. Its president, Mohamed Nasheed, has been actively trying to secure a home for his citizens should evacuation prove necessary. One approach was land purchase. According to President Nasheed: "We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis [began by buying] land in Palestine."

Another approach is to use the value of national sovereignty to "pay" for relocation. In that model, neighbouring India, for example, would take in the Maldivian immigrants in exchange for India being able to extend its national waters to include Maldivian waters.

The proceeds from this extended EEZ (fisheries rights, seabed mining, etc) could be used to resettle and set up a trust fund for Maldivian immigrants, along the lines of land claim settlements in Canada. Maldivians could also get preferential access to the waters for economic development and, should the islands ever re-emerge, resettlement could be possible. The advantage for India would be an orderly settlement of relatively wealthy immigrants, and an extension of its coastal security zone.

This model might also be applicable in the Pacific. For example, if as the scientists tell us, Tuvalu will eventually need to be evacuated, and New Zealand takes in the bulk of the refugees, that patch of ocean could be administered from New Zealand by and for the benefit of the immigrants, affording resettlement money and economic prospects associated with their old homeland for those who want it.

The administration could be done through a sort of combination government-in-exile and trust.

It is worth noting that the host country need not be New Zealand or Australia. Given the geostrategic importance of the region, a "bidding war" for the immigrants might ensue with countries such as China and Taiwan looking to take in the immigrants in exchange for increased access to the region.

While this might seem far-fetched, what are the alternatives? If accepting the reality that some countries might need to be completely evacuated, a way forward of some sort will need to be found if a free-for-all is to be avoided. If left to the crisis point, it could end up in completely new and potentially undesirable forms of sovereignty.

For example, while the rest of Tuvalu is evacuated, one of the islands could be built up. That would probably qualify it as an "artificial island", affording it only a 500m safety zone, not the 200 nautical mile EEZ, but it would be enough to ensure statehood. That statehood could then be sold off to corporations who could then literally become sovereign, writing laws under which they flag ships, bank, run telecoms, sell arms, etc, with the impunity and immunity of statehood. This could have far-reaching security implications.

Though we are starting to understand the potentially far-reaching consequences of environmental change on our physical infrastructure, we have yet to acknowledge potential challenges for legal infrastructure. This is a real tragedy as legal infrastructure is entirely manmade and so, in many cases, risks and tragedies can be avoided by nothing more than the stroke of a pen. All it takes is a little foresight.

With environmental change, there are some very rough waters ahead. It would be good to at least avoid some of the whirlpool we ourselves created by a lack of imagination.

Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and the author of Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

- NZ Herald

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