Kelly Belter December 20 2017

Retreating Earth, Environmental Refugees


Climate change is transforming our world. Environmental catastrophes are ravaging our planet and overwhelming the news. Most recently, Californian wild fires have scorched an area bigger than New York City and Boston, blanketing Southern California with smoke and ash and fueled by Earth’s rising temperatures. These increasingly violent phenomena have almost become a norm. But climate change does not only affect our environment. It also affects human beings—the way in which we live our lives and where we live them. The World Health Organization has marked environmental refugees as one of the global community’s most pressing health concerns. And it is becoming more and more evident that in the realm of refugees, which we traditionally associate with politically volatile or war-torn regions, environmental issues are becoming a greater source of disruption and movement. As the repercussions of global warming build, greater numbers of people are being forced from their homes, the homes they have inhabited for generations, to find new frontiers or to struggle rebuilding what they have lost. The following documentaries examine these struggles, zeroing in on India and Bangladesh and exploring how climate change affects human movement. 

South Asia is especially relevant when it comes to climate change, with this year’s greatest environmental disasters occurring in the region. This summer’s monsoon rains resulted in flooding and landslides that affected over 41 million people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. (*SOURCE: Fittingly, Daniel Grossman’s documentaries focus on India and examine how two areas—the Sundarbans Islands and Uttarakhand—have been affected by rising sea levels. In “Rising water: India’s Sundarbans” (2009), we are immersed in the once-serene mangrove forests of west India, also known for its rich wildlife, tigers in particular. But this sense of peace has been compromised by the rising water levels. The brackish water has become more saline, resulting in the migration of tigers further and further north, and breaching the buffer zones where people fish and live. This escalating man-tiger conflict further complicates the already-destructive nature of water. Flooding has destroyed houses and the farms on which people subsist. Unable to live off of the land, families are being pushed into the slums of Calcutta, “flooding" the cities in turn. 2.5 million people now have nowhere to go. When environmental refugees desert this area, which will lose 15% of its area by 2020, they will flood into overpopulated cities that cannot contain or support them. Ultimately, Grossman demonstrates that the problem in the Sundarbans is not self-contained. It is not a local problem, but a broader one that aches for national and international support.

In a later film, “Unnatural Disaster” (2015), Grossman investigates a different region of India: Uttarakhand. We begin and end at a thousand-year-old Hindu temple, dedicated to Shiva—the destroyer, the transformer. Rain has flooded the region, engendered by the shrinking glaciers that previously absorbed rain and buffered flood waters. The lakes have churned and overflowed, throwing silt and boulders into the town below. Half of the buildings have been wrecked, homes demolished, and thousands of people killed. Global warming, again, is at the epicenter of the disaster. But the temple still stands. We are left with an impression of it, a premonition of the unrelenting transformations to come.

Unnatural Disaaster : About half a million Hindu pilgrims from throughout India visit Kedarnath every year. Most walk from the nearest road for ten miles along a rugged trail, while some ride ponies or donkeys. Image by Daniel Grossman. India, 2014.

Chintan Gohil’s “The Catalysts of Change: Adapting to changing weather in Ladakh” (2015) looks at the disasters in India from a more people-centric perspective. Whereas Grossman’s films peered into the country’s changing landscape through long, informative views of nature here we have, more clearly, the people residing in it. The Catalysts of Change is a series of small portraits, people who are weathering the extreme changes in weather, from water shortages to floods, that have threatened their traditional way of life in the area of Ladakh. The focus on people provides a more hopeful message: that change is still in our own hands. And the people of Ladakh are making a genuine effort for that change. There is not only struggle, but initiative. While Grossman introduces us to India’s environmental problems, Gohil introduces solutions. Ladakh is educating a new generation, raising awareness in hopes that its children will spread what they have learned to their families, communities, and beyond. There is an environmental school. There is an automatic weather station that allows people to use science to take control of their own fate—adjusting the community rather than leaving it. There are artificial glaciers and water reservoirs to combat shortages. These are all sources of hope. A manmade disaster calls for manmade solutions, and the responsibility extends to us all.

The Catalysts of Change: Adapting to changing weather in Ladakh. Chintan Gohil

"Deep Weather" (2013) addresses this responsibility on a global scale, connecting the ripple of toxicity and environmental impact from Alberta to the Arctic Ocean to Bangladesh. Ursula Biemann’s experimental documentary is haunted by a whispered narration, which guides us to South Asia’s hydrogeographies. These are lands ravaged by and rebuilt upon water. This whisper speaks eerily and almost poetically, as if to remind us of the quiet but persistent natural of climate change: a quiet disaster that we have ignored for years. But we cannot ignore it any longer. It has buIlt up and become almost omnipresent, unescapable. Oil miners back in the “Carbon Geologies” of Alberta mine tar deposits that warm and swarm the seas “to be witnessed elsewhere.” Wildlife migrates and so does the toxicity. Bangaldesh is the site of these effects, where the sea water refuses to be brought under scientific order. Bremen contrasts the landscape of Bangladesh’s hydrogeologies with still video portraits. Citizens of these new watery territories stand, unflinchingly, and build higher and higher embankments. The melting lifespan of the Himalayan ice fields seems to be tied to the melting lifespan of these communities. This living space is a constantly fluctuating mobile mass. So, both the land and the people are refugees, both retreating. “Acid winds hissing: Evolution isn’t fast enough. Mutate."

Ursula Biemann: Deep Weather, 2013 | Video, 18″

Global warming has a palpable impact on human beings and their daily lives. Whether they stay and attempt to deal with the ramifications of their changing environment or leave in search of new homes, alienated from their communities and the way of life that they have cultivated. Some outlooks are bleak, others are hopeful. But all touch upon the importance of human vigilance in the midst of this manmade threat. 

About the author

Kelly Belter is an illustrator and writer based in Seoul, South Korea, where she is finishing her MA in International Relations. You can find more of her work at

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