Foreign Policy Blogs

Rising Sea Levels and Population Displacement: How Can The Global Public Health Community Prepare?

Indian solider guards the new border fence with Bangladesh

Photo Credit: Strdel/AFP/Getty

India is anticipating a massive wave of refugee migration from neighboring Bangladesh. This feared population swell – India already has 1.2 billion people of its own – would come not from anticipated political corruption, but from climate change. India projects that rising sea levels will yield an unprecedented number of Bangladeshi “climate refugees” seeking basic human needs and security. As such, India has been constructing an 8-foot high, double walled, barbed wire fence along its border with Bangladesh. This naturally will raise some terrified eye-brows. However, it also signals us to consider policies that will ensure human health and security as we face a future of natural uncertainty.

India’s preemptive security measure actually stems from their public health concerns. Bangladesh has a population of nearly 151 million people with 80% living in low-lying areas. Often coined the “ground zero” of climate change, even 1 meter of sea level rise could create havoc and panic, causing many to attempt migration into India in search of food and more secure infrastructure. India’s concerns about food, clean water, public security, and disease-outbreak are valid concerns. The case of the India fence should signal policy makers worldwide to consider how prepared we are to respond to sea level rise and natural disasters that will increase in frequency and severity.

The Huffington Post ran an article in November of 2012 titled “Sea Level Rise Accelerating Faster Than Initial Projections”, that discussed the recent confirmations from Doha: Expect a 3-level rise in sea level by 2100. To give you a splash image of that prediction by comparison, Hurricane Sandy’s disastrous effects in New York and New Jersey were felt by just 1 foot sea level rise. Some 40,000 people were displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Now, it’s true that New Yorkers and New Jerseyians had two determined governors pulling for federal aid; New Jersey just received $50 billion from Congress to rebuild and to also address the housing and healthcare needs of the displaced. Now, let’s imagine this scenario playing out along the low-lying coastal areas of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest nations and one of the most vulnerable to sea level rise with scores of people estimated to be affected by rising waters. For many in Bangladesh and throughout the developing world, the threat of losing their homes and becoming “climate refugees” is not the end of the picture.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details that sea level rise will be the impetus for food and water-borne diseases, soil salinization, and ecosystem disruption. Furthermore, ground-level ozone and airborne allergens will yield a plethora of chronic respiratory diseases. With all of this, we are looking at a picture of mass population movement and international conflict.

So what can we, the global health community, do now to prepare for this onslaught of climate-driven displacement and its ripple effects onto the public’s health? If current coastal dwellers moved inland now, would our future problems be solved in advance? Probably not – as we’ve seen even in industrialized countries, there will always be people who refuse to relocate from their homes, even in the wake of a storm. For many, livelihoods and financial sustainability depends on living having access to the ocean. And of course, systems and infrastructures – ranging from food and water needs, housing, and healthcare – must be built or reinforced to withstand accommodating sudden and large numbers of climate migrants.

NGO’s in the global public health sphere have worked tirelessly over the last half century to eradicate infectious diseases. Some organizations have been dedicated to tropical and infectious diseases, while others focus on HIV/AIDS. All of these disease programs have been critical. But we have a new challenge now. We now face trending public health concerns in respiratory diseases, frightening realities in access to clean water, and other various threats to the global public’s health- all introduced by rising sea level and climate change overall. These problems will undoubtedly impact people living in poor countries as well as in wealthy nations. However, as history illustrates, the countries that lack the resources to build infrastructure will experience the most devastation. As if to make matters worse, it appears that most of these poorer countries without infrastructure are situated in the most vulnerable climate change zones. Countries in the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia will get an unfair share of the rising sea level burden and will be counting on the support of NGO’s and Multilateral Organizations.

Therefore, it is critical that the global health organizations working in this space look to future healthcare needs. We must start to include preparation for climate change-induced diseases and health disparities. We must work closely with the United Nations and other international bodies to preemptively come up with solutions for clean water and nutrition needs in the wake of sudden disaster. And we must especially be prepared to work with climate refugees and their host countries to ensure public health and security.

The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, The World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are three bodies that have been merging human health and environmental health when setting their policy agendas. Now is the time for public health NGO’s and their partners to join in this effort. We’re heading into a future with a dramatically different public health landscape than how we experience it now. This new wave of public healthcare will largely come from the results of rising sea levels.



Elyse Lichtenthal

Elyse Lichtenthal recently received a Masters Degree from the University of Chicago in Social Service Administration, with a concentration in Health Administration & Policy. Prior to her graduate academic tenure, Elyse spent time in South Africa, working with mothers2mothers, an NGO that prevents mother-to-child transmission of HIV throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. Combining experiences from the global public health, public policy and political organizing sectors, Elyse contributes to the Humanitarian Affairs section of the FPA Blogs with interests in service delivery models for chronic diseases and international policies surrounding access to treatment. Elyse is currently based in Chicago and is the Program Coordinator for the U.S. Cooperative for International Patients.