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Takeaways from Sri Lanka Event: Climate Security in South Asia

Colombo Daily News 2 Dec 2017

Colombo Daily News, December 2

By Rachel Fleishman, Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific, The Center for Climate and Security

On November 30 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I participated in an event titledClimate Change and Resources Security: Challenges for Security and the Security Sector in South Asia” – convened just as Cyclone Ockhi hit Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast.* The storm provided a somber backdrop for the discussions. In his opening remarks, Sri Lanka’s Secretary to the Ministry of Defense Kapila Waidyaratne reported 7 killed and hundreds displaced. By the end of the session the confirmed death toll was 11, with more than 3000 having been evacuated.

Anyone seeking a fast-forward view of climate impacts need look no further than South Asia. Asia as a region has the dubious distinction of being the most at risk from climate stress. South Asia is particularly ill-placed, because of both global meteorological patterns and the presence of massive populations living in poverty, often lacking adequate infrastructure or adaptive capacity. In his opening remarks, conference host and Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka Director General Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, revealed that one of the primary contributions the Institute is making to Sri Lanka’s 2030 strategic plan, focuses on the security implications of climate change. It’s not difficult to understand why. Below is a recap of the climate and security themes covered in this important conference, as well as four key takeaways.

Climate change and natural disasters in South Asia

The past few years are a stunning display of the havoc extreme weather can wreak on fragile populations, with climate-forced internal displacement affecting all South Asian countries. Major General (Retired) A N M Muniruzzaman, President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, reported that sea level rise and riverbank erosion displace 500,000 people every year in Bangladesh. Fully 400,000 move to Dhaka, where 70% of the slum dwellers are essentially environmental refugees.  The Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change report Climate change and security in South Asia: Cooperating for Peace, of which General Muniruzzaman was a lead author, notes that massive floods displaced 1.5 million in the Indian state of Assam in 2009 and over 20 million in Pakistan in 2010. The sudden movement of large populations to areas ill-suited to receive them stresses already over-taxed infrastructure, imperiling food, water, and energy supplies as well as personal security. A Region at Risk: The human dimensions of climate change in Asia and the Pacific published by the Asia Development Bank in 2017 report underscores that migrants displaced by intermittent floods often return home; those facing protracted heat and drought leave permanently.

Extreme temperatures are killing thousands. In May 2015, a heat wave in India caused 2,500 deaths. Another in June killed 2,000 in southern Pakistan. Droughts exacerbate poverty, as rural farm families cannot raise enough to feed themselves. According to one recent study, almost 60,000 Indian farmer suicides are linked to climate change over the past 30 years. The effects of poor harvests cascade across geographies and economic classes, as rural workers stream into cities at the same time that locally-grown food becomes scarce in urban markets.

Natural disasters can overwhelm economies already struggling with development.  As food, water, shelter, energy and employment are threatened, so are political and social stability. Estimates of the cost of the 2010 floods in Pakistan range from about $9 billion to $43 billion, depending on whether the calculation includes replacement and rebuilding costs or also factor in production and export losses and the costs of military response.  For countries like Nepal or Bangladesh, damage at even a fraction of this level is overwhelming, from both a cost and a capacity perspective.

Climate change effects on militaries in the region

The advent of more, and more frequent, disasters has also given militaries in the region significant practice in humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR). For example, the Sri Lankan military was the first to respond to the Nepal earthquake. Yet despite a bespoke civilian disaster response network in Sri Lanka, the military’s role has become essential: so much that the Army recently announced that one-third of its force will be permanently dedicated to national capacity building and disaster response. Sri Lankan defense officials present at the conference called for development of doctrine and rules of engagement for the military’s role in HA/DR, a roadmap for civil-military integration, and a plan for more actively engaging the public.

While Indian doctrine doesn’t explicitly mention climate security, some of its 19 “spy agencies” are monitoring the impact of glacial snow melt and rainfall patterns on rural agriculture. From a military readiness perspective, C17 planes essential for heavy-lift in disasters are being tested with synthetic liquid fuel from coal. Fighter planes are being stress-tested for extreme weather.  A warship docked at the Karnakata Naval Base was turned upside down in a storm, and the Western Naval Command installed a tsunami early warning system.  When Indian officials offered to share this system with Taiwan, China balked.

