The Intersection Of Climate And Security: Global Warming, Migration, And Conflict In South Asia

by Arpita Bhattacharyya, Michael Werz, and Christina DiPasquale

As the effects of climate change gain increased attention due to recent natural disasters and the international climate talks taking place in Doha, the Center for American Progress released a new report, “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in South Asia,” which examines the role of climate change as it intersects with migration and security broadly at the national level in India and Bangladesh.

This report zeroes in more closely on northeast India and Bangladesh to demonstrate the interlocking tensions that might face the population in the future, there and writ large across all of South Asia. It also discusses three policy collaborations that the United States can initiate with South Asian partners as these complex crisis scenarios unfold in the wake of climate change: high-level climate-vulnerable cities workshops, an open dialogue on migration, and ecological infrastructure development.

Recent disasters in South Asia demonstrate what could be a more frequent reality for the region. Floods in September 2012 displaced 1.5 million people in the northeastern state of Assam, while Cyclone Aila in 2009 displaced 2.3 million people in India and almost 850,000 in Bangladesh. The Asian Disaster Preparedness Center recently reported that Bangladesh “is already under pressure from increasing demands for food and the parallel problems of depletion of agricultural land and water resources from overuse and contamination. Climate variability and projected global climate change makes the issue particularly urgent.”


South Asia will be among the regions hardest hit by climate change. Higher temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, as well as floods in the region’s complex river systems will complicate existing development and poverty reduction initiatives. Coupled with high population density levels, these climate shifts have the potential to create complex environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges. India and Bangladesh, in particular, will feel the impacts of climate change acutely.

The Asian Development Bank 2012 report “Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific” concludes that while uncertainties exist on where, how, and how many will be displaced by climate change impacts, it is imperative to begin aggressively examining emerging climate challenges to avoid future complex crisis scenarios. The extreme vulnerability of South Asia raises concern of potential changes and increases in both internal and international migration across the subcontinent. In areas of existing conflict in South Asia, added stressors of climate change and changing migration patterns could be a security concern.

Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, testified to the U.S. Congress that climate change will exacerbate poverty and increase social tensions, leading to internal instability and conflict, and giving parts of the global population additional reasons to migrate. As discussed in the Center for American Progress’s framing report of this issue globally, “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict,” we assert that climate change, migration, and security should be understood as three distinct layers of tension and assess scenarios in which the three layers will overlap.

In the new CAP report, specific to South Asia, the Indian border state of Assam is analyzed as a case study on where the three factors converge in South Asia because of the overlap of climate, migration, and security concerns in the northeast Indian province.

The internal and temporary displacement of people in this region will probably account for the bulk of migration that takes place in the face of environmental changes and degradation. People may move within country for a couple days, weeks, or months, or even years to a new location before trying to resettle in their home towns and cities. Rural-to-urban migration has taken place throughout India and Bangladesh and could be more sought after if climate change threatens rural livelihoods, particularly in the agriculture sector.


International migration may also be an option, particularly to areas in which historical, familial, and cultural ties exist across borders, either through a legal or unauthorized process aided by porous and unguarded international borders. As the Asian Development Bank reports, substantial and established flows of migration takes place between India and Bangladesh, particularly to the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. The bank’s report goes on to say, “It has been suggested that this is the largest single international migration flow, with more people involved than estimated for top-ranked Mexico-United States migration flows.”

No reliable numbers exist on Bangladeshi emigration. But any change in existing migration patterns from Bangladesh into India could have security consequences, particularly in Assam where the issue of unauthorized immigrants routinely becomes an issue during elections in Assam and has sparked conflict. Even more importantly, the perception that there has been an increase in immigrants has the potential to stoke tensions over immigration in Assam.

Back in the 1980s a group called the All Assam Student’s Union began a movement calling for the deportation of all supposed unauthorized Bangladeshi immigrants, asserting that the immigrants were influencing their economy, security, and political system, as well as their local demographic structure. It became known as the Assam movement and lasted until 1985, causing up to 7,000 deaths.

