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New Report: Melting Mountains, Mounting Tensions: Climate Change and the India-China Rivalry

By Rachel Fleishman and Sarang Shidore

See the associated India-China story map here.

In many parts of the world, climate change is a trigger for disaster. In some, it can also be a catalyst for conflict. On the India-China border, it has the potential to be both—exacerbating an already-fraught relationship with the potential for escalation to the nuclear plane.   

Melting Mountains, Mounting Tensions: Climate Change and the India-China Rivalry is the first of a series of case studies integrating security analysis of instability and conflict involving nuclear-armed states with cutting-edge climate science. The outcome of a novel collaboration between the Converging Risks Lab of the Council on Strategic Risks and the Woodwell Climate Research Center, the case studies aim to raise awareness and flag the urgency of converging climate and nuclear risks at a time when the global security landscape is becoming more complex.  Climate change is the main impetus for new Chinese hydropower projects in the Tibetan Plateau and in Pakistani-held Kashmir. The addition of clean energy to the Chinese grid will contribute to decarbonizing the economy. But Indian populations downstream in the Indus and Brahmaputra river basins worry that China will use its dams to manipulate water flow, inducing or worsening droughts and floods. 

There are real material risks from China’s dam-building – particularly in the Brahmaputra basin, where floods are almost an annual phenomenon. Risks include seismic instability that can trigger dam collapse and catastrophic floods. Drought could also be induced during the dam-filling process, which can take months or even years to complete. Chinese dams built in collaboration with its ally Pakistan on the Indus river also raise tensions with India, as the projected glacier melt will be sufficient to keep the hydropower plants going throughout most of the century. 

However, physical climate projections in the study show that climate change alone will worsen Indian floods. Dams enhance real risks downstream, but also create major perceptual risks in an existing context of extreme distrust. India could well interpret higher floodwaters as being due to Chinese manipulation, even if that is not the cause.  

The outcome of these contestations will ultimately depend on how the dams and associated river basins are managed in the context of increasing climate threats. Currently, no bilateral treaty or data-sharing agreement exists between India and China on their shared river basins. Nor does China have a history of transparency on its dam projects when it comes to downstream states. 

Climate change also has the potential to be a threat multiplier in the stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops deployed in their contested border region.  A strong warming trend, identified clearly in the study, will increase the viability of military patrols, raising risks of clashes. Troops will also face risks of avalanches induced by glacier melt. 

The report recommends the parties commit to sustained and meaningful dialog, with the aim of achieving agreements on:

  • Regular, granular data exchange on shared water resources, including full transparency on current and planned dam projects;
  • Establishing joint early warning and coordinated response mechanisms for natural disasters in the Brahmaputra and Indus River basins; and 
  • Incorporating international best practices on river management on both sides of the border. 

Deep-seated distrust on both sides of the India-China border threatens to give rise to both material risks generated due to dam projects and fundamental attribution error – misinterpreting climate-induced floods and other natural disasters as originating from Chinese manipulation. The first step to avoiding this dynamic, and the instability and conflict that could follow, is jointly recognizing the impacts that climate change will portend. The second is strengthening communication, collaboration and transparency. In the longer run, China and relevant South Asian states including India could consider crafting new and extended river basin management treaties that take into account increasing impacts of climate change, further enhancing prospects for stability and peace in this climate-vulnerable part of the world.

See below for the full India-China case study.

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