Climate change is likely to wreak havoc in South Asia and along two climate vulnerable points—Himalaya in the north and a vast coastline in the South. The foundation of the ‘oneness’ in this ecologically diverse and volatile region lies in it being an integrated climate entity with the same regional plateau, shared ecology and interdependent natural resources—mainly rivers. Besides, from the civilization point of view, the boundaries of the region are historically bracketed between Gango-Jaumna and Sindhu-Sarsvati civilizations.
Glacial northern in Himalaya, which is the mother of all rivers in the region, forms 67 percent of global glacial mass. The densely populated river plains and coastlines might just be the worst examples of human disaster because of global warming and steady snowmelt, which is the primary cause of floods and could ultimately result in acute water scarcity.
Besides, rising sea levels in coastlines is bound to destroy the deltaic areas and frequent storms, cyclones and unexpected heavy downpours in the southern areas, along with sparse rainfall and dryness in the north central, has already begun.
This scenario is bound to cause major changes in crop patterns altering the agricultural foundations of the region, heavy displacements due to floods, increasing migrations due to livelihood loss and disharmonized ecological and biodiversity compositeness in the region, which will ultimately give birth to inter- as well as intra-state conflicts. These conflicts, in turn, will cause livelihood and food insecurities and diversification of ethnic fabric of various federations and federating states. This will also lead to mounting pressure on major cities across the region and finally, make the region prone to various forms of natural disasters along with predictable social catastrophes.
The current floods in India in which millions are affected is only a small version of what happened during 2010-11 in Pakistan in which almost 20 million people were displaced in Sindh province alone within two years, causing the biggest ever humanitarian crisis of the region. Bangladesh, which usually faces massive floods, will now touch the fringes of severities. Sri Lanka is and will be threatened by the rising sea level and it is believed the Maldives may just vanish from the world map. Conflicts over Kabul River may increase between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and conflicts over shared waters between India-Pakistan, India-Nepal and India-Bangladesh may further intensify.
In Pakistan, Sindh has already become a microcosmic picture of this South Asian climate big bang, witnessing the fourth highest recorded temperature on the globe in 2010 at 52.8 °C, increasing precipitation in its north and Southeastern areas along with lowering precipitation in the Southwestern hilly arid belt including Karachi city, decline in the subsoil water table, infrequent rainfalls and erratic Indus floods combined with squeezed springs and autumns. This has given birth to a severe social and humanitarian disaster with 200 million people displaced and damages that are still being evaluated in hundreds of billion dollars.
The Indus Delta has already been destroyed during the last three decades where nearly two million acre fertile land has been intruded by sea water, causing a loss of US $180 million dollars to the province along with mass migration of nearly half a million people. Socio-economic upheavals caused by the situation are putting increasing pressure on the cities, aggravating possibilities of conflicts and it is expected that a huge migration to Sindh due to severe dryness in Punjab in the next decade will further intensify the conflict between Sindh and Punjab and possibly give birth to water wars between the provinces.
Security, if seen in non-military strategic terms, includes the statecraft of ensuring a food and livelihood regime, economic prosperity and peace for sustainable human and social development, guarantying greater people’s sovereignty. Climate change is going to challenge our human development compactness, create humanitarian crises and lead to infrastructure devastation along with demographic and economic destabilization. It can result in governance failure and lead to civil wars and socio-political fragmentations.
Responding to the challenge, a wider regional framework is required that should ideally begin with the joint Climate Research Centre at Himalayan Nepal along with the establishment of a highly rich Scientific Council of concerned scientists, experts, researchers and recognized academicians.
The salts of nation states are put to test during this crisis, where no individual country of the region can devise a countrywide framework, which minimizes the threats and addresses the impacts simultaneously. Therefore, a regional framework and regional course of action and intervention is required.
Besides, the mode of production in the region—in general and of agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forestry in particular—needs to be reassessed in the given situation because a majority of population in the region is rural, which has a larger share in our economies. A major crop pattern shift accompanied by market aspect may cause vulnerabilities. This cannot be done in isolation and requires a regionally as well as locally judicious and sustainable distribution, use and utilization of shared water resources.
Along with the high temperature seeds and fish breeds, irrigation methods and technologies ensuring economic use of water could be adopted at higher levels. Such initiatives are already being adopted, although in a limited way, in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A climate change framework of health and hygiene requires more focus as people across the region are becoming more prone to climate change-related health issues and diseases.
What is also needed is a South Asia Treaty on shared water resources, followed by the countrywide Water Acts regulating judicious distribution of water resources among the federating states and between upper and lower riparian regions.
Climate change will challenge the human development, create a humanitarian crises and lead to various kinds of destabilization.
The majority of the population in the region resides near the coastlines and therefore, a Regional Coastline Agreement is needed for off-shore natural resource explorations, tsunami and cyclone preemptive plans and information sharing, digitalizing fishing boats with transmitters and early warning systems, banning reclamation of land in the sea and finally, to address rising sea levels.
Centers of excellence in climate change studies should be established in the vulnerable states or the regions. Besides, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should come forward to engage with upper space notations for regional level research.
Saving South Asia would ultimately mean saving the globe. But this will be impossible until we revisit SAARC and convert it into a regionally active body.
The author is executive director at The Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan