Nature truly has her very own way of settling things. Reminiscing the age-old saying, tide, along with time, waits for no one, the recent submerge of a tiny isle minutely located in the coastal, shallow Bay of Bengal is an ideal example of nature's supremacy over mankind's often irresolute diplomacy. For more than three decades, neighbouring states Bangladesh and India have disputed over the sovereignty over this small island, which as of 24th March of this year has been confirmed to have completely disappeared beneath the mighty waves of the Bay of Bengal chiefly due to the constant rise in sea level and coastal erosion. Referred to as South Talpatti Island by Bangladesh and New Moore by India, the uninhabited 3.5 Kilometers (2.2 miles) long and 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) wide offshore island is thought to have emerged as an aftermath of the Bhola Cyclone in 1970, which claimed 251,000 lives. It must be mentioned here that, South Talapatti Island is just one of the dozens of Islands around the world that are slowly but surely sinking as a consequence of climate change. In fact South Talapatti or New Moore Island is the 4th island in the Sundarbans to go underwater, preceded by Lohachara, Kabasgadi and Suparibhanga. The disappearance of this island has been confirmed by satellite imagery, sea patrols and skilled observations of seasoned fishermen. According to Professor Sugata Hazra of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, “There's no trace of the island any more”. So, is it a bad thing that an island is probably gone forever from the charted face of the earth? Let's quote Prof. Hazra on this, “What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking has been resolved by global warming”.
So, what is known about South Talpatti Island, about how she came to be the centre of territorial dispute between two sovereign states and why she disappeared the way she did?
Once located in the Sudarbans mangrove delta, immediately south of the international border river, the Hariabhanga which flows between Satkhira district of Bangladesh and South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, India, the birth of South Talpatti Island was first noticed by an American satellite in 1974. The geographical location of the petite patch of land, which was never more than 2 meters (about 6 feet) above the sea level, is reported to be at Latitude 21 degrees 36.0 North and Longitude 89 degrees 09.10 East. A land believed to be U-shaped in formation was never known to have any permanent settlements. However, both Bangladesh and India have claimed the island as forming a part of their territory. First it has to be understood that according to the “mid-channel flow” principle or the “Thalweg Doctrine”, the middle line of the mid-channel flow of the Hariabhanga River established the original boundary between the two neighboring states. And from technical point of view the ownership of the island crucially depends on which side of the island the main channel of the river flows, an aspect that was never truly agreed upon by the two states.
In 1979, the sovereignty of the island first became a key issue in the maritime boundary talks between Bangladesh and India. And Bangladesh claimed autonomy over South Talpatti on two specific grounds which include (a) the island was a natural prolongation of the Bangladesh's territory and (b) the flow of the border river Hariabhanga was to the west of the island. Both satellite photographs and the flow of the suspended sediments entering into Bay of Bengal confirmed the latter argument. But India on the other hand disputed Bangladesh's position and claimed that the flow of the border river lay to the east of the island, not west as declared by Bangladesh. Here it is important to note that the flow of another river, Raimangal, falls on the estuary like that of the border river. And countering India's claim, Bangladesh further argued that India confused the flow of the Raimangal River with that of the Hariabhanga River, which is in fact the actual border river. The bottom line of the argument was if the river flows on the western side, the South Talpatti belongs to Bangladesh and if it flows on the eastern side, New Moore belongs to India. Sadly, none managed to resolve the dispute in a fruitful manner and the issue remained direly inconclusive. Tensions escalated on April 9th, 1980, when the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi announced that the island belongs to India which was followed by the arrival of the Indian armed ship “INS Sandhayak” on May 9th of the same year when the soldiers from the Indian Navy planted the Indian National Flag on the disputed Island; however, no permanent settlement was established. On May 16th, 1981, Bangladesh urged India to withdraw her Navy Ship and personnel and remove the Indian Flag from the Island. After initial declaration India finally withdrew from the island and the two countries agreed on the fact that the disputed territory would remain “no man's land” until it was settled properly and peacefully. No light of the day was actually seen to resolve the matter properly and peacefully until nature finally intervened and as luck would have it, the ultimate affect of climate change finally obliterated the source of this ailing territorial dispute.
Experts elucidate that even though the submergence of South Talpatti may have eased the tension for the time being, it remains a terrible example of the danger posed by the rising sea levels instigated by global warming. The temperatures in the region had been rising at an annual rate of 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and before the year 2000, sea levels in most parts of the world went up by approximately 3 millimeters a year. Between 2000 and 2010, the sea level has risen at about 5 milliliters per year. It has been reported that in the Bengal Basin region and Sundarban Island Chain, where the island was situated, sea level has been rising by about 3.14 centimeters a year. As the sea level is rising in accordance to the increasing temperatures, many fear that similar incidents are likely to occur in the near future. It must be noted here that in 1996, a larger island, Lohachara, was submerged forcing 4,000 of her inhabitants to flee and move to the mainland. And according to the experts, at least 10 other islands in the area are at risk. A recent report issued by the World Wide Fund for Nature said that the Sundarban ecosystem, made up of mangrove forests and home to the Royal Bengal Tigers could be lost due to the rising tides within the next 60 years.
Bangladesh, with a gigantic population of around 160 million, is one of those extremely vulnerable countries, which are direly affected by the climate change. Scientists have estimated that if the sea levels rise even by 1 meter, then around 20% of her coastal area could become submerged, displacing 20 million people by the year 2050. Let the recent incident of South Talpatti Island be a lesson for the people and authorities, to resolve any territorial disputes in the most judicious and timely manner. Because, next time nature might just not be this kind again!
(R) thedailystar.net 2010