Climate Change and Asian Security

The Asian Age, February 10, 2007


When Hot Air Is Real


Brahma Chellaney


While it is tempting to make linear strategic projections into the future on the basis of present trends, such straight-line forecasts rarely come true in history. In the 1980s, Japan-bashing came in vogue in the United States as concerns grew that the fast-rising Japan threatened America’s industrial might. That foreboding is laughable today, when concern has switched to China’s dramatic rise, even as a politically resurgent Japan remains the world’s second largest economic powerhouse after the US.

Similarly, American triumphalism has rapidly dissipated as events from Iraq to the changing world-power relations have both discredited neoconservative notions that there no consequences to pre-emption and unilateralism as well as shown that globalization is no longer driven primarily by the US. Who foresaw the American colossus stumbling in a unipolar world?

            The future may well belong to China and India, which together make up a third of humanity. The two are coming into their own at the same time in history, highlighting the ongoing major shifts in global politics and economy. In fact, having constituted nearly half of the world’s GDP at the beginning of the industrial age in 1820, India and China are only bouncing back from a relatively short period of decline in their long history.

Yet the linear projections on their economic growth over the next four decades are too one-dimensional. Goldman Sachs, for instance, forecasts that China will surpass the size of the U.S. economy around 2035 and India will do the same about a decade later. This could happen but it is hardly certain. Statistical probability — the sole tool in forecasting — has little application in strategic analyses.

To be sure, economic growth is essential to underpin political and social stability. It is doubtful the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power will survive without it continuing to deliver high economic growth. But such growth in any country hinges on several factors, endogenous and exogenous.

One factor beyond the control of policymakers in India and China that could slow down economic growth and create major societal challenges for them is climate change, whose strategic dimensions have received scant attention. Global warming is now the focus of attention after the UN-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for concerted action in its latest report released last weekend, which came close on the heels of reports by the United Nations Environment Programme and a British government-sponsored panel. The British panel, led by economist Nicholas Stern, has warned that the world economy is in danger of shrinking 20% over time due to climate change.

While the developed world is largely responsible for global warming, it is the developing world that is likely to bear the brunt because it has a larger concentration of hot and low-lying regions and lesser resources to technologically adapt to climate change. Even today, on a per capita basis, the developing world’s carbon-dioxide emissions are only about one-fifth the level of rich countries. While it is easy to exaggerate or underestimate climate change, viewing it in balance is important to understand its true strategic implications and to explore ways to move from the current sound bites to action.

The bad news for India and China is that when their rise is already sharpening global competition for resources and driving up commodity and energy prices, climate change threatens to cast a further burden on them. Climate change is not a distant threat but one whose impact is already beginning to be felt.

The Tibetan plateau — Asia’s water repository and source of 10 major glacially-fed rivers — has just recorded its warmest winter since meteorological data began being collected there in 1970. Another manifestation are the ever-growing sandstorms in China that not only blanket Beijing but also threaten to speed up the spread of barren wasteland to the heartland, as the diversion of water resources for irrigation has left northern land open to desertification.

Asia is already facing a serious fresh-water crisis, with deforestation, overgrazing, poor management of river basins, water contamination and inefficient irrigation systems aggravating scarcity. The growing use of subterranean supplies of groundwater due to inadequate availability of surface water also threatens to quicken environmental degradation.

The key anthropogenic factor contributing to greenhouse gases is growing fossil-fuel combustion — a scenario unlikely to reverse at least in the near term. Given that nearly four-fifths of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, global warming is set to accelerate, with the still-nascent international efforts merely directed at slowing down the pace of climate change. This means that states will have to brace up to climate change and develop new technologies and methods to adapt to it.

Several important scientific studies since the 1990s have assessed the likely impact of climate change in major Asian regions, including in terms of temperature-change scenarios (Climate Impact Group, 1992), affect on monsoon circulation and precipitation (R. Suppiah, 1994), availability of water resources (P. Whetton, 1994), and rise of sea levels (IPCC, 2001). With the help of those studies and the latest reports, it is possible to draw three major conclusions on the security implications of climate change for India and China.

First, given India’s and China’s heavy dependence on water resources flowing from the Himalayan glaciers, climate change is likely to increasingly affect their capacity to meet water needs, spurring competition for securing supplies. It is probable that intrastate water disputes in China and India would sharpen. If hydropower or other engineering projects upstream in the Tibetan plateau sought to divert the present southward river-water flows, interstate tensions would arise, given the impact of any rerouting on downstream states like India, Burma or Thailand.

