11 September 2009

Climate Security: Himalayas on Thin Ice

By: Kaavya Nag

Climate change is no longer just about tackling and solving an environmental and social crisis. Nor is it just about changing the energy challenge. It is also being recognized as a challenge that carries serious implications for international peace.
With seven nations, two economic giants, mountain territory, unclear and contested borders and a fair number of ongoing disputes, the Himalayan region is a potent mix of elements already on thin ice.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), the mean annual temperature in the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan region is expected to go up by 3.8 °C.  Will rapidly melting glaciers and permanently ice-covered regions alter high-altitude battlefields, and exacerbate conflict to even higher heights? Will global warming change the dynamics between India, China and Pakistan – the three key players in the region?

The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are regions with large-scale military presence, and have been marked with the sounds of war ever since India’s Independence and the formation of Pakistan in 1947, and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1949.

Whether on the Aksai Chin, the Baltoro, Siachen, Kargil, Arunachal, Sikkim, Sino-Bhutan border, Tibet, or the Karakoram, the Abode of the Gods has always been a hotly contested region. War at 14,000 feet has always been strategically too important to too many nations to give up without a serious fight.

Given the history of high-level conflict in the region, de-militarisation is out of the question in the foreseeable future. However, the Himalayas are strategically sensitive for more important reasons. Seven major rivers are fed by Himalayan glaciers - their waters feed an estimated 1 billion people. The ice that feeds them is melting fast, and this also has serious implications for glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and landslides in the region.

Access to water is likely to become a key security issue for India, China and all Himalayan states, as they try to maintain high economic growth rates and sustain large agrarian populations.

That is not all. Climate refugees are likely to be a serious issue to deal with especially in the high altitudes. High altitude disasters will become more frequent with climate change, and armed forces play an important role in providing timely aid, rescue and in rebuilding infrastructure - a role that will possibly take up a considerable portion of their time in the near future.

A report published by Indian military think tank, Institute for defense studies and analyses (IDSA) attempted to understand the geopolitical dimensions of climate change.

The Indian government has announced its willingness to cooperate with Pakistan on the issue of climate change. India has also initiated work with China on glacier research, although it is wary of ‘Chinese scientists walking all over Indian glaciers’ (read caution after 1962).

These processes mark the start of crucial trans boundary dialogues outside of border disputes that will play an important role in de-escalating overt security tension in the Himalayas and hopefully moving towards a more secure region.

Ref: Pai, N; April 2008; Indian National Interest Policy Brief.

1 comment:

  1. But what do you say when the MOEFs Jairam Ramesh says that the Himalayan meltis a benign natural process. He has dismissed predictions that the glaciers might disappear within 40 years due to climate change as inaccurate ‘western’ science and western media hype.
    Isnt this surprising coming from the Minister himself?