Two meters of migration

Binayak Das follows the trail of migrants to drier land.

Aminul stares at the vast land, no water, no rivers, and no boats. This is unlike his home of water and water. He has just landed in a resettlement colony stretching across arid land. He is a migrant, pushed away from his home on the southern fringes of Bangladesh by the encroaching sea. Aminul is not alone, thousands of people have turned climate migrants over the last five years. He is in Kazakhstan, a land he has never heard of.

He is in Kazakhstan because the 9th largest country in the world opened its borders to allow climate migrants to join its 20 million citizens. Some of Bangladesh’s 130 million citizens saw the need to leave their disappearing land for a safer and less-crowded space. Bangladesh’s population density of 1,120 people per km2 is far greater than Kazakhstan’s 6 people per km2. Kazakhstan welcomed those who could support its growing agricultural and energy sectors.

Aminul’s journey was quick. His degree and knowledge of the gas industry made it easy to get a visa and job.

Others were not so lucky.

Shahid, a fisherman from the Chittagong region, was also suffering climate change pangs. He didn’t have education, so he had to fight his way to higher elevations. Aminul flew to Kazakhstan in a day. Shahid turned to the trafficking networks set up 20 years earlier (during the Syrian war), trudging via boat, foot, and bus for two years to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s new residents escaped the first threat of climate change.

Kazakhstan didn’t open its gates willingly. With the onslaught of climate change submerging low-lying countries and small islands, people tried to escape by any possible means. Voices across the globe screamed for measures to avoid catastrophe. Europe, China, India and the US worried that their densely populated countries would be overwhelmed. Other countries with conflict, economic and political migrants said they could take no more.

Under pressure from all sides, the UN launched negotiations 10 years ago to cope with climate crisis migrants. Many proposals were put forward, but most were denied by “already burdened” countries. There was a risk that migrants without options would turn borders into bloodbaths.

And then came a shocking proposal from a tiny Pacific island: “land rich” countries such as Russia, Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan could open their borders.

The first reactions from these countries was a big NO, but global and local protests made politicians reconsider. Trade-offs started to emerge as businesses and governments looked at migrants as a boon to their ailing economies and falling fertilities. Soon, they were joined by other countries seeking to combine labour and capital.

Within five years, people were moving ahead of climate change. Now Aminul and Sahidul stand, staring at a vast land without water, rivers and  boats, looking to a different future.

And then they understood the second threat of climate change.


Binayak Das started this piece in a Dhaka hotel room, finished it in Amsterdam airport, and sent it from Malang. All these places will experience life plus two meters before others. He has about 16 years experience working on water, environment, climate change and sustainable development. Binayak is a Panos journalist fellow and author of numerous books, papers and articles. His wide travels and field visits to remotest regions gives him insight into development challenges and solutions in police and practice. He is currently associated with the Water Integrity Network in Berlin.

The underpass

Joseph Cohn updates our visions of biblical floods.

The storm raged all night. The refugees trembled as the wind howled beneath the bridge. Soon the water rose. For two hours it roared through the underpass. Along the concrete walls black shapes writhed in the primordial darkness. The underpass became a vault of screams to echo the agony of the dying earth. By dawn the flooding had ended and thirty-three people had died.

In the morning the refugees climbed down to scavenge and search for the dead. They cleared the ground and sent the dead into the sea, and then they gathered to eat out of cold, dented cans. Afterward they rested against the walls and watched the world with mute eyes. Their figures faded into the gloom, until they were no more than shadows of anguish. No one spoke, and no children ran at play. The last child living beneath the bridge had died three weeks ago.

Around midday a wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair stood at the center of the underpass. From a ragged book he read to the refugees of prophets and dead kings and a time when the earth burned. But above all else he spoke of an empire called Babylon. Of how it fell at the height of glory, its towers and walls crumbling to the earth. The refugees heard him, but they did not listen.

A month later the underpass was silent and the people were gone. Whether they fled to some distant Elysian field or perished beneath the bridge was unknown. Their fates like their origins were lost, their existences forgotten. All was still but for the ocean. It loomed just beyond the bridge, gray and calm and ever shifting. A mercurial plain beneath whose surface lay the ruins of Babylon. A sepulcher fit to house all human folly.


Joseph Cohn [email] is a high school student from Southern California. Growing up close to the ocean, he has seen how all human activities —ranging from fishing to littering — can have harm our oceans.

Which endures — passports or humans?

David Zetland thinks passports will become more important. The interesting question is if they will make you more important.

The first passports were issues centuries ago, but it wasn’t until after World War I that travelers needed them to cross borders, prove their identity, and protect their rights as citizens, both domestically and abroad.

Passports allowed their holders to “pass through the port [gate]” of new diplomatic and bureaucratic walls. People without passports could not pass from their original country to another country. (Illegal crossings could only go so far before they were prevented.)

Passports are valuable precisely because they separate humans into two groups: those who may pass, and those who may not.

In many cases, people do not worry about this difference because they do not care to leave their countries of origin, but there are numerous examples of people taking dramatic risks or paying exorbitant sums when they want to leave their countries but lack the “proper paperwork.”

Humans in the not-too-distant past did not need passports to leave poor prospects for hope.

Migrants face costs of all kinds. They leave behind their families, friends, and place in the world. They are willing to bear those costs because they think the benefits of their new “home” to be worthwhile.

pportThe cost of moving has increased as passport (and visa) requirements have tightened over the past century. During World War I, refugees could flee violence for safer places. During the 1920s and later, they were trapped behind bureaucratic walls that could not be breeched without the right papers.

The entire plot of the 1942 movie, Casablanca, depends on the heroes getting the right visa, but the movie’s happy ending was denied to the millions of refugees and political prisoners (most famously, the Jews) who died (or were murdered) through government action or neglect. The situation is not much different today for the people who want to flee cruel and deadly places (North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, etc.) but lack “papers.”

Some people might think that the suffering of would-be migrants is a price worth paying to protect their own homes from being overrun and pockets emptied to help refugees, but those people (usually members of the “lucky sperm club” born with the right papers) miss the obvious middle option of allowing migration without the gold-plated protections they expect themselves. Most migrants are less interested in handouts than in safety and the opportunity to work and contribute to their adoptive communities.

Passports will become more valuable in a climate-changed world as disruptions (failed crops, miserable weather, sinking cities, violence, etc.) increase the value of moving. Refugees — human and animal — will seek to cross borders as their domestic prospects deteriorate. Some of these refugees will have more money (those fleeing record temperatures in the Persian Gulf or abandoning beachfront houses on tropical islands), but most refugees will be the poor who cannot feed or protect themselves.

The increased importance of passports will mean that those with “good passports” will be very interested in ensuring their identity is protected. People with “bad passports,” on the other hand, will be willing to pay more to get forged passports (or obtain real passports via fraud). Those forces will complement each other in driving governments to increase the security of their passports.

A few months ago, I was extremely upset when I opened the washing machine to find my passport. We were leaving to South America in a week, and there was no time to get a replacement, so I took a chance. Luckily, the damage was too small to affect the passport’s function, but I really thought a lot about how vulnerable I was without that document to “protect my rights.” No border guard, soldier or police officer is interested in my charm, blog or business card. The only thing that stood between me and deportation was a 32-page booklet.

Passport controls and identity are going to get very sophisticated, very quickly if even half the predictions of climate change come to pass (let alone the chaos that leaders create on their own!). To me, that implies that we are going to replace passports with technology that’s harder to forge or lose, such as implanted RFC chips, tattoos (yes, I’m saying it), DNA-registration, and other technologies that can pass through the wash without losing their validity.

Is this inevitable? Not exactly. Passports were put into widespread use over 100 years ago at the behest of governments that wanted to control who went where. The balance of costs and benefits has kept that system in place, but that balance could tip entirely over if enough pressure is applied. The arrival of numerous “undocumented aliens” in the US and EU (and China’s breaking documentation system) suggests that controls are fragile, just as the rise of digital currencies (and continuing attraction of gold) has shown people’s mistrust of government motives.

In the future, we may all need to scan ourselves to the authorities on a daily basis, to prove that we have the right to be where we are — or we may just need to find ways to live among a variety of people.

Will we value humans or paperwork? If your answer depends on what passport you’re holding right now, then I suggest you imagine how you’d answer that passport was gone.


dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.

Manhattan Pirates

Luna Lovewell’s future still benefits from seaborne trade.

From nearby balconies, the men manning the guns cheered as The Stork came sailing down 7th Avenue loaded with new cargo. Children scrambled across the makeshift bridges and ropeways to follow the boat heading towards the docks over what used to be Washington Square Park. Captain Andrews was one of the few men old enough to remember what it had looked like before the floods. The lively mix of tourists, intoxicated college students, and wealthy yuppies. The blaring taxi horns, live music, and just the general hustle and bustle of life in New York city. Now it was silent except for the waves lapping against crumbling buildings and the call of gulls from overhead.

As soon as the ship was tied up, the forlorn docks sprang to life. Men who’d been desperate for work seemed to just materialize out of thin air until there was a whole horde of them helping to unload each and every box. There had once been a pretty stable trade in salvaged goods around here, but the slowly dying industry had fallen from its last leg over the past year or so. The most easily accessible parts of the city had been pretty much picked clean of everything useful, and the new cities on dry land had begun to manufacture their own goods again. So traders with no goods and no market were forced to find a new career in piracy.

“Where’d you go?” One of the boys called. Captain Andrews recognized the young Robinson boy; that face full of freckles was unmistakeable. “You go to the Mississippi Bay?” Though it was a long trip from New York, it was a popular destination for the other crews due to the booming trade between the Appalachian and Rocky cities. Trade ships were plentiful, but so were naval ships ready to blow pirates out of the water.

Andrews shook his head and grinned. “East, my boy! The settlements in the Pyrenees are producing like you wouldn’t believe!”

“Any fruit?” called out a woman from the docks. “Citrus?” A whole chorus of other women clustered around, eager to also hear the answer. They’d managed to start growing beans and a few other crops on some of the skyscraper roofs, but anything with a decent amount of Vitamin C refused to grow here. Scurvy affected nearly every family.