China has not only built a dam close to the source of the Sutlej river but also is considering a mega-project to channel water from the Brahmaputra river (Yarlung Tsangpo) to the Yellow river to feed its growing needs in the north. While the director of the Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee has said publicly that the mega-project enjoys official sanction and will begin as early as 2010, China’s water resources minister told a meeting at the University of Hong Kong that, in his personal “academic” opinion, this plan “is unnecessary, not feasible and unscientific.”

If Beijing does start the mega-scheme, it will constitute a declaration of water war on India. In fact, the mammoth Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project, which China proudly advertises as an engineering feat, has whetted the ambition of some in Beijing to search for cost-effective ways to divert rivers cascading from the Tibetan highlands in the Himalayas, with some former officials last year publishing a book titled, Tibet’s Water Will Save China. 

On the whole, climate change will have an adverse bearing on interstate and intrastate disputes in Asia over water issues. That in turn could exacerbate or reopen disputes over territories that are either the original source of water or through which major rivers flow, such as Tibet and Jammu and Kashmir. It could also help cast renewed spotlight on China’s incorporation of parts of traditional Tibet in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. For example, the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Mekong rivers originate in Qinghai, which is the northeastern Amdo region of ethnic Tibet and birthplace of the present Dalai Lama.

Given that the Tibet plateau’s water resources constitute a lifeline for hundreds of millions of Asians, the retreat of glaciers due to accelerated thawing will have devastating effects downstream. Coastal Chinese cities like Shanghai already are reporting acute water shortages, leaving authorities with only two choices — desalinized water or imports of water from the glacier melt on the Tibetan plateau. Tibet’s fragile ecosystem, however, is already threatened by China’s reckless exploitation of Tibet’s vast mineral and water resources.

The Tamil Nadu agriculture minister’s proffered solution to his state’s water woes — the linking of the Ganges with the Cauvery — disregards the likely global-warming impact on the Uttarakhand glaciers like Gangotri (India’s largest) that feed the Ganges, which supports more than 5% of the world population living in its catchment areas.  

Increased monsoon precipitation — an expected consequence of higher average temperatures — could potentially compensate for loss of melt-water from the rapidly thawing Himalayan glaciers if India were to find technical means to harvest and store rainwater on a mammoth scale.

It is obvious that if water becomes a factor in interstate and intrastate tensions and increasingly a scarce and precious commodity, economic growth would stall and water wars might follow.

Second, the projected rise of both sea levels and extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes and monsoon flooding are likely to foster greater interstate and intrastate migration —  especially of the poor and the vulnerable — from delta and coastal regions to the interior regions. Such an economically disruptive relocation would socially swamp inland areas, upsetting the existing ethnic balance and provoking in some regions a backlash that strains local harmony and security.

India, now officially home to some 20 million illegal Bangladeshi settlers, could see an influx of tens of millions of more crossing over an international border too porous to effectively patrol. Such an avalanche of refugees would have a serious bearing on internal cohesion and security. Climate change indeed could imperil the very survival of Bangladesh, a largely delta land that ranks as the world’s most densely-populated country with the exception of island-nations and city-states.

In China, climate change could prompt millions of Han Chinese to move from low-lying coastal areas to the sparsely-populated regions of ethnic minorities in the southwest and west. The southwest, with its vast glacially-sourced water resources, is likely to be a magnet. With 60% of its territory comprising traditional homelands of minorities, who today constitute barely 8% of its total population, China has expanded vastly since the time the Great Wall was built as the outer Han security perimeter.

While the rise in sea levels is likely to lead to retreating coasts, those living deep in the interior would suffer increased heat waves, with metastasizing droughts expected to ravage semi-arid areas.

Third, human security is likely to be the main casualty of climate change. Economic disparities in India and China would widen as vulnerable sectors of the economy and low-lying coastal and delta areas suffer a bigger blow. The rise in temperatures could hit the major source of employment — agriculture — and thereby accelerate movement of the jobless to the already-crowded cities. Also, warmer winters would negatively influence the vector of disease control by making it easier for worm eggs and bugs to survive the cold. Sustainable development is expected to become more challenging than ever.

If there is any good news, it is that the hot air in the enhanced greenhouse conditions would strengthen monsoon circulation and bring increased rainfall of up to 10% to the subcontinent by 2070, but without making monsoons more predictable. As accelerated glacier melt compels India to reduce its reliance on the natural bounty of the Himalayas, it would need to find novel ways to store rainwater for the dry season from the monsoonal bounty.

Given that at best it can be slowed but not stopped, climate change needs to be elevated from the current scientific-firmament discourse to a national-security issue — but not in the way the Pentagon has toyed with developing weather-modification technologies for military applications. Large states like India and China need to start seriously looking at ways they can innovate and get along in a climate change-driven paradigm. It will become imperative to build greater institutional and organizational capacity, along with efficient water management, early warning systems and new farm varieties.



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