Climate change can trigger security concerns in South Asia

Climate change can trigger conflicts, violence and migration due to water scarcity, food insecurity, lack of shelter and livelihood constrains

By Minu Sinha Ratna
Published: Thursday 12 November 2015

The South Asian region is vulnerable to climate change
Credit: Takver/Flickr

Climate change, which has become the most “debatable” issue at present, has added a new dimension to environmental security in South Asian region.

It has been identified as the latest in a series of environmental security issues that have the potential to cause conflict.

As a region, South Asia is vulnerable to climate change. Keeping in mind the region’s volatile geoclimatic and geopolitical situation, low level of economic development and high degree of mutual apathy and mistrust, environmental degradation, along with climate change, has the potential to give rise to instability.

The regional inter-linkage of environmental issues has given rise to bilateral and multi-lateral conflicts. This can be further explored along the lines of water insecurity and the issue of migration in the region in the context of climate change.

The conflict among countries in South Asia in the present times may be fashioned more on the lines of climate change. It has the potential to trigger conflicts, violence and migration due to water scarcity, food insecurity, lack of shelter and livelihood constrains.

Water insecurity in the greater-Himalayan river basin (Indus in the west and the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna in the east) due to melting of glaciers as a result of global warming can trigger conflict among South Asian nations. Current trends indicate that the rivers in the Himalayan basin can become seasonal once the ice melts in the coming decades.

The water issue

The Himalayan rivers, which transcend boundaries are the common source of water in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

If China is taken into account, signs of a potential conflict between the former and India are generating new apprehensions. Strategically China’s position as an upper riparian nation gives it a strategic advantage that has wider implications for the rest of the region.

The Strategic Foresight Group, an India-based think-tank that works on global issues, had published a report (Himalayan Challenge: Water Insecurity in Emerging Asia) in 2010, saying that in the next 30-40 years water will be one of the major factors influencing Asian political and security agenda.

The battle for water has already begun. China has plans to divert the upper flow of the Brahmaputra (the Yarlong Tsangpo river in Tibet) to overcome water shortage in its western part. The move has sent out ripples of anxiety among India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh share 54 trans-boundary rivers between them. India being the upper riparian country has always caused anxiety in Bangladesh over the issue of water sharing. A lot of misperception and mistrust has been generated as a result of it.

The demand for water resources in India is expected to exceed 1.4 trillion cubic metres by 2050. With population explosion, water sharing is going to create conflicts in the region. India’s river-linking project and its environmental ramifications are also a major concern in the region with Bangladesh showing signs of apprehension and anxiety.

Climate change and exodus

Climate change is acting as a catalyst to the already pertinent problem of migration, which is the most sensitive issue when it comes to inter-state relations in South Asia. Migration has both positive and negative implications for the security of the state concerned.

Besides developmental impact, migration involves social, cultural, psychological, economic and political stresses both for the country of origin as well as the recipient country facing challenges for integrating the migrants.

In a similar vein, Norman Myers, noted British environmentalist, who is widely cited for his work on “environmental refugees”, has argued that climate change refugees alone might outnumber all current refugees worldwide, a figure widely contested by social scientists and migration experts.

Large-scale migration of people across borders due to environmental disasters and sea-level rise can trigger major security concerns in the region. (Maldives can be completely submerged by 2100 and 18 per cent of land in Bangladesh can go under the sea due to a rise in the sea level: IPCC Report 2007)

Climate-related weather events and environmental degradation have affected the migration scenario in Bangladesh.

The State of Environment and Migration Report, 2011 reflects a co-relation between floods and migration of Bangladeshis to India. This can be considered as one of the reasons why people from that country cross the Indian border for security and livelihood.

It is estimated that since early 2000, the number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants to north-east India (particularly Assam and Tripura), West Bengal and other economic centres of the country was close to 20 million, though the figure remains contested.

An earlier study by the International Organization for Migration (IMO), titled “Environment Climate Change and Migration in Bangladesh” report in 2010 also reflected on the inter-linkages between migration and climate-induced weather events in the context of Bangladesh.

Climate change and environmental disaster

In Nepal, climate change is contributing to environmental disaster in the form of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), in which violent flood waves cause damage and destruction downstream to people’s lives and livelihood.

A joint survey conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in 2002 highlighted that 26 lakes in Nepal have been categorised as dangerous due to the threat of GLOFs.

As already highlighted by the IPCC (2001 report), glacial melt is expected to aggravate climatic conditions. It is estimated that 2.2 million Nepalese have migrated to India and environmental crisis can further increase the numbers of climate refugees.

Nepal has a fragile democracy. Its close proximity to the international borders of India and China can create severe social and political turmoil and trigger conflict in the entire region in the future.

The future response

Climate change is linked to insecurity both at the human as well as national level. In particular, it can trigger violent conflicts, contribute to vulnerability and inequality. These events are not linear, but involve complex relationship and have spillover effect on other sectors of the society. Ecological crisis can lead to resource scarcity, breakdown of the socio-economic fabric, leading to conflict.

The response of the South Asian region would be to develop a comprehensive security approach to the crises. It is not the states alone that need security, but it is also the people whose lives have to be made secure, as national security must be understood in terms of human security encompassing social, economic, political and environmental security. The impending challenge of climate change needs a proper response from all the countries of South Asia.

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