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Report Highlight: Climate Security and the Strategic Energy Pathway in South Asia

By Sarang Shidore, Rachel Fleishman and Dr. Marc Kodack

Climate change is not just an environmental issue in South Asia; it is also a major security concern. When overlaid with pre-existing domestic distress and inter-state rivalries that roil the region, it could well act as a tipping point that triggers or magnifies violent conflict. But appropriate policy responses, including institution-building, data-sharing and embracing a rapid low-carbon pathway, provide a way forward. 

These are some of the conclusions we reached in a recent report published by the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security titled “Climate Security and the Strategic Energy Pathway in South Asia.” The report examines the impact of climate change in three areas – the India-Pakistan rivalry, the China-India rivalry and within domestic security arenas in South Asia. 

Regional Rivalries

The China-India and India-Pakistan rivalries are highly risk-prone, as all three are nuclear-armed states. Actual or perceived manipulation of water by China, especially the recently-announced massive 60 GW Great Bend project on the Brahmaputra River (what the Chinese call the Yarlung Tsangpo River), could magnify the risk of conflict with India. India is also concerned about potential water diversion and disruption of the high silt flows that enhance soil fertility. To add to these material impacts, the scope for misperception of each others’ actions is another factor, particularly given that the two countries have been locked in a tense border face-off since the spring of 2020. The lack of a comprehensive water governance accord further contributes to the potential for increasing disputes over the Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsangpo as climate change fuels greater floods and extreme rainfall in the basin.

Meanwhile, the India-Pakistan rivalry has been heavily militarized for decades, with frequent armed clashes across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Unlike the China-India case, there is an international agreement governing Pakistan and India’s shared rivers. Both countries are signatories to the World Bank-mediated Indus Waters Treaty, which partitioned the six rivers of the Indus basin between the two states in 1960. But Pakistan fears Indian dam projects are designed to block or reduce waters on rivers allotted to Pakistan under the treaty. For its part, India worries about bad-faith Pakistani accusations of water deprivation, and Pakistani-backed terror attacks on dams and other infrastructure in Kashmir. The volatility of Indus basin flows, high silt loads, and climate-induced extreme precipitation is incentivizing Indian dam designs that are likely to further increase distrust between the two countries, putting the Indus Waters Treaty under serious stress.

Domestic Challenges

Climate change also presents many domestic security challenges for South Asian countries. It threatens food and water security and magnifies natural disasters such as floods, compounded by sea level rise. The recent natural disaster in the Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which killed dozens and destroyed two hydropower plants, offered a tragic glimpse of what an increasingly devastating climate-influenced future looks like. Climate change is also one factor deepening India’s agricultural distress, which in the context of new laws passed by its government, has triggered major farmer protests. 

Insurgents and terrorists may also use climate change effects to their advantage. The Pakistani Taliban used the country’s massive 2010 floods, known to have been magnified due to climate change, to win goodwill by aiding the local population while concurrently campaigning violently against foreign assistance and murdering foreign aid workers. Separatist and Maoist militants have plagued India’s northeastern and central regions for decades and increased climate vulnerability may make such pathways more attractive for its poorer residents. Rising sea levels and strengthening cyclones in Bangladesh create pressures for migration internally and to India where such migration is being exploited by ethno-nationalist political parties to polarize communities.

Carbon Emissions

Linked to the question of climate security is the challenge of carbon mitigation. South Asia is already a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. India, by far the dominant contributor in this regard, is responsible for 7% of global emissions (though measured in terms of historical or per capita responsibility, this number is much lower). While South Asian states are at various stages of decarbonization, all are very far from adopting practical pathways toward the emerging gold standard in the global climate response – net zero emissions. As noted in the Center for Climate and Security “Security Threat Assessment on Global Climate Change,” that net zero goal is important for avoiding catastrophic security consequences.

Assessing the Role of Militaries

These security risks underscore the increasing role regional militaries are likely to play in responding to climate change in the future.  The Indian military’s approach is illustrative of the challenges and opportunities for military leadership in the region. According to Dhanasree Jayaram, the Indian military primarily uses a securitization framework when discussing climate change–that is, considering climate change a security threat or risk–yet is also beginning to embrace a ‘climatization’ approach which seeks to address climate across society, with the military addressing its specific role, and coordinating with civil authorities. Jayaram argues that the Indian military’s approach increasingly consists of “symbolic, precautionary, strategic and transformative climatizing moves.” Given the intersecting nature of climate risks as described in the IMCCS report, and the need for a whole of government approach, the climatization framework is likely to lead to more lasting solutions.   

Recommendations for Action

Given all these complex transformations underway, how can South Asian states meet the security challenges increasingly posed by climate change? The IMCCS South Asia report makes the following recommendations, accounting for the embedded interdependencies in the climate-water-energy-security nexus: 

  • Security actors in the region should fully integrate climate change projections and their cascading effects into security projections, planning, equipment acquisition and training.
  • Foreign policy actors in the region should actively seek to enshrine common environmental and climate security goals into regional agreements and practices.
  • Energy policy actors in the region should incorporate the systemic costs and externalities of human and state security into their policy calculus.
  • The region’s governments should assess and manage climate security risks and the energy-climate security nexus at national and regional levels, including by using existing regional platforms to coordinate data-sharing, planning, funding and emergency response. 

South Asia faces the triple challenge of regions still marked by persistent under-development and insecurity, populations competing for limited resources, and growing impacts of climate change. Governments seeking to address the first two must also consider the third. Without due consideration, climate change will continue to be a major threat multiplier, exacerbating existing tensions and diminishing the options for peaceful regional development. The region’s governments, all of which seek human and economic development for their citizens, could use the climate challenge as a means for a new paradigm of cooperation in South Asia.  

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