The Case of the Disappearing Island: Bay of Bengal, 2009

Before taking up writing full time I’d spent a quarter-century assisting people on both sides of international disputes to meet informally and explore solutions that might be politically difficult to discuss officially. Indeed, in some cases, officials couldn’t even talk at all. It’s discreet, behind the scenes work that occasionally enables politicians to take credit for newsworthy diplomatic breakthroughs; sometimes sows seeds that won’t bear diplomatic fruit for years; but often has no measurable results at all, other than fostering modest improvements in mutual trust and communication. Inevitably, though, this somewhat arcane field of “Track Two diplomacy”  provides its practitioner with some quite interesting moments.(*)

After a cyclone in 1970, a small, low lying islet emerged in the estuary of the Haribhanga River between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh named it South Talpatti and in India it was called New Moore or Purbasha. For almost forty years they had argued over ownership, particularly because of its effect on resolving their dispute over where the maritime boundary should be drawn. The island was uninhabitable, varying in area but averaging about 10 square kilometres, never rising more than two metres above sea level. It did, however pose a risk of armed confrontation. Naval vessels patrolled, and in 1981 a contingent of India’s Border Security Force even put flag on it.

In mid-2009 a “think tank” in one of the countries asked if I could identify and help suitable experts from both sides to meet informally and explore options for resolution. That prompted an interesting period of recruiting institutions and individuals who not only understood the technicalities, but would also be in a credible position to advise their respective governments. After some months a broad plan emerged. It remained only to secure funding for this increasingly exciting initiative to go ahead.

But then, after nine months of work, the island simply disappeared, and our project vanished with it. Climate change, rising sea levels and erosion had quietly solved the problem for us.

In this time of pandemic and polarizing politics it’s yet another reminder that when it comes to making claims, Mother Nature will always prevail over the squabbling species of little primate calling itself “intelligent”.

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(*) For those interested in the topic, there’s no better introduction than a book by my colleague Peter Jones, Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice, published by Stanford University Press in 2015.