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India’s Assam Shows Second-Order, Dangerous Effects of Climate Change in South Asia

To use the military parlance, climate change is often considered a “threat multiplier,” challenging stability and development around the world by exacerbating underlying conditions of vulnerability. South Asia is one region that faces multiple stressors that have the potential to feedback off each other.

Higher temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, flooding, and increased cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea are reshaping the environment, warns the Center for American Progress (CAP) in a report.

Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in South Asia, a collection of regional profiles and their implications for U.S. foreign policy by Arpita Bhattacharyya and Michael Werz, examines the sub-continent’s vulnerability to climate change in detail. This is CAP’s third report in a series on the link between climate change, migration, and security. Others introduced the climate-migration-conflict connection and focused on North Africa and South America. The Center strongly advocates for a non-traditional approach to national and international security, reasoning that when the second-order effects of climate change are considered, the changes are not solely a threat to island nations or coastal regions but to a safe and equitable international environment everywhere.

The Indian state of Assam is given as a prime example of an area that has much to gain from a more comprehensive approach to national security.

Assam is part of a region of Northeast India known as the “Seven Sister States,” contiguous states that share at least one border with another nation and have correspondingly diverse cultures and ethnicities. The whole region is connected to the rest of the country via the Siliguri Corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh, less than 25 miles wide at its narrowest point. Otherwise, Assam wraps around Meghalaya state and touches the borders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the disputed border state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Unlike Bangladesh – perhaps the most frequently cited South Asian country when it comes to climate change vulnerability – Assam is not directly at risk from rising sea levels. However, it does feel the indirect effects of changes in its neighbor.

Climate changes in Bangladesh, with its low-lying geography, dense population, and large subsistence agriculture base, create push factors for migration into Assam. The flow of international migrants between the two is arguably the largest in the world, with the Mexico-to-United States connection coming in second, according to the Asian Development Bank. Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire remarked in a recent Friday Podcast that the reasons for such high numbers of Bangladeshi migrants are complex, but two of the largest are saline intrusion into rice fields, which has shifted the agricultural market to shrimp farming, a harder livelihood for farmers, and the attraction of construction jobs in India.

Assam faces more direct effects of climate change as well. In September of last year, more than 1.4 million people were displaced by flooding along the Brahmaputra River in 18 of 27 districts of Assam, and 6 million were displaced in July. Unfortunately, “the frequency and extent of these floods is set to increase,” write the authors. Changing rainfall patterns also mean more erosion, creating the risk of deadly landslides like those that struck Western India earlier this summer, and unexpected droughts.

An additional population dynamic at work in Assam is urbanization. Rapid, unplanned urbanization puts pressure on water and other resources. This rural-to-urban movement can be temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of push factors, further complicating Assam’s ability to plan for infrastructure challenges.

For the complete article, please see New Security Beat.