Who will rule the waves?

By Bryan Walker 04/04/2010

Cleo Paskal, whose book Global Warring was reviewed recently on Hot Topic, has been speaking in New Zealand and left her card by way of an article in the Herald.  In it she focuses on one matter raised in her book — the fate of island nations whose land becomes uninhabitable because of rising seas.  Two small islands have disappeared recently. When Bermeja, in the Gulf of Mexico, disappeared so did the large claim Mexico was making in the hydro-carbon rich waters of the Gulf. No island, no claim, says the US. (Did the CIA blow the island up?) When New Moore Island at the mouth of the boundary river between India and Bangladesh disappeared, so did the competing claims of the two countries for control.

Paskal points out that the problem of land loss potentially leading to maritime zone loss is going to come up more often in the future, especially in the Pacific, and that it is a matter of considerable importance for the inhabitants. Tuvalu is an example of particular relevance to New Zealand.

’If Tuvalu is no longer above sea level, and ‘no island, no claim’ is invoked, Tuvalu could face not only losing its fishing grounds, but cease to exist as a state, thus losing its seat in the United Nations and having its citizens become, literally, stateless.’

Planning needs to begin now to cover such an eventuality.  The place to start, she suggests, is the main law governing the seas, the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. The Convention didn’t take environmental change into consideration when it was drafted and operates from the assumption that there will be no major changes to coastlines and islands.

One of the models which might be considered is enabling the evacuees to take to their country of settlement the assets of the exclusive economic zone they now occupy.

’If as the scientists tell us, Tuvalu will eventually need to be evacuated, and New Zealand takes in the bulk of the refugees, that patch of ocean could be administered from New Zealand by and for the benefit of the immigrants, affording resettlement money and economic prospects associated with their old homeland for those who want it.

’The administration could be done through a sort of combination government-in-exile and trust.’

I can hear the protests already at the prospect of our hosting a community of 12,000 from a vanishing island nation.  Perhaps Paskal’s further exploration of the idea might make the kneejerk protestors think again:

’It is worth noting that the host country need not be New Zealand or Australia. Given the geostrategic importance of the region, a “bidding war” for the immigrants might ensue with countries such as China and Taiwan looking to take in the immigrants in exchange for increased access to the region.’

It will be much preferable to have worked out something viable in advance:

’While this might seem far-fetched, what are the alternatives? Accepting the reality that some countries might need to be completely evacuated, a way forward of some sort will need to be found if a free-for-all is to be avoided.’

Otherwise we could end up with potentially undesirable forms of sovereignty:

’For example, while the rest of Tuvalu is evacuated, one of the islands could be built up. That would probably qualify it as an “artificial island”, affording it only a 500m safety zone, not the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, but it would be enough to ensure statehood. That statehood could then be sold off to corporations who could then literally become sovereign, writing laws under which they flag ships, bank, run telecoms, sell arms, etc, with the impunity and immunity of statehood. This could have far-reaching security implications.’

Somehow Koch Industries came to mind when I read that and I warmed to her plea for ’a little foresight’. There are potentially far-reaching consequences from environmental change for our physical infrastructure. Let’s acknowledge, she says, that they also bring potential changes for our legal infrastructure, where we can avoid risks and tragedies by nothing more than the stroke of a pen. 

I’ll forbear speculation on the likelihood of a little foresight being shown.