The effects of climate change are also becoming a more prominent feature of the military-military relationship between the United States and its partners and allies in the region, as noted by former PACOM Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, U.S. Navy (Ret), in the Center for Climate and Security’s “The U.S. Asia-Pacific Rebalance, National Security and Climate Change.”

Climate change effects on water security

Senior officials from India, Nepal and Bangladesh also noted the critical problem of tensions over transboundary freshwater systems. Rivers originating in China, Nepal, India, and disputed areas of Jammu and Kashmir sustain up to 2 billion people. Water siphoned off for agriculture or hydropower upstream puts downstream populations at severe risk. Multiple participants advocated collective basin management, and cited the Indus Treaty as the most effective example to date. However, a few “elephants in the room” are preventing essential progress. One is China’s reluctance to engage, either in dialogue or data-sharing, on waters whose headways it controls. Another is the constant state of tension between India and Pakistan, which prevents cooperation even on issues so fundamental to both nations’ security as water. There were calls for new frameworks, new approaches and much more collaborative data sharing as a way forward.

Climate change compounds these transboundary water tensions through diminishing the primary source of that water, the Himalayan glaciers – one of the world’s “water towers.” A retired Indian military official was quoted during the conference as stating:

 “If the snow in the Himalayas does not melt, half of Pakistan will starve – or go to war with India.”

Takeaway 1: A growing climate and security consensus in the region

There was general agreement in the room that challenges in South Asia are legion – and will only grow as climate impacts worsen, climate-displaced peoples surge, and sub-regions struggle with how to protect vulnerable populations from some of the world’s worst natural disasters.

While agreement on the role of the military was not unanimous, there was broad recognition that forward movement is essential. Climate security demands an institutional response: across silos in government, across political boundaries and across military functions and disciplines. The Center for Climate and Security’s Responsibility to Prepare provides a roadmap to integrate climate security systematically and permanently into the extant security institutions, up to and including the UN.

Political framing is key. Done astutely, it could pave the way for improved livelihood for hundreds of millions of people – and start to melt the ice on historic confrontations, to boot. While only political actors can make such commitments, think tanks, civil society and businesses can use their voices to raise expectations, increasing the likelihood that issues like climate and water can be unifying, rather than divisive, forces.

Takeaway 2: The importance of actionable data

Big data – accessing it through international sharing or installation of new sensors where necessary – is the starting point for another critical workstream. Data should be modeled and made actionable through foresight, tools, and applications that can be shared amongst the security, civil authorities and non-governmental communities alike. Collaborations being established by the Capacity Center for Climate and Weather Extremes at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, and projected impact modeling on specific streets and buildings, suggest one practical way forward. Similarly, super-imposing maps showing vulnerable populations, over-stressed infrastructure, and known or projected climate impacts can be a starting point for addressing the most acute climate security hot spots.

Takeaway 3: The importance of new (and old) adaptation technologies

Known adaptation technologies need to be applied, and new ones developed. A brief but sobering discussion of geo-engineering began with the recognition that the IPCC projections now assume a significant level of “negative emissions,” which are not technically feasible today. Geo-engineering without proper global governance could be disastrous. The list of potential what-if scenarios is long and frightening. But the pathway to 2°C seems to require grappling with this issue – multi-laterally, and soon.

Takeaway 4: Clarifying the role of militaries

Finally, the role of militaries in climate security merits better definition and support. Mission, doctrine, training, equipment, and the rationalization of military operations in a carbon-constrained world (e.g. lightening the military boot-print) should be on the collective to-do list. A phrase adapted from a UN peacekeeping official perhaps says it best:

Disaster response (and climate security) is not a soldier’s job — but only a soldier can do it.

* The event was convened by the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, the Center for South Asian Studies, and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung


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