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The Himalayan Hotspot: Diplomacy Needed to Address Environmental and Climate Security Risks

By Maya Saidel

Heightened militarization in the Himalayan region has impeded diplomatic and multilateral efforts to tackle critical climate issues endangering one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. In early June, at least 20 soldiers perished in a historic clash between Indian and Chinese troops along the disputed Himalayan border in Ladakh. This confrontation is the most recent deadly episode in a long history of border disputes between the two countries. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) demarcation, intended to designate which country controlls specific territory, was established after the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Yet, according to The Indian Express, efforts to clarify the exact location of the LAC in the Ladakh region have “effectively stalled since 2002.”  

In order to establish geopolitical dominance, India and China have invested in significant military and transportation infrastructure in the Himalayas.  According to the New York Times, “in the last two decades, India has constructed nearly 5,000 kilometers of roads, allowing it to move military forces more easily along the mountainous border region.” China has not sat idly by. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a Belt and Road initiative, intends to connect Xinjiang Province in China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. Not only does this project have national security implications for India, it also calls for the construction of roads, railways, and oil pipelines which will surely contribute to habitat degradation and fragmentation. 

Economic and military conflict between China and India is shutting out environmental diplomacy and imperiling the preservation of the Himalayan ecosystem. Home to 163 globally-threatened species and an estimated 56,000 glaciers, habitat destruction and rising temperatures pose an existential threat to both the flora and fauna that inhabit the mountain range, and the human settlements that exist in potential flood paths. The landmark Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment has made clear the need to collaborate on a regional basis, as all eight countries that comprise the region — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan — have been called upon to strengthen “participatory and cooperative decision making (formal, informal, and hybrid), evidence-based policies, transparent program implementation, accountability at all levels, and transboundary and regional cooperation.” 

India and China, as the two great regional powers, should encourage multilateral scientific collaboration and relevant data-sharing despite the current geopolitical turmoil. Indeed, such a collaborative initiative may even assist in turning down the temperate on existing regional disputes. Further, as was mentioned by The Third Pole, scientific knowledge should not be held hostage by parochial national interests. The Himalayas provide all countries in the region with indispensable ecosystem services, and therefore – even from a national interest perspective for those involved – should not be overburdened and over-exploited. It is time for the international community, to join forces in order to prevent this unfolding threat to environmental and regional security. 

Maya Saidel is an intern with the Council on Strategic Risks and the Center for Climate and Security.

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