“Sorry, no citrus. But lots of other foodstuffs, including some fresh meat!” That got a rousing cheer from the men scrambling across the docks with heavy boxes; livestock wasn’t a common sight in NYC nowadays, and as a former fishing vessel, The Stork was one of the few ships left in the city with a refrigerated cargo hold.

Captain Andrews turned to his first mate. “Make sure it all gets accounted for,” he said. What kind of pirate would he be if the dock crew was able to steal the same goods that he’d already stolen. “And get it to market as soon as possible. I’m going home.”

“Ay, sir.” He would have liked to return to his wife too, but that’s the benefit of being captain and not first mate.

Captain Andrews made his way toward Midtown, through the markets of vendors all selling the same rusted appliances and useless knick-knacks. He stopped to chat a few times, having gotten to know most of the city’s merchants through various dealings over the years. But they lost interest in the conversation with him when they learned that the first mate would be distributing the cargo. Just as well; he had better things to do than talk to them.

Finally Captain Andrews arrived home. After nearly 2 months at sea, he was eager to stretch his legs and bolted up the concrete stairs toward the apartment. It was a posh penthouse that overlooked the flat square of water that used to be Central Park. Someone very wealthy had once owned this place, and they’d no doubt evacuated to their second home in Vail or Gstaad or some other mountain destination when the floods came. But it served well for Captain Andrews and his family.

His wife rushed to put her arms around his neck, and his daughter came toddling into the atrium shortly after. He scooped the little girl up in a hug and held them both tight. “I’ve missed you both so much.” And from his pocket, he withdrew the prize that he’d hidden even from his own crew. A perfect, fat, juicy orange that he’d taken off of the captain of the ship they’d robbed off the coast of what used to be France. Just the smell of it had nearly driven Captain Andrews mad on the way back across the Atlantic, but it was totally worth it to see both of their faces light up. “This is for you.”


Luna Lovewell (aka W.P. Kimball) writes often on reddit/writingprompts, where this piece originally appeared. She has published a collection of her stories as [Prompt Me].

I don’t like these storms anymore

Ben Ruddell’s view on storms has changed, is changing and will change…

As a kid in the Midwest, the distant rolling thunder of a summer soaker was soothing, and the lightning bolts were exciting, bursting with neon light and color. Those storms were beautiful, with their sunbursts, whipping winds, and towering black clouds sweeping across the flat open land.

Those storms changed, flooding fields and towns but leaving withered crops and dry riverbeds in the summer. Those tenacious farm towns survived fifty years of depopulation, but collapsed as the groundwater ran out and the corn moved north to Canada. We followed so many others when fled the economic blight of the Midwest for greener pastures in the Mountain West. There were jobs, and the reservoirs had enough water for the dry spells.

The Southwest was so beautiful: pristine pine forests ringing towering mountains, vistas and red rocks, deserts and flowers. I never saw anything like it, and once I came I never wanted to leave. We had storms here, too, but they brought the most welcome rain to the arid hills. And rainbows- so many rainbows in these desert storms. No wonder these mountain towns are so popular. Everyone wanted to come here.

The kids felt the fear before I did. We tried to calm them when the lightning struck, but they felt a fear too deep for a parent to reach, a fear I didn’t understand. My oldest piled rocks around a tree to keep it safe from the lightning. It was cute. I thought he would grow out of it, but he didn’t; we did. Us older folks fooled ourselves with a lifetime of false experience.

When I first smelled the smoke, I felt that same fear- ominous, imminent, unavoidable. The fires were all over the summer news. A million acres here, a hundred houses there, year after year. Fort McMurray burned in Canada, but it was always far away. Still, my subconscious mind was catching on. When I caught myself hugging the kids because I was scared, I knew didn’t like storms anymore. The lightning made me jumpy, and if nobody was looking I would walk nervously to the window to check for smoke. I wrote my Congressmen about funding for the Forest Service after I read they only had money to manage a tiny fraction of the public forest in these mountains.

Every year the fires were worse than the last, and Congress finally funded the overdue thinning project out here. It was ten years of work, Billions of dollars. It was too late for us. That big, dry monsoon storm came in at the wrong time, and the lightning set the forest ablaze in a thousand fires. A hundred years of overgrown fuel went up in smoke, along with the power transmission lines and half of the town. It was all the fire service could do just to keep the highway open for evacuation.

The mountains burned, leaving a charred and sediment-choked moonscape. The power and water were out for a long time, and most of us had nothing to come back to after the evacuation. The tourists and students vanished, and with them my job. We moved back east to live with family, and figured out how to make ends meet. We survived, but things aren’t the same. I heard that a few of the mountain towns are recovering, but only rich vacationers can live there now. These fires woke middle class folks like us from our Southwestern dream.

Now, on those the terribly hot Chicago summer nights when the rain falls, I tell the kids these storms are as beautiful as I remember from my childhood, and we’re lucky to be here. But to tell the truth, I don’t like these storms anymore.


ruddellBen Ruddell Ben Ruddell is from the Midwestern U.S., works on the faculty at Northern Arizona University, and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife Jennifer and their children. This vision published in Life + 2 meters is vaguely autobiographical.