Preserving Environment, Energy Security & Sustainability in South Asia

Preserving Environment, Energy Security & Sustainability in South Asia

Restraining environmental degradation, ensuring uninterrupted energy supply and sustaining development are interrelated aspects of overall growth process whose mutual interplay considerably affect the environment and ecological balance in nature. Unfortunately South Asia, which like many other regions, is also affected by degradation of the environment and consequent loss of ecological balance, has severely been suffering from grave environmental challenges and other chronic problems, resulting into unworthy human living for a huge populace.


Nature has all along been generous to mankind by providing unlimited bounties like landscapes and forests, mountains and beaches, birds and wildlife and above all air and water without which no flora and fauna or even man can survive. While the environment is the entire surroundings of air column present on the earth, the climate is said to be a total of different environmental parameters; like insolation, temperature, pressure, humidity, etc., recorded for a shorter period or even day to day basis.  In fact, these parameters do affect the overall environment wherein each and every organism and plant-derive sustenance for survival. Hence, a balance among all these climatic factors ensures the origin and survival of entire flora and fauna, including human beings on the earth. Obviously, their imbalance will lead to the gross environmental degradation and, the consequent loss of flora and fauna or even their extinction in the end. As the environment provides suitable conditions for survival of all creatures living on mother earth when such suitable conditions of survival are disturbed due to different reasons; like deforestation, rise in temperature due to carbon emission, air and water pollution, excessive and intensive prevalence of electro-magnetic waves in the atmosphere, the resultant environmental degradation puts heavy strain upon ecological balance and that, in turn, leads to several inhospitable conditions like rising in temperature, acid rain, excessively hot or cold, uneven monsoon and many unnatural events. The earth has already produced enough for the sustenance of all living creatures in the world which, according to Mahatma Gandhi, satisfies “every man’s need, not every man’s greed.” All organisms in the natural environment are dependent on one another and each, in turn, depends on the physical environment of the area in which it lives. There is a perfect balance or equilibrium between various organisms in the biosphere- a relatively narrow belt of living organisms a little above and below the surface of the land- known as ecological balance. In this situation, the relative numbers of organisms in a particular environment remain constant, so says a great scholar, E. P. Odum. When this balance disturbs either due to changes in the physical environment or due to changes in the relative numbers of organisms in the biosphere, “a new balance is then created by Nature after witnessing a huge loss of lives of certain organisms”, writes Sudhanshu Tripathi in his article “Environment and Sustainable Development in South Asia”, published in India Quarterly, New Delhi, Vol. LXIII, No 3, July- Sep. 2007, P 124.

In fact, resources produced by nature are for all generations to come; they are not meant for any particular generation. Every generation has, therefore, to use them only to the extent necessary to live with satisfaction and comfort. In fact, happiness and well-being which are ultimate goals of mankind presuppose harmony with nature and restraint in consumption. It is here that we have failed miserably. In the pursuit of happiness and consumption, we have forgotten ourselves, our creativity and also what we owe to nature. And the present consumer culture of the West, based on the philosophy of cut-throat competition and unlimited acquisition has turned man into a machine devoid of “humanism.” Consequently, several environmental challenges like air and water pollution, shortage of potable water, land degradation, deforestation and mismanagement of wastes, etc. have made life untenable for human beings and putting their survival at stake. Hence there is an urgent requirement to check environmental degradation and ensure the well-being of mankind.

The present essay explores mutual interaction among climate change, energy security, and sustainable development, adversely affecting the South Asian countries which are already mired in various chronic problems as described below. Further, while describing climate change, energy security and sustainable development individually, the write-up discusses the mutual interplay between climate change and energy security with that of sustainable development, one after the other. Lastly, it concludes by motivating the SAARC to help evolve more realistic and workable policies which may ensure compatibility in the extraction process of natural resources with that of investment direction and so formulate the required policy reforms which may establish a perfect harmony with nature and ensure meaningful human survival.

Challenges in South Asia:

The South Asian region, as against other there regions of Europe and America, is characterised by chronic problems of poverty, illiteracy, immobility, population explosion pressure, unhygienic conditions of living, under development, self-oriented and corrupt political leadership and bureaucracy, feudal-monarchic politico-social system which prevents wider participation of common people in framing of governmental policies and decisions regarding overall development. Above all, the environmental problems in this region have made life unworthy of living for a huge population of billions, almost one-fifth of the human race. This is caused by several factors like industrialisation, deforestation and spreading land salinity, population explosion, and urbanisation, mad race for science and technology with-out having proper system of their application and disposal of wastes, rising carbon emission and consequent temperature hike and acid rain resulting in climate change etc.. As there has been no effective mechanism and no pollution control culture, involving people’s participation and community awareness programmes, which is available in the advanced Western countries, this region has seriously suffered its ecological-balance and without adopting eco-friendly technologies during half a century past, it remains far behind in meeting the standard parameters of the United Nations and other international and global monitoring bodies particularly as regards adverse climate changes.

Climate Change:

In fact, climate change is a serious and urgent issue. And changing climate upon earth is now an established fact which is based upon scientific consensus that human activities have not only contributed to it significantly, but that change is far more rapid and dangerous than thought earlier, according to the 2007 report of   Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), [Climate Change 2007, The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policy Makers, Paris: IPCC, WMO]. The global mean temperature of the earth is rising; it has risen by 0.7oC in the 20th century and continues on an upward trend. This has already begun to impose costs (e.g., in the form of heat waves, the frequency of extreme events, and recession of glaciers), but these are still within the bounds of common experience. However, further temperature increases contain the potential of much larger and even catastrophic impacts. There is close to a scientific consensus over the threshold of the so-called 2-degree line, namely an increase of 2oC above pre-industrial levels, beyond which catastrophic change is highly probable. Successive assessments by the IPCC have increased the confidence in the evidence as well as the theory. The danger is that the mutually reinforcing effects of global warming may take the world to a temperature increase of 3oC or higher, with potentially severe consequences. Consider only the item in the last row of the diagram, “Onset of the irreversible melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet”. The arrow starts at about 1.5oC, changes to orange at 2oC, and is red by the time it reaches 3oC. The implications of such a melting are enormous, including a 7 metre rise in sea level, according to a scholar Paul Baer in his analysis, “The Worth of an Ice Sheet, An Eco-Equity Discussion Paper: A critique of the treatment of catastrophic impacts in the Stern Review”, available on the following website ( Even though on this issue, as well as on some other projected impacts of climate change, discussions are ongoing about their probability, the events that they relate to are clearly of a magnitude that was avoiding them is vital. While climate change results from activities all over the globe, it may lead to very different impacts in different countries, depending on local/regional environmental conditions and on differences in vulnerability to climate change—independent of the contributions to climate change of these countries. It is likely to undermine the sustainability of livelihoods as well as development. The worst impacts will fall on poor and developing countries, particularly the Third World, which despite having enough natural resources are left to suffer because of their geographical location, poor infrastructural facilities, highly vulnerable social, economic and political setup together, paving the way for weak capacities of coping with emerging challenges. Though the natural resources are treated as ‘common fund’ of mankind, they have been used in an unequal manner causing uneven growth pattern in the world, and that causes an adverse impact on each constituent of the environment. The developing countries of Africa, Asia & Latin America known as ‘Third World’ have been the worst sufferer of the environmental degradation caused by the industrial revolution and consequent imperialist policies adopted by the West as regards unrestrained extraction and excessive utilisation of natural resources for commercial purposes, thereby causing adverse changes in climates and seasons and also hampering the uninterrupted supply of energy resources called ‘energy security’.

Energy Security:

As all developmental activities essentially require energy for their operational sustenance, therefore uninterrupted supply of energy is the prerequisite for future sustainable development. But, at the same time, the development process must ensure that while energy is used for the present requirement, enough ought to be left for future generations to come, in whatever way possible. Hence, the term energy security essentially encompasses an idea of energy replenishment because without that there will obviously be a crisis of energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy security as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”. Energy security has many dimensions: long-term energy security mainly deals with timely investments to supply energy in line with economic developments and sustainable environmental needs. Short-term energy security focuses on the ability of the energy system to react promptly to sudden changes in the supply-demand balance. Lack of energy security is thus linked to the negative economic and social impacts of either physical unavailability of energy or prices that are not competitive or are overly volatile. This legacy has been a major factor of ecological degradation in the South Asian region along with no legal liability for indirect damage to the environment and poverty. In fact, there are certain persistent environmental problems in this region which require immediate attention for sustainable development and human well-being.

Sustainable Development:

The term ‘Sustainable Development’ has various meanings when interpreted from various dimensions of environment, ecology, economics, technology and sociology, cultural and political aspects. The term sustainability would encompass some aspects – for business it would mean sustainability of profits and for the environment, it would mean sustainability of natural resources which can be used by the future generations or has regenerative value. The most pertinent definition is given by the Brundtland Commission as Our Common Future, also called Brundtland Report: “Sustainable Development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”,   (United Nations World Commission on Environment and  Development, ‘WCED’, 1987.) Its targets were multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path. The following lines of former Prime Minister Late Indira Gandhi, aptly explain the dilemma of all the developing countries. While addressing the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, at Stockholm in 1972, she said:…there are grave misgivings that the discussion on ecology may be designed to distract attention from the problems of war and poverty. We have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring an improvement in their lives. In the context of South Asia, where the majority of people lie at the bottom of the pyramid living on less than one dollar per day subsistence and are not able to meet their basic needs, the challenge is far more serious than that of other regions in the world. These hapless lots are deprived of food, education, safe drinking water, lack basic health and medical facilities, devoid of hygiene and sanitation, are chronically inflicted with the disease of poverty, and regularly suffer from malnutrition and maternal and child death. Indeed, the evils of poverty and a degraded environment are closely interrelated and produce cascading effects, particularly where people depend on natural resources of their immediate environment for their livelihoods and sustenance (S. L. Bahuguna, Sustainable Development in India: Perspectives, The notion of Sustainable Development has especially been in India since times immemorial where great philosopher turned gods, philosopher-poet and social activist and leaders like Mahavir, Buddha, Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sunder Lal Bahuguna, and Vandana Shiva, etc., to name a few, all believed in the concept of maintaining a healthy and close relationship with Mother Nature (Kunja-Bihari Nayak, Sustainable Development: An Alternative Approach in  Rabindranath Tagore’s Vision, New Delhi: Serials Publication, 2008). India strongly believes in the Oriental philosophy of being friendly with nature and adores it as a god. India firmly holds that natural resources are the most valuable wealth of humanity and they ought to be used in the spirit of sharing and caring. The Constitution of India embodies in itself a greater national commitment to preserving and protect the environment. The Constitution mandates the State to “endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard forests and wild life of the country.” Since the liberalization of economic policy of India during 1990s era of intense globalization all across the world, India has moved forward from a closely regulated company to a more open economy in terms of better access to goods and services and similar has been the continuing endeavour of almost all other countries in the South Asian region because they too cannot ignore their individual economic constraints and remain behind in the global race towards development and prosperity in the present age of liberalization of economy and globalization of markets thriving upon amazing computer and satellite-based information and communication technology. Though few countries of the region like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and even Nepal have been undergoing grave internal turmoil and social fissures due to their involvement in terrorism and Maoism and even fratricidal wars, despite these shortcomings, their economic growth is not much far below from expectations. The emphasis on sustainability has gained momentum as the region has been brought to Crossroads wherein it needs to make a trade-off between the urge for development and to protect the environment from irreparable damage with individual as well as collective effort in the spirit of SAARC. As India is a dominant country in the region having a peninsular size and vast land mass and with reasonably strong economy and huge technical and skilled manpower and also a powerful army capable to counter any challenge from any corner, it has, obviously, become a role model for the rest of the members of the region.

Energy & Sustainable Development:

India‘s energy and economic development has a cause and effect relationship. With India being a developing economy there have been strong external pressures for sacrificing economic growth for the sake of protecting the environment for the coming generations. But India needs to keep up the pace of economic growth to ensure better prospects of its millions of poor masses. Its initial five-year plans mostly focused on the urban development as a result of which there has been no equitable distribution of wealth across the urban and rural or across the rich and the poor. Of late it has veered towards the inclusive growth of the neglected and marginalized sections of society which is being observed in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan with minor modifications considering specific local requirements. India needs economic growth and development to free itself from the evil clutches of poverty and hunger, and that is also being pursued by the other countries of the region. To ensure the desired rate of growth of the economy, it also needs adequate energy either indigenously or using import. This entails that to maintain the required economic growth if India would have to exploit the natural resources in the form of coal, hydro, gas nuclear, and the wind, the same would also be followed by other energy deficient countries of the region. Fortunately, few countries of the region like Pakistan and Bhutan have surplus electric power and that they can share with energy deficient countries like India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, so as to maintain the regional pool of energy security in South Asia. But the real challenge is that how can they harness their natural resources so as to fulfill their energy needs and, at the same time, make that sustainable for future generations? The majority of the natives in the region still use traditional fuels such as cow-dung, agricultural wastes, and firewood as cooking fuel, instead of convenient and clean LPG or electric power.

Energy security in India:

As regards energy security in India, its Integrated Energy Policy Report, 2008   (Planning Commission, Govt. of India) lays stress on the energy security aspects as well diversification of its fuel mix coupled with the indigenous use of resources to meet its energy challenges and also to raise its level of human development. “India faces formidable challenges in meeting its energy needs and in providing adequate energy of desired quality in various forms in a sustainable manner at competitive prices. India needs to sustain an 8% to 10% economic growth rate, over next 25 years, if it is to eradicate poverty and meet its human development goals”. Obviously, the other regional countries need to achieve an economic growth rate sufficiently higher than that of India to maintain a relative parity with India. To deliver a sustained growth of 8% through 2031, India would at least need to grow its primary energy supply by 3 to 4 times whereas the electricity supply needs to grow at the rate of 5 to 7 times the present consumption. In the real national context, the issue of sustainability is larger compared to OECD countries as the region has to address the basic needs of is teeming billions both for today as well as tomorrow. Hence, environmental taxes, green taxes, carbon taxes, and subsidies, etc. need to be levied so as to affect choices of end users. India can have differential taxes if they can appropriately reflect environmental externalities and that can also be useful for all countries of the region as that will also ensure the protection of the environment in their respective areas. “A consistent application of the polluter pays principle or consumer pays principle should be made to attain environmental objectives at least cost where prescribed environmental norms are either not applied consistently or not being adhered to.” Industries are energy intensive and by simply increasing the energy efficiency by use of technology is important for ensuring its energy security and abatement of pollution. To meet the demand for energy, India has to depend largely upon coal. Coal today accounts for 50% of India’s commercial energy consumption and around 78% of the domestic coal production is dedicated to power generation. Coal shall remain the most dominant energy source till 2031-32 and possibly beyond. Coal, for instance, will dominate India’s energy basket regarding catering to its present and future needs considering the volatility of crude oil both regarding price and supply disruptions. By the end of the 15th Plan (Year 2032), India’s coal power capacity has to increase to at least 400GW as planned. This would need almost 900 more 500 MW sized plants. The incremental cost alone would be $104 – 159 billion (around INR 5.55-7.98 trillion), depending on the technology chosen, with annualized investments in the range of $4-8 billion, according to an article “Competing needs: Clean coal is key” authored by Arunabha Ghosh in the Mint, dated April 28, 2009. Though the contribution to the overall energy requirement is small, its flexibility and suitability to a peak power potential make it very valuable. But along with the exploitation of hydro potential arise the environmental concerns and the problems of resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected people, particularly in India, Nepal and Myanmar, the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation has often caused great amount of social and political agitation and needs to be handled in a better way to avoid future public outbursts. Further, nuclear energy too offers India a powerful means for long-term national security including energy security and that propels Pakistan to follow the suit. It needs to develop its thorium cycle for nuclear power. Fortunately, India and USA recently had already signed a historic nuclear deal in 2008, and that would help India in removing the hurdles that it faced earlier in procuring nuclear fuel and technology in the future. This would be quite fruitful from India’s perspective as this will enable India to build more nuclear plants to meet its future energy needs. This would also enable India to lessen its dependence on oil and gas purchased from external sources.

Climate Change and Sustainable Development:

A comprehensive menu of options for preventing adverse changes in climate will include these conventional policy instruments in addition to ones that allow for some flexibility in meeting agreed targets of emission control. However, the kind of accelerated establishment of emission rights, as envisaged under the Kyoto regime, might not be the most effective way of proceeding ahead with a view to check increasing carbon concentration in the environment and consequent rise in temperature of the climate with likely fear of acid rain. However, environment-friendly technological innovations for meeting the agreed targets of carbon emission must be encouraged by an unequivocal policy formulation. The current compromise with rich western countries is to opt for “painless” policies that induce some action and learning, in the expectation that future policies would reward actors who are most alacritous to initiate these actions. However, as Jeffrey Frankel, while contributing on “Formulas for Quantitative Emission Targets”, in a book Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in a Post-Kyoto World, edited by Joseph E. Aldy and Robert N. Stavins, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007, has argued that such a reversal of policy commitment is highly problematic. For one thing, democratic governments cannot bind their successors, and therefore any policy that involves a future commitment by a successor regime is likely to be viewed as risky by the current business community and such citizenry in a country. Thus, regardless of the approach adopted, it is quite clear that any policy inconsistency and shocks are far more debilitating to the growth momentum than static costs per se. The key question for policy makers is how to ensure that policy decisions will remain stable and consistent over a considerable period during which though incumbent governments will be replaced by their successors, but earlier policy decisions will remain effective for restraining environmental degradation and adverse climate change for ensuring a happy and meaningful life for all in a pure, clean, healthy and life-sustaining environment.


Thus the issue of environmental degradation and energy security has its indelible impact on sustainable development in South Asia where important areas of deprivation are educational and healthcare facilities, access to safe drinking water, good nourishment of children particularly girl child and gender discrimination, proper sanitation, right to information and also energy security, etc., which need to be addressed while protecting the environment and ecological balance of the region. It would also require a process of change in the approach of the SAARC forum in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological and institutional change and policy reforms are in harmony with nature and enhance both current and future potential to meet human requirements and aspirations and ensure their well-being. With people becoming more and more aware of the relevance of environmental issues and increasing demand for a cleaner environment, environmental economics is fast becoming a topic of common interest for all individuals as well as nations. To meet the developmental needs on a sustainable basis, it is necessary to use the natural resources judiciously. Also, the prevailing challenges including new innovative environment-friendly technologies with people’s participation and their awareness towards nature and its ecology need immediate attention. Last but not the least Nature is a common treasure of humanity and be consumed in the spirit of ‘sharing and caring’ and enough must be left for future.

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