Climate Change: South Asia’s sharpening conflicts

Despite the gravity of the situation the consequences of climate change are yet to be fully appreciated by the stakeholders in South Asia

Asma Khan Lone
Srinagar, Publish Date: Nov 21 2015 10:29PM | Updated Date: Nov 21 2015 10:29PM
Climate Change: South Asia’s sharpening conflictsFile Photo

Food insecurity, migration, water stress and economic recession are some of the impacts associated with climate change. Termed as a “threat multiplier,” climate change is increasingly being recognized as a trigger of violent conflict around the world. Identified as a factor in raising the threshold into open conflict in Syria, the perils of climate change can’t be more emphasized than in the conflict-straddled region of South Asia, home to two nuclear powers and neighboring China, a key player in the power dynamics of the region. 

Contested territories, competing interests, along with intractable intra-state as well as inter-state conflicts, all provide the ensnaring backdrop for climate change in South Asia.  
 
Boasting a trans-national drainage system, the Tibetan Plateau is the main source of water for the region. It is the origin of the region’s major rivers – Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, Mekong and Brahmaputra, catering to 40% of the world’s population. In fact shared waters and the contest they conjure, lie at the heart of the region’s most disparaging conflicts. 
 
The conflict most symbolizing this phenomenon is the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, the most contentious of all regional issues. Premised on the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people, it also overlaps with Pakistan’s pursuit of water security. With all its major rivers flowing from the Indian administered part of Kashmir, the issue has always been of intrinsic importance for Pakistan, amply emphasized by its first Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan, who sanctified Kashmir as a lifeline and key element of Pakistan’s security construct. Rivers originating from Kashmir are Pakistan’s main source of irrigation, driving it’s primarily agriculture based economy. Overtime the issue has acquired greater national security significance. 
 
Cited as a "flashpoint" by former US President Bill Clinton, Kashmir has been at the core of three conflicts (1948, 1965, 1999) between the two nuclear armed neighbors. Of late the controversy surrounding the construction of dams by India over rivers flowing into Pakistan from Kashmir such as the Baglihar dam and the Kishanganga dam has added to the tensions. Moreover the erratic rainfall along with flash floods induced by melting glaciers has wreaked havoc on Pakistan - an almost annual occurrence since 2010. Coinciding with India’s construction of dams in Kashmir which once completed will allow it greater leverage over the flow of water into Pakistan, popular perception in Pakistan already  Identifies India as the miscreant behind the catastrophes.   
 
The melting of the glaciers in the region have an added significance for Indo-Pak relations. The Siachin Glacier - another flash point between the two countries which goes on to feed into the Indus River – the central artery of Pakistan’s river system, is melting at one the fastest rates in the world. Categorised  as one of the most depleted river basins in the world , the downstream area's of River Indus are facing huge strain with some dried out area's being altogether abandoned by local farmers and fisherman. 
 
According to Michael Kugelman, the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, "In areas where you used to have raging rivers, you have, essentially, streams or even puddles and not much else,".  This will have a long term imprint on the economic as well as security equation of the region. Furthermore, the type of extreme weather conditions witnessed by Pakistan in recent years have also affected agricultural yield with predictions of a global slump in agricultural production by 2050 driving a 40-50% increase in food prices.. 
 
Growing food and water insecurity along with resource scarcity in Pakistan, a country grappling with extremist instability, coupled with the popular belief of a mischief mongering neighbor, and met with an equally virulent Indian public opinion and political dynamics, could further exacerbate the tension between the two countries, triggering a disastrous confrontation over Kashmir and its water resources. Though the Indus Water Treaty (1960) – the World Bank arbitrated water sharing agreement between both countries -- has stood the test of time, yet altering patterns of climate change and consumption demand could undermine this otherwise stabilizing mechanism.  
 
Equally daunting are the dynamics of the China India matrix, also marred by contested boundaries and shared water resources. The main sticking point on this front is the Brahmaputra River flowing from China into India and onwards to Bangladesh. As a precaution against the coming water stress, China has undertaken the embankment and diversion of the river along with plans to build various hydro-power dams over it. This has unnerved the lower riparian recipients especially as the river is the primary source of water for India’s North East and Bangladesh affecting the entire gamut of its livelihood and sustenance.  
 
India also fears encroachment on the McMahon line by China (disputed border between both countries) as the latter continues to push boundaries and militarize the vicinity through vast road and communication networks. China is also keen to acquire the disputed Doklam plateau in Bhutan which lies immediately east of Indian forces in Sikkim - another disputed region between India and China.  China also plans to construct more military infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau with monitoring capabilities focused on India. The setting up of heavily fortified permanent military infrastructure was previously unthinkable in the area due to (then) harsh weather conditions but less extreme conditions have allowed it to build bunkers in the Aksa-i-Chin region, whereas its frequent military forays into Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir have frustrated India. China’s plans of widening the strategic Karakoram highway into Pakistan have also unsettled India. 
 
Further, climatic occurrences such as artificial lakes created due to landslides in the upper part of the river network with consequences for India downstream (flooding) or China’s inability to warn India in accordance to a 2000 agreement such as during the Tsangpo river crisis in 2004, can further become a cause of friction, especially if India suffers a major disaster accentuated by lack of Chinese warning or worse by Chinese acts to protect its national interests.   
 
Escalating migration into India from Bangladesh, as the effects of climate change set in, has been another cause of concern. With flooding - the central cause of migration intensifying -- new dynamics have also come into play. Often presented as the 'poster child' for the adverse effects of global warming, Bangladesh's rising sea-levels are due to submerge much of its low lying coast line, displacing around 18 million people. The damming of rivers upstream by both India and China are also to render its river systems dry for 6-7 months annually while intensified flooding along with erratic rainfalls is to unfold its own series of consequences. Sinking land due to overuse of groundwater, aggravated by flood induced salinity, is reducing land productivity especially in rice farming - Bangladesh’s main staple. Projected estimates suggest that 25% of Bangladeshi land as it stood in 1989 could either disappear or become uninhabitable by 2100.  
 
With sheer survival at stake, most Bangladeshis will have to make their way into other territories – Assam in India being a traditional destination. The influx into the region has led to greater scramble for its limited resources sparking frequent violence. This has led to recurrent communal tensions, which could be exploited  by trans-national elements such as ISIS or/and Al Qaeda with the latter citing widespread violence against Muslim Bengali migrants in 2014 as one of the causes (along with Kashmir) for establishing its off shoot AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent). The issue has further complicated matters for India with it strengthening the appeal for the region’s indigenous secessionist movement. All these matters could come to a head providing for a lethal ignition in the region.  
 
Despite the gravity of the situation the consequences of climate change are yet to be fully appreciated by the stakeholders in South Asia, more so by India which sits at the crossroads of tenuous regional fault lines. Living on borrowed time, so to say, the regional actors need to act and act fast before the region’s inherent conflicts entwined with the ravages of climate change overtake it.  
 
The upcoming Paris conference on climate change could provide just the opportunity. Allowing for a constructive dialogue it could pave the way for a more integrated regional response, enhancing institutional engagement but more importantly underscoring the political will and vision to deliver.    
 
The writer is Assistant Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs, New Delhi, India. 
 
( An edited version of this article stands already published in  Foreign Affairs)