Situated right on top of our planet, the Arctic Ocean has been frozen since times immemorial. Desolate, frigid and mysterious, it remained insignificant. However, of late, the Arctic is increasingly attracting global media coverage. For a single reason: it is melting rapidly. The consequences of which will be transnational and transoceanic, many of which cannot even be envisaged at this juncture.
Various scientific studies project that Arctic ice will be dramatically reduced, or possibly disappear, during the summers, as early as 2050. Conservative estimates suggest that a forty percent reduction in summer ice extent has already occurred. Such developments will have a substantial impact on India and its neighbourhood. Three most important repercussions for the region arise from the impact of a rising sea level, access to vast energy resources and potentially shorter shipping routes.
The major impact of a rapidly melting Arctic on South Asia, is linked to sea level rise. It is believed that melting ice from Greenland alone could contribute significantly to global sea level rise over the next 50-100 years. When added to the melting of land ice in other parts of the Arctic, this means trouble.
Most nations that are vulnerable to sea level rise do not have the resources to prepare for it. In South Asia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have large populations living in ‘at-risk’ coastal areas. Small island nations such as the Maldives are at severe risk because they do not have enough land at higher elevations to support displaced coastal populations. Another challenge for coastal populations is the danger of losing their fresh-water supplies as rising sea levels push saltwater into their aquifers. For these reasons, those living on several small island nations like the Maldives could be forced to evacuate over the period of the 21st century.
Bangladesh is the world’s third most vulnerable country with regard to sea-level rise, both in terms of the number of people and in the top ten in terms of percentage of population, living in low-lying coastal zones. Currently, almost 40 million people live in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Loss of coastal land to the sea along its susceptible coastline is likely to generate a steady flow of the displaced people, whether inland or towards neighbouring countries.
Maldives holds the record for being the lowest country in the world with a maximum natural ground level of only 2.3 metres above sea level and an average height of only 1.5 m above sea level. Reports suggest that Islamic fundamentalism is finding its way into this politically unstable island nation, albeit on a small scale. Some years down the line, a scenario is very likely wherein forced relocation of population, loss of economic opportunity in tandem with religious fundamentalism, could create a national crisis in the Maldives, which would then have an adverse impact on regional security. Lakshadweep group of islands have problems similar to that of the Maldives, insofar as terrain is concerned. Whatever be the consequences of Arctic melt in the Maldives, it will be replicated in these islands.
On the global shipping front, the newly-opened Arctic routes could cut the cost and duration of a voyage from Europe to East Asia by an enormous margin, saving the shipping industry billions of dollars per year. In this context, it is well known that India is according the highest priority to development of its maritime sector, premised on its location and peninsular geography, overlooking the dense sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. To this end, the Maritime Agenda 2010-2020 (MA 10-20), launched by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011, has a budgetary allocation of INR 500,000 crore ($90 billion). The MA 10-20, in the form of a study and a plan, compares the Indian maritime sector to global standards to highlight the deficiencies in India. It also brings out the trends in international shipping and port infrastructure and makes future projections to identify the specific areas of improvement required in India’s maritime sector.
Thus, the MA 10-20 provides a roadmap for the development of the maritime sector and sets the targets for the relevant departments to achieve. The key targets of this plan are to create a port capacity of 3,200 Million Tonnes for handling about 2,500 Million Tonnes of cargo, improving port performance on par with the best in the world, increasing tonnage under the Indian flag and increase India’s share in global ship building to five percent. Given such initiative, the Arctic melt, with its potential to divert the shipping traffic way from the Indian peninsula, will need to get factored in. The container volumes and shipping loads, handled by India’s present and future ports, which are astride the main east-west sea transportation lanes in the Indian Ocean Region, will get negatively impacted.
Insofar as the energy angle is concerned, the US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic bottom holds as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits. As the global oil prices continue to remain volatile, the commercial exploitation of the Arctic hydrocarbon resources will become technologically and economically feasible. Unlike the Middle East, the Arctic accords the advantage of a region, where conflict and political instability does not threaten secure extraction and transportation. Other minerals and metals are also abundant. Therefore, the Arctic resources could radically alter energy import patterns for the region, since India and most countries of South Asia are on an energy intensive curve of their growth. Hence, such untapped energy reserves are of potential value and strategic relevance.
In sum, though the Arctic seems far away from India, the rapid melting of this polar ice cap will have a bearing on regional topography and human security: particularly from the Arctic induced global sea level rise, the implications of which will be serious, given the high population density along the South Asian coastlines.
The time is thus ripe for India and its neighbours to commence brainstorming on the impact of the Arctic melt.