by Inoka Perera 11 September 2019
Over many centuries, South Asia has been grappling over strengthening its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity defining security purely in terms of military might, self help, balancing and bandwagoning against opposing threats whereas today, the region is challenged by security threats that neither military nor weapons proliferation can resolve. The crisis of environmental security has begun to jeopardize South Asia to an extent that it can no longer ignore this transboundary issue and instead, it must act fast towards a common regional commitment to combat climate change.
While the two largest countries of the region India and Pakistan continue to fight for territory and power, these two countries are presumably the most affected by the challenges of climate change. In fact, of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, seven are in India and two in Pakistan, according to the World Economic Forum. In recent years, both India and Pakistan are challenged by extreme weather conditions of heat strokes, rising temperatures and more erratic rainfalls causing floods, excessive rainfalls and droughts throughout the year.
The consequences of climate change to the South Asian economy are considered to be dire and devastating such that according to the United Nations Climate Change Organisation, by the end of this century, climate change could cut up to 9% of the South Asian economy every year. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) report entitled ‘Assessing the Costs of Climate Change and Adaptation in South Asia’ predicts that by 2050, the collective economy of six countries—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka—will lose an average 1.8% of its annual gross domestic product; by 2100, the loss will be 8.8%.
However, fighting climate change unilaterally is certainly not an option. The world has already been warned, its effects are global and therefore it is time South Asia gets together in a multilateral initiative to protect its people, economy, and the living strands of life. Fighting climate change multilaterally has nevertheless, often gone under the radar of national agendas in South Asia as a result of the growing levels of suspicion and the lack of a common identity and a mainstream goal as a region. Thus, the crisis that the region faces is under-appreciated by both governments and people. However, the region is warned. By 2080, Global climate change (GCC) will likely increase food demand by around 300% due to the high degree of population, higher income, and demand for bio-fuel; and this rise will likely create an imbalance between food supply and demand even without the effects of GCC and, as is expected, if there is a decline in food production due to GCC, it is likely that there will be more crises over food supply and demand, and a relentless rise in prices, threatening food security.
Therefore, climate change will certainly leave South Asia in a catastrophe, affecting not only the economy but also agriculture, a major source of living in the region which in turn will increase levels of poverty, food insecurities and undermine the overall living standards of South Asians. Many institutions including the World Bank believe that South Asia would be one of the most affected areas due to GCC. In 2013, the World Bank noted that ‘‘in the past few decades a warming trend has begun to emerge over South Asia, particularly in India, which appears to be consistent with the signal expected from human induced climate change’’. This region is likely to face a warming of around 0.016 °C and 1.0 °C.
The Indian Ocean region has significant geo-economic advantages with two-thirds of global oil trade and one-third of global cargo trade passing through it but yet suffers from multiple trans-border security challenges—“piracy; armed robberies at sea; terrorism; trafficking in narcotics, arms and people; illegal fishing; in addition the dangers posed by natural disasters and climate-change”. This region produces around 6 million tonnes of marine produce and has one of the largest concentrations of fisheries workers in the world. Climate change and strategic competition in these waters, alongside tremendous and unsustainable demand for marine products are cause devastating affects to these waters to the detriment of every country which shares them. In fact, the impact of climate change might fundamentally alter the shape and size of South Asia itself as an island nation like Maldives today has reason to fear that by 2100, if sea levels rise by 20 inches or more, large tracts of the island itself would disappear, turning many of its less than 300,000 people into eco-refugees.
Environmental security is in its very nature a transnational crisis concerned with issues, namely resource depletion, transborder pollution and global warming and therefore the main countries in this basin, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, have no choice but to cooperate. Nevertheless, the politicization of sharing natural resources and environmental sources have created an incessant air of suspicion of a ‘big brother-small brother’ temperament between India (‘big brother’), Bangladesh and Nepal, preventing the settlement of the transboundary waters shared by the three countries. In addition, clouds of suspicion between the partners have continued to derail conclusive settlements, particularly between India and Bangladesh on the Teesta river waters and between India and Pakistan on the Indus Water Treaty which is a marvel of international diplomacy but barely championed at home.
Therefore, the challenges put forward by climate change given then souring populations and decreasing economies, pose a greater challenge to the environment sustainability and all aspects of human security in South Asia. The crisis of environmental security that South Asia faces today gets far less attention than traditional concerns of security of borders or territory. But the impact of climate change and pollution has forced us to consider Lorraine Elliot’s definition of human security (caused by environmental and other kinds of equity crisis): “If peoples and communities are insecure (economically, socially, politically, environmentally), state security can be fragile or uncertain.” It is essential therefore that the countries in the region unite towards a resilient South Asia with more concrete climate actions in a multilateral mechanism. Even though most researchers argue that environmental and human security crisis may likely not create an outright war between India and Pakistan or between other countries in the South Asian region in the near future, there is however, little doubt that such tensions will keep rising