More recently, members of the Bodo tribe and the Muslim community clashed in Assam over building a mosque. As the conflict escalated, members of the Bodo tribe and a section of politicians began to blame the incident on the increasing number of unauthorized Bangladeshis in the region. Following rumors that Muslim groups were planning attacks on Assamese residents living in other parts of India, particularly in the southern cities of Bangalore and Chennai, thousands of people native to the Northeast Indian region boarded overflowing buses and returned to the region. This incident resulted in close to 100 deaths and the displacement of over 400,000, who fled to relief camps in the area and as of October 2012, 133,000 were still in relief camps. In the days following the conflict, many in Assam resorted to public demonstration and protests against unauthorized immigrants from Bangladesh demanding their identification and deportation, similar to the fervor during the 1980s Assam movement.

Climate change and potential displacements from storms and other disasters internally and internationally could exacerbate existing tensions in Assam. Both actual and perceived migration changes in the region have the potential to cause upheaval. As the United States shifts its strategic focus to the Asia Pacific, a clear understanding of climate change and human mobility will be central to development and security goals in the region and for this reason, the United States can initiate three policy collaborations with South Asian partners as these complex crisis scenarios unfold in the wake of climate change: high-level climate-vulnerable cities workshops, an open dialogue on migration, and ecological infrastructure development.

The United States has much to learn and offer in the way of best practices as climate change worsens in the decades to come. Large cities in the United States, such as New York and Miami, will be hit hard with extreme weather in very similar ways as South Asian megacities such as Dhaka and Mumbai. The high-level climate vulnerable cities workshop this report recommends should focus on these cities as they will be a priority as urbanization continues in India and Bangladesh and as extreme weather challenges the resilience of U.S. urban centers.


The goal should be to zoom in and have detailed discussions about resilient infrastructure, disaster relief logistics, and preparedness best practices across countries and government levels. The workshop would be ideally coordinated at a federal level through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State with governor and mayor level participants.

Discussion of mutual concerns between the United States and India on immigration would also be beneficial to both sides as climate change adds an additional layer of complication to a system that is already struggling with issues that include charting a legal path to citizenship and finding a way to help new residents assimilate despite linguistic and cultural differences, while also managing border disputes and deportation proceedings for those who enter the country illegally. Since many of these questions are expected to be addressed in the United States over the next four years, during a second Obama administration, the time is ripe for the U.S. to enter into an open dialogue with India on the challenges presented by immigration should future extreme weather events exacerbate already thorny domestic issues experienced by both countries.

Lastly, natural landscapes that mitigate the consequences of flooding, water salinization, and erosion may be both cost effective and more resilient than traditional infrastructure, such as levies and pumps. Residents of India and Bangladesh have been innovators in using this type of ecological infrastructure due to lack of formal structures in many areas. As in the cases of city adaptation and immigration, a U.S. partnership with India and Bangladesh on ecological infrastructure would create a rich depository on adaptation strategies while informing U.S. diplomacy and development programs on the ground.

Analyzing South Asia through the prism of climate, migration, and security in Assam and the surrounding region provides useful insights into the underlying trends shaping the entire region and the risks posed by current long-term trajectories. While the precise influence of climate change on migration is still the subject of scientific inquiry and debate, the range of issues facing the region calls for a comprehensive assessment of climate change, migration, and their impact on both traditional and human security. We hope the assessment will be a jumping-off point for more empirical research establishing the realities of climate driven migration in South Asia.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at the American Progress, where his work as member of the National Security Team focuses on the nexus of climate change, migration, and security; Arpita Bhattacharyya is a Research Assistant to Distinguished Senior Fellow Carol Browner at the Center for American Progress; and Christina DiPasquale is an Associate Director for Press Relations at the Center for American Progress.