The surge in the frequency and intensity of climate change impacts has raised the alarm about how this could hamper coastal activities. Several critical ports in the Indo-Pacific region are hubs of international trade and at the same time vulnerable to typhoons, taller waves and erosion. India’s climate diplomacy at the regional level could activate climate-resilient pathways for port development and management.
Across countries, scientific and technical experts are recording, studying and analysing the effects of climate change on coastal infrastructure. The surge in the frequency and intensity of storms/typhoons/hurricanes and storm surges, along with sea-level rise and erosion, have raised the alarm about climate change – and how it could hamper coastal activities, operations and livelihoods. One such sector is that of ports – crucial for the global economy – with an overwhelmingly large proportion of international trade and commerce being driven by it.
India hosts several vital commercial ports – responsible for over 90 percent of India’s trade by volume – that are vulnerable to climate change. In fact, the majority of ports in the Indo-Pacific region, carrying heavy traffic, are in a similar state. India and other countries should therefore, spearhead a regional climate action strategy for ports with the help of climate diplomacy, through which frameworks and mechanisms for climate-resilient pathways could be enforced.
A 2018 study on Paradip Port (Odisha, India) has concluded that climate change – “changes in sea and land temperatures, intensity and patterns of wind and rainfall” – could result in taller waves, sand deposition and erosion in the next 25 years. The researchers affirmed that the future strategies cannot entirely depend on past climatic conditions as the probability of “intensified climatic conditions” has escalated.
In a similar vein, a NASA study published in 2017, revealed that many port cities of India, including Mumbai and Mangalore (Mangaluru) are likely to be inundated in the next 100 years, owing to not only sea-level rise, but also storm surges. In addition, land subsidence, increasing population density in coastal areas, unplanned development and various other human-induced factors are also adding to the stress on these port cities.
The Indian Government strives to enhance port-led development of the country by boosting port-linked industries, modernising ports (and building new ones), and enhancing port connectivity, thereby rendering this sector critical for both domestic and foreign policies (especially in terms of India’s foreign trade). For instance, the “Make in India” campaign and the SagarMala Project are focussed upon meeting the demands of a foreseen surge in cargo volume, boost trade, and advance industrial growth in the coastal regions.
Similarly, the 2,500-kilometre long East Coast Economic Corridor (ECEC) linking Kolkata to Kanyakumari in the southernmost tip of peninsular India will be India’s first coastal corridor consisting of many ports. It is supposed to facilitate regional integration, by better "integrating the Indian economy with the dynamic global value chains of Southeast and East Asia". Recently, India signed an agreement with Indonesia to develop a port in Sabang. Furthermore, India and Japan are set to develop ports jointly in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which is being seen as a counter-strategy to China’s Maritime Silk Route.
India, being a climate-vulnerable country and a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, is well-poised to launch climate diplomacy at the regional level to frame a strategy that could consider the following main points, among others:
1. Develop a climate action strategy at the regional level: SAGAR (translated as “sea” or “ocean”) – Security and Growth for All in the Region – is at the centre of India’s maritime strategy. While India attempts to tap into its blue economy potential along with its regional partners in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it also needs to undertake elaborate steps – technical, logistical, technological and regulatory – to develop climate-resilient ports in the region, an effort that could be steered by climate diplomacy. There is a dire need for standardisation at the regional level so that the climate and the larger sustainability agenda wins over short-term gains on a larger scale and not just nationally.
2. Promote renewable energy for ports and shipping industry: As a part of its green energy agenda, the Indian Government announced to switch its government-run ports to renewable energy, making India the first country to do so. Since climate-resilient pathways combine both adaptation and mitigation, India could lead a regional strategy aimed at streamlining GHG regulations stipulated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as well as goals set by the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into port operations. After all, Shipping accounts for three percent of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
3. Reduce costs of climate solutions: All countries – rich and poor – will be affected by climate-related impacts on international trade. The cost of inaction is estimated to be much higher than measures to cope with climate change: $31-$49 billion is the projected cost of “upgrading Asia-Pacific’s biggest ports to cope with the effects of climate change”, according to Asia Research and Engagement (ARE) that arrived at these figures after analysing ports in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, India, South Korea and Malaysia.
Through climate diplomacy, countries of the region could work towards increasing sustainability and reducing costs by promoting initiatives like the World Ports Climate Initiative of the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH).
Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka.