Rising Sea Levels: The Consequences (Part One)


Challenges for 21st Century Security Professionals.

By Steve Mark.

This paper is the first in a three part series, which explores the impact of rising sea levels, as a result of climate change, on the security of communities in vulnerable areas such as river deltas and low-lying islands.

Forced migration is identified as one of the most significant security challenges which arise from rising sea levels, as it threatens people’s identity, culture and community.

This first part will consider the necessity of redefining traditional conceptions of security to address twenty-first century challenges, such as climate change. The second part of this series will highlight the scope of security challenges arising from forced migration, through the case study of Tuvalu. The third part will conclude by examining potential solutions and implications for Australian security professionals.

Defining Security 

Despite the concerted efforts of security studies scholars to conceptualise ‘security’ in a coherent and systematic way, no single, generally accepted definition of security has been produced. The term has been employed in a wide range of contexts and for multiple purposes by individuals, corporations, governments and academics. The word “security” has its origins in the Latin “sine cura”, “se-curus” and “securitas”, meaning, “free from insecurity”, “without uneasiness” and “tranquillity”. Cicero and Seneca used the latter meaning when referring to the absence of anxiety upon which a fulfilled life depends.

Traditionally, the concept of security was equated principally with militarism and the use of force by nation-states. From the 1980s, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concept of security underwent a significant conceptual change. Security, it was argued, could not just be confined to traditional military threats on the territorial integrity of states. The concept needed to be expanded to encompass political, economic, societal and environmental factors, and both nation-state and non-state actors (including individuals).

The redefined concept of ‘human security’ was first popularised in the UNDP’s 1994 Human Development Report : “Human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life-whether in homes, in jobs or in communities. Such threats can exist at all levels of national income and development.” This conceptual redefinition also prompted examination of the psychological components of security, reflected in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of security: …(2) Freedom from care. Anxiety or apprehension; a feeling of safety or freedom from danger. …(3) Freedom from doubt; confidence, assurance. Now chiefly, well-founded confidence, certainty…(4) The quality of being securely fixed or attached, stability…” Security is thus a statement of being, which includes the feeling of being safe and secure.

Security and Identity

Humans are gregarious and thrive when living in communities. This is because humans derive identity largely through interaction with known or like groups. Much has been written about the adverse effects of large impersonal cities on the psyche of individuals as compared to smaller or culturally homogenous societies. The purported breakdown in modern communities has been, at least in part, blamed on the movement of people and amalgamation of different cultural groups or individuals without positive integration strategies.

The movement of people caused by war, government action, food politics and now climate change is perhaps the biggest security risk of the 21st century. Forced migration has a twofold impact. Firstly, it has a direct impact on displaced peoples’ identity and culture. Secondly, it affects the communities in which such people are placed or forced to live – social unrest and consequential security threats can arise if migration is not handled appropriately.

Rising Sea Levels – The Global Effect

Our planet is warming. Average global temperatures have climbed about one degree Fahrenheit (0.7 degrees Celsius) since 1900 and the rate of warming since the late 1970s has been about three times greater than the century-scale trend. It is believed that the global warming trend is responsible for more severe droughts, floods, and storms across the globe, as well as rising sea levels.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global average sea level rose at an average rate of around 1.8 mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 mm per year from 1993 to 2003. Projections suggest that the rate of sea level rise is likely to accelerate during the 21st century. There is a widespread consensus that substantial long-term sea level rise will continue for centuries to come, while debate may rage as to the extent of the increase. The impact of rising sea levels is global in scale.

According to a 1997 World Bank Study, 56 million people will be affected by a one-metre rise (89 million for a 2m rise; and 245 million for a 5m rise). Recent studies have predicted a much more significant impact. More than 30 small island developing states as well as the populations of large delta systems in Egypt, Bangladesh, Niger and Vietnam are likely to be affected by rising sea levels. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region and on the African continent are predicted to be particularly vulnerable. According to a study by the International Institute for Environment and Development, China is likely to be the most affected by rising seas with 144 million potential people being affected.

Following China, India and Bangladesh are likely to be the next affected, with 63 million and 62 million people affected respectively. Vietnam and Indonesia have vulnerable populations of over 40 million people. Japan (30 million people), Egypt (26 million people), and the United States (23 million people) will also be seriously affected. Projections aside, we are already seeing the effects of rising sea levels on people living in a number of low lying states.

Rising sea levels, for example, have forced many people in the Pacific region to relocate their families and communities to higher ground inland or to other countries. Some 3,000 of Tuvalu’s 10,000 people have already migrated to New Zealand, seeking work under a labour migration program.

In anticipation of higher seas, the Papua-New Guinean government moved the residents of the Carteret Islands to the larger island of Bougainville. Similarly, the President of the Maldives is actively pursuing the possibility of purchasing land for his people to migrate to as the sea level inches upward and makes island life untenable. The impacts of sea level rise are also being felt presently in vulnerable river deltas in South and Southeast Asia. The cases of Vietnam and Bangladesh highlight the severity of these climate-induced problems.

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