To avoid a potential conflict in South Asia due to climate change, India, China and Pakistan should work together and clean up their act in the mountains of Kashmir. The message that must go on the eve of the international conference on climate change, glacial recession and livelihoods organized in Srinagar.
Some of the most inaccessible part of the valley of Kashmir, Ladakh, Skardu, Nobra and Baltistan along India's disputed border with Pakistan and China hold the critical water resources for nearly 2.5 billion people living in this most overcrowded part of the world. Glaciers like Siachin, Baltro, Hispar, Kolhai and Thajwas along with numerous frozen lakes in Jammu and Kashmir that irrigate vast areas of land in India, China and Pakistan are shrinking fast, causing a concern in these politically volatile countries. And, some commentators have started to predict that the epicenter of a possible armed conflict due to climate change will be within the mountainous areas of Jammu and Kashmir, along the very sensitive Indo-Pak-China border.
The region where three majestic mountain ranges, Karakorum, Hindukush and Himalayas meet has been, for centuries, feeding important rivers including Shyok , Indus, Mutzgah, Jehlum, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in the region, supporting agricultural production, electricity generation and the supply of drinking water. But as these glaciers are melting faster than expected, an environmental catastrophe is unfolding steadily. Both the anecdotal and scientific evidence substantiate the claim that glaciers are shrinking fast and snow line in Kashmir is receding dramatically. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looking at the current rate of shrinking of glaciers, estimates that most of these glaciers will be gone by year 2035. This is a scary prospect; a vision that could make water a precious commodity and lead to the environmental wars of future where countries will fight for the access to the diminishing natural resources. This vision is not unfounded. International Alert in London has identified 46 places which may lead to climate driven geopolitical crisis in the world.
Looking at the extreme weather patterns in South Asia, we see Pakistan facing draught leading to grain shortfalls. The price of wheat has skyrocketed, and during the month of Ramadan scores of people died in a stampede for free wheat in Karachi. Government deployed troops to guard wheat stores across the country. Similarly, China saw worst floods for decades when city after city was swamped. India had its share of dry monsoons followed by heavy flooding while the reserves of clean drinking water are constantly decreasing. The changes in glaciers in the upper reaches of Himalayas and Karakorum have a direct impact on the security and politics in the plains of India, Pakistan and China.
Ironically though, it is India and China who are largely seen to be responsible for the climate change in the region. The scientist exploring the causes of the fast declining water resources in the region have found the evidence to prove that the glaciers in the region are melting due the effects of clouds of soot from diesel fumes and wood fires. With the phenomenal increase in the number of cars in India and China, these scientific findings should not come as a big surprise.
India is now the ninth largest car manufacturer in the world producing over two million cars every year. With the economic liberalization, the car industry has grown enormously brining almost every car manufacturer of the world to India. Unfortunately, the research and development has been devoted to developing cheaper cars than in creating environment friendly vehicles. The new cheap car, Tata Nano is estimated to add 14 million more cars on Indian roads.
Similarly, China is great lover of cars. According to the Fortune magazine, car sales in China rose 78 per cent in August over the same month a year ago. During the last 10 years, China has tripled its vehicle fleet to 45 million while India's has doubled to 15 million. These figures exclude millions of motorcycles and unregistered small vehicles running in these countries.
But many people argue that criticising India and China for higher growth amounts to neocolonialism as the West, after enjoying the benefits of growth for decades, is now putting limits on the developing world by accusing them of global warming. Many would argue that the West is not justified in keeping the developing world away from the process of development. But the question remains, what is development? Unfortunately, development and progress is being defined within the western discourse which focuses on material rather on the ethical or spiritual aspects of progress. Development should not mean aping the West.
Asking the big nations and their industries to pay for environmental damage is a reasonable argument. China, India, Brazil and other fast growing economies do not want to retard their growth and they are justified in asking America and Europe to contribute towards fighting the global warming and environmental damage caused by the rapid industrialization as they alone should not be penalized for generating carbon. But this argument also holds good for India, Pakistan and China to pay for cleaning the environment in Kashmir. The carbon that is depositing on the glaciers comes from the region which is attaining the dubious distinction of having the highest number of cars in the world. Though these countries have never paid for using the water resources of Kashmir but now, at least, they should accept the responsibility of damaging Kashmir's fragile ecosystem and be prepared to pay for depleting this natural wealth.
Having said that, one cannot ignore the fact that, at the micro level, people of Kashmir are also responsible for damaging their immediate environment. Be it the shrinking Dal Lake, deforestation or over reliance on cars, successive governments in Kashmir as well as people of the valley have been very insensitive to the delicate ecosystem of Kashmir. However, the level of the environmental damage we are witnessing in Kashmir today is bigger, wider and caused by factors which are not necessarily local but are more regional and international in nature.
The scientists from the Energy and Resources Institute of India who installed sensors in Kolhai glaciers in Kashmir have found the concentrates of black carbon on virgin snows. This deposition, scientists believe, has enhanced the meltdown of snow which has huge implications on the ecosystem of the valley of Kashmir. This glacier feeds the river Jehlum- the life line for Kashmir. The river also drains into the Dal Lake and Wular cleaning these fresh water lakes of their impurities. But with less water, the Jehlum is lifeless. It does not have enough water to bring life to valley and refresh its lakes. The people in Kashmir are witnessing a big change in weather patterns: Snowfall is decreasing, the temperatures are rising and water table is decreasing. It is not uncommon to see the bed of river Jehlum at many places in Srinagar during summer. Consequently, water bodies are deteriorating, pollution is on increase the flora and fauna in Kashmir is under threat. Besides robbing Kashmir of its natural resources, the impact of global warming in many ways is putting agriculture, horticulture and the tourism trade in jeopardy.
As if the pollution is not doing enough damage, India and Pakistan spent around two billion dollars annually to eyeball each other on Siachin, the world highest, coldest and, often referred, as the most 'sense less' battleground. This wanton posturing has accelerated the melting of ice as both sides have built roads, dug bunkers and caused immense environmental damage to Siachin. According to scientists, Siachin is shirking at an alarming 110 metres annually, and with this rate of deterioration, this great source of water will end sooner than later.
It is disheartening to see the international community worried about the impact of shrinking glaciers on the populations in India, China and Pakistan but no one assessing the damage of vanishing water resources will have on the social, economic and political life of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have largely cooperated when it comes to sharing water resources, especially those originating from Kashmir. The Indus Water Treaty which is not seen to be in the best interests of Kashmiris has helped India and Pakistan to control water levels to suit their irrigation, power generation and political needs but the treaty has failed to take into cognizance the environmental and economic damage to Kashmir caused by the pollution and unsustainable growth in South Asia. Addressing this problem at the local level only is not going to make much difference. In a globalised world, the regional and global issues have a far reaching impact than what is happening at the micro level. As the natural resources are dwindling and the energy needs are increasing, environment is not just the issue of fresh air and clean water but it is also the issue of livelihood, human rights and economic freedom of people.
Any remedy for restoring the balance should take into account these realities. The starting point for this macro approach should be a thorough review of the Indus Water Treaty to make it more inclusive, just and representative. The treaty written in 1960 is outdated as it does not engage with the new geopolitical realities in the region and, more importantly, it fails to address the contemporary environmental issue. The treaty is useless unless it empowers the people of Kashmir to take ownership of its resources, and demand compensation for the depletion of its natural wealth. China which shares these resources of Kashmir, and is one of the largest polluting countries in the region cannot be ignored while developing a sustainable regional approach in dealing with the regional environmental issues.
(The author is Foreign Editor, Greater Kashmir)