Global Warming Likely to Produce New Boat People


Entire nations may be destined to become boat people some day.

That is, unless scientists and governments can counter the threat of “global warming” that results in rising seas that would ultimately submerge low-lying islands and coastal areas.

“We are not talking about loss of islands, we are talking about loss of nations,” said Stjepan Keckes, a top U.N. scientist.

Sea levels are generally expected to rise slowly. “But for some countries the writing is on the wall,” the director of ocean and coastal affairs at the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Program said in a recent interview.


Scientists fear that with “global warming,” average temperatures will rise because of a build-up in the atmosphere of so-called greenhouse gases, which trap the sun’s heat.

Rising Temperatures

Industrial and other gases, such as motor car exhaust fumes and methane generated from rice farming and cattle ranching, are trapping so much heat that temperatures are expected to rise by several degrees in the next 40 years.

This would promote thermal expansion of oceans and a melting of glaciers and polar icecaps, as a result of which sea levels could rise by up to four feet.


What if the polar icecaps crack, sending huge sheets plunging into the sea? Then, said Keckes, seas could rise a yard in a year. “That would be catastrophic.”

Half the world’s people live in coastal regions, and the poorest among them will be the most vulnerable to rising seas, U.N. agency said.

A study commissioned by the agency and the government of the Netherlands identified 10 countries that it said were probably representative of the areas most vulnerable.

These are Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, the Maldives, Mozambique, Pakistan, Senegal, Surinam, Thailand and Gambia.


In an already densely populated country like Bangladesh, Keckes said, a rise in sea level of 3 feet would now affect about 28 million of the country’s 90 million people.

“By the time it happens, there are going to be not 28 but 50 million people (affected). Where are they going to go?”

Other Effects

It is not only countries directly threatened like Bangladesh, the Pacific island states and the Indian Ocean islands of Maldives that ought to be concerned.


Their plight could result in streams of people seeking to settle in, say, Australia and New Zealand.

As immigrants they ran the risk of losing their nationhood and culture. “Or do you allocate them a part of New Zealand where they try to create an artificial colony, unviable, removed from their natural environment and traditional way of life? These are big questions,” Keckes said.

Port cities worldwide would need to build defenses against rising seas, among them Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Istanbul, Jakarta, London, Los Angeles, Manila, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.

The U.N. agency cites one estimate that protecting the East Coast of the United States alone against a 3-foot rise could cost more than $100 billion.


Keckes worries less about European and other developed countries than Third World states, which lack the money and technology needed for defenses.

Rising sea levels in the Nile Delta, for example, could flood one-fifth of Egypt’s arable land, now used by 10 million of the country’s 49 million people.

“It (Egypt) is already an importer of food, with high population growth. What are they going to do?” he asked.

Island States


He is most concerned about island states and countries like Bangladesh where coastal communities have little room to retreat inland.

Dutch-type dikes are no real answer to island states. “They’ll have to keep raising them, and end up living at the bottom of a funnel.”

The real solution is to tackle the root causes of global warming, Keckes said. A real obstacle is the perception that the threat is a long-term one, and therefore that action could wait.

He named the Maldives as one of the few countries that has grasped the dangers. “Their whole statehood is at stake.”