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World Humanitarian Summit Wraps Up as Heat, Drought and State Fragility Plague South Asia


Hottest daytime high temperature May 24-30, 2015. NOAA map by Fiona Martin, based data provided by the India Meterological Department.

By Neil Bhatiya, Climate and Diplomacy Fellow

For the past two days, United Nations member-states have been meeting in Turkey at the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit. As the pre-Summit communiqué makes clear, participants will face a daunting challenge: tens of million people forcibly displaced due to conflict or natural disasters, a situation which has Europe (as well as host country Turkey) facing a refugee crisis. Even larger numbers are in need of international financial assistance, a fact which has taxed the global relief community (according to the UN, the annual funding shortfall for humanitarian relief is $15 billion).

Among the regions where this nexus presents a high risk to a substantial number of people is South Asia. Around a quarter of India’s population is currently mired in one of the worst droughts in a decade, thanks to a combination of climate change impacts and a strong El Nino, which has dried out much of Asia. Alongside the drought is an unprecedented heat wave, with temperatures reaching nearly 130 degrees, hot enough to melt the asphalt on city streets. The prognosis is as dire for longer-term challenges. Projected sea level rise could expose nearly 40 million Indians to coastal flood by 2050, according to the United Nations; Pakistani and Bangladeshi coastal cities are also at risk.

These disaster risks have profound political and diplomatic consequences. Water, food, and energy security issues are inextricably linked in the South Asia context. Water resources have to feed India’s energy infrastructure (most of which are thermal plants requiring water as a coolant), its agriculture sector, as well as provide for human consumption (which increases drastically in a heat wave). The current Indian drought/heat wave, like most natural disasters worldwide, affect low-income and politically marginalized communities the hardest. Those without a cushion of financial resources often choose migration as an adaptation strategy; however, in doing so, family ties can be severed (many of the more desperate have chosen suicide as an escape). Activists in India are warning about the proliferation of “water wives” – while polygamy is officially illegal in the country, some men marry multiple women to increase the number of household members who can fetch water.

The regional dynamic here is also a critical concern. While historically India and Pakistan have put transboundary water cooperation (especially the Indus River system) on a stable footing, there is an oft-cited concern that accelerating scarcity due to expanding demand and dwindling supply will contribute to the continued strained relationship. India’s long-term plan for the conveyance of water from surplus to deficit states, to be accomplished through the diversion of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, has been met with protest by Bangladesh, which fears that the decreased flow of both will play havoc with its economy. Hopefully countries in the region can expand upon this cooperative model; however, those steps will require a higher degree of political will for dialogue and normalization than has been demonstrated in recent years.  

The global political and diplomatic system is still only in the infant stages of addressing these issues in a systematic way. The past year has seen the coalescing of several multilateral and multistakeholder initiatives to address state fragility and conflict risk from climate and disaster scenarios. The Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the G7’s efforts to address climate change and security are all geared to developing and implementing recommendations to build capacity at the local level, as well as marshal resources across the international community for emergency response.

On a bilateral basis, the United States is wasting no opportunity to embed these concerns deeper into its foreign policy, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama’s attendance at this year’s G7 Summit in Japan was preceded by an historic trip to Vietnam. Among the issues on the agenda was the contours of a partnership on climate change, included on disaster relief preparedness; notably, the discussion to return U.S. military resources to the country for the first time since the Vietnam war ended was focused on pre-positioning equipment to help respond to regional natural disasters.  

The first annual World Humanitarian Summit will likely succeed at providing the framework for an ambitious agenda and re-focusing international attention on global norms surrounding humanitarian conduct in conflict and disaster situations. However, for that commitment to have a demonstrable impact on the ground states need to bridge the financial gap through concrete commitments; otherwise state fragility from climate and disaster risk will continue to be a first order concern for the international community.

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