The Challenge of Climate Change in Southern Asia Part I

Climate Change and Security in Southern Asia: Understanding the National Security Implications

By Brahma Chellaney

RUSI Journal, April 2007, Vol. 152, No. 2

Encompassing the area from Afghanistan to the Indo-Burma frontiers and from Tibet to Sri Lanka, southern Asia is home to more than one-fifth of the human race, many of whom reside in low-lying areas. Three broad conclusions can be drawn: water issues are likely to aggravate intra- and inter-state tensions; rising sea levels are likely to spur intra- and inter-state migration; and human security is likely to be a casualty of climate change.

The world is headed towards greater climate change during the twenty-first century unless greenhouse gas emissions decrease substantially from present levels of increase and unless the general environmental degradation decelerates significantly. The degree and pace of future climate change flowing from human causation will naturally hinge on:

(i)                  The extent of the increase of greenhouse gases and aerosol concentrations;

(ii)                The impact of deforestation, land use, animal agriculture and other anthropogenic or human-driven factors on climate variation;

(iii)               The impact of natural influences (including from volcanic activity and changes in the sun’s intensity) on climate variation; and

(iv)              The extent to which temperature, precipitation, sea level and other climatic features react to changes in greenhouse-gas emissions, aerosol concentrations and other elements in the atmosphere.

Climate change is a worldwide phenomenon, and its ramifications cannot be analyzed in isolation in the context of any one region. Climate change, however, will carry varied security implications for different regions, depending on their geography, population density and state capacity, as well as the extent to which environmental degradation has occurred. It is in this context that the security-related implications of climate change for southern Asia are sought to be examined.

Climate Change in Southern Asia

Encompassing the area from Afghanistan to the Indo-Burma frontiers and from Tibet to Sri Lanka, southern Asia is home to more than one-fifth of the human race. Not only is it one of the most densely-populated regions of the world, but it also has low-lying countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives, whose survival could be threatened by a rise in sea levels resulting from an increase in the Earth’s average temperature. It faces scorching summer heat, and a rise of even two degrees Celsius average temperature could cause environmental harm to human, plant and animal habitat.

            The smallest country in Asia in terms of population, the Maldives, has the distinction of being the flattest state in the world – except where the level has been raised through construction, the ground level in the Maldives rises up to only 2.3 metres above sea level. When the Christmas of 2004 brought the tsunami to the Indian Ocean region, unfolding a disaster of epic proportions, the Maldives, although located far from the epicentre, suffered extensive damage. Many of its twenty-six atolls were savagely pummelled by the tsunami, which inundated parts of the archipelago. The tsunami altered the contours of some of the 1,192 Maldivian islets, less than a tenth of which are populated. Actually, the Maldives had already lost some territory over the past century earlier due to the slow increase in sea levels by as much as twenty centimetres.

In sharp contrast to the Maldives in southern Asia is the large, densely-populated Bangladesh, still struggling on the margins of globalization.  Bangladesh is double the size of Germany in terms of population. In fact, it has overtaken Russia as the seventh most populous state in the world.  Excluding island nations and city states, Bangladesh ranks as the world’s most densely-peopled country. Even in terms of its landmass, Bangladesh, with its 144,000-square-kilometre area, is anything but a small country.  Essentially a delta state through which two of Asia’s great rivers — the Ganges and Brahmaputra — flow into the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is ravaged every year by monsoon floods and, from time to time, by cyclones.  

There are also other parts of southern Asia that are low-lying. They include coastal Sri Lanka, the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain of India and parts of the southern Indian coast. Next-door Indonesia has hundreds of vulnerable, low-lying islands.            

             Environmental degradation has continued unchecked in southern Asia, creating major problems relating to water resources, for example. Coupled with rapid urbanization, such degradation has already contributed to raising summer temperatures in major cities. While the magnitude of future climatic changes is difficult to predict, higher greenhouse gas concentrations are likely to influence precipitation and temperature patterns in southern Asia, as well as potentially raise sea levels.

             The challenges that confront southern Asia mirror the larger environmental issues that face Asia as a whole. Other than Japan, Asian states in general are doing poorly in reconciling development with environmental protection. In China, for example, ever-rising sand squalls not only blanket Beijing and other northern Chinese cities, but also threaten to speed up the spread of barren wasteland to the heartland. The desert’s advance from the arid northwest has been aided by government-led irrigated farming that has diverted water resources from the region’s ecological lifeline — the Shiyang River and its offshoots — and thereby left other land open to desertification. Respect for the environment and better management of natural resources are notions still not embraced actively by governments in Asia.

Asia is already facing a fresh-water crisis, with several hundred million Asians lacking ready access to drinking water. The geopolitical importance of Tibet, whose forcible absorption brought the new Chinese state to the borders of India, can be seen from the fact that most of the great Asian rivers originate there. If the demand for water in Asia continues to grow at the current rate, the inter-state and intra-state disputes over water resources could potentially turn into conflicts in the years ahead.

Deforestation, overgrazing, poor management of river basins and inefficient irrigation systems have aggravated fresh-water scarcity, with contamination also limiting access to clean water. To fight poverty, disease and pollution, southern Asia needs both to augment its water supplies through better distribution and management of resources and to improve its sanitation services. After all, clean water is the key to good health. However, the growing use of subterranean supplies of groundwater in southern and south-eastern Asia as well as China, due to inadequate availability of surface water, threatens to accelerate environmental degradation.

Large rapidly-developing economies like India and China, with their growing demands for resources, including energy and water, are bound to add pressure to the global ecosystems. Their growth trajectories will impact on efforts to slow down environmental degradation and global climate change. According to a 2005 estimate by China’s State Environment Protection Agency, 70 per cent of the water in five of the country’s seven major river systems is too contaminated for human use. Pollution of rivers is also a major problem in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. Drinking-water supply in major southern Asian cities tends to be unfit for human consumption. Additionally, most cities report scarcity of water supply.

One key anthropogenic factor in Asia altering the environment and causing climate change is the increase in carbon dioxide levels due to emissions from fossil-fuel combustion. Coal will remain for the foreseeable future the dominant fuel for generating electricity in India and China. That is no different from the United States, which already has more than 600 coal-fired electric plants in operation and another 140 under planned or actual construction. Coal makes up 64 per cent of China’s primary energy consumption, with that country being the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. In India, coal accounts for nearly 50 per cent of primary energy consumption.

China, which is currently completing one new coal-fired electric plant every month, has already emerged as the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the United States. China, however, remains far behind America, which, with just over 4.5 per cent of the world’s population, discharges nearly a quarter — 24 per cent — of all emissions of carbon dioxide, according to the World Bank’s Little Green Data Book 2006.[1] According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 6.6 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted per person in America, placing that country number one in the world in terms of per capita emissions.

China and India at present rank much lower as per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. Yet such is their growing fossil-fu combustion that the International Energy Agency reported in November 2006 that China could surpass the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2009, more than a full decade earlier than anticipated. Despite the emerging accent on renewable sources of energy as well as on commercial nuclear power, there is little prospect, however, of the world coming out of the fossil-fuel age.

A pressing imperative in southern Asia and China is to raise environmental standards through state support and enforcement. The environmental problems have been underscored by the growing air pollