Nearly one in four people on earth live in the countries that border the Bay of Bengal. The region is strategically vital to Asia’s rising powers. Its low-lying littoral — including coastal regions of eastern India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra — is home to over half a billion people who are now acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Storms are a constant threat; over the weekend, a cyclone, Phailin, swept in from the bay to strike the coastal Indian state of Odisha, leading to the evacuation of some 800,000 people.
The bay was once a maritime highway between India and China, and then was shaped by monsoons and migration as European powers exploited the region for its coffee, tea and rubber. Today the bay is being reshaped again by the forces of population growth and climate change.
The scale and pace of these challenges demand urgent, regional cooperation. But first the countries that ring the bay must rise above their political fault lines and embrace the interconnectedness of their history.
The Bay of Bengal’s coasts are under assault in every dimension: by water conflicts in the Himalayas and by drilling for oil and gas in the deep sea. The bay is a sink of pollution borne by the great rivers that spill into it, including the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Salween. Dam construction in China and India threatens downstream communities in India, Bangladesh and mainland Southeast Asia. With sea level rising and deltaic lands subsiding, saltwater intrusion onto farmlands has accelerated, with serious consequences for food production.
The bay’s turbulent climate has played an outsize role in the region’s history. Sailors crossed its waters from the earliest times; their trading routes linked India, China and Southeast Asia for centuries. The bay’s natural bounty attracted the European powers in the early modern era, making it an arena for imperial competition and economic vitality. But the monsoons and their rainfall have always been volatile: periodic droughts and dangerous storms have posed a recurrent threat and shaped the region.
In the second half of the 19th century, land-hungry investors in an expanding British Empire created tighter connections across the bay. Migration reached huge proportions in the age of the steamship. More than 25 million people crossed the bay between the 1870s and the 1930s; most of them were young men from southern and eastern India destined for the tea estates of Sri Lanka, the rubber plantations of Malaysia and the docks and rice mills of Myanmar. Combined with the concurrent movement of Chinese to Southeast Asia, this was one of the world’s great migrations, though much of it was circular rather than permanent.
This surge in migration coincided with two of the worst cases in a millennium of the failure of monsoons to bring needed rains. Especially intensive episodes of the phenomenon known as El Niño — the periodic warming of surface waters in the equatorial Pacific — brought drought to large sections of Asia in the 1870s and again in the 1890s. In India, millions died in the famines that ensued. Thousands sought survival overseas; many more moved locally. The people became more interdependent.
Only families with access to credit and wide enough social networks could take advantage of opportunities overseas. Colonial law distinguished between groups who could migrate and those who could not. For those who could not, the price of leaving was often the servitude of indentured labor across the bay. Poverty was as likely as sudden disaster to propel people’s journeys. Once patterns of migration were established, they outlasted particular climatic or economic conditions.
The global economic depression of the 1930s, followed by the Second World War, stemmed migration and trade. After winning independence from colonial rule in the 1940s, Asia’s new states policed their contested borders and controlled migration. Like many leaders of his generation, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that modern science had “curbed to a large extent the tyranny and the vagaries of nature.”
But the tyranny and the vagaries of nature were not so easily subdued, and they have taken a dangerous turn. Climate change inaugurates an unpredictable new phase in the life of the Bay of Bengal. Scientists predict a rise in the frequency and intensity of the bay’s notorious cyclones. Over the past decade, more than 18 million people have been affected directly by tropical cyclones in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand alone.
At the same time, socially if not politically, the bay today resembles the 1890s more than the 1950s. Intraregional migration has resumed. Coastal trade is booming. Old ports that had fallen into decline have seen a revival: Sittwe in Myanmar; Chittagong in Bangladesh; the coastal towns of Tamil Nadu, with long memories of commerce with Southeast Asia.
The bay’s history shows that spiritual traditions, language and migrant routes are as likely to track the course of coastlines or rivers as they are to cling to national borders. Migration will continue to be a source of resilience in the region, offering a lifeline to groups that cannot rely on state protection. While much of the movement will be internal within countries, some people affected by rising waters will seek safety farther from home.
In doing so, they provoke an anxiety about borders that is a legacy of the bay’s political history.
Where local people see a fluid frontier, state officials see firm lines on a map. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2012, more than 13,000 people have tried to cross the Bay of Bengal in smugglers’ boats destined for Malaysia and Thailand. Hundreds have died in the attempts; those who survive the journey face a harsh reception. Most of the refugees are Rohingya from coastal Myanmar, escaping a toxic mix of communal violence, political disenfranchisement and environmental threats. They are the most recent in a long line of people who have risked their lives to cross the bay.
The Bay of Bengal urgently needs more effective cooperation for environmental protection — for instance, by regulating fishing, protecting mangrove forests and curbing persistent pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions. More coordinated and humane policies on migration must also be developed. Hope for a new regionalism lies in recognizing that the bay’s history, as much as its ecology, transcends national frontiers.
Sunil S. Amrith teaches history at Birkbeck College and is the author of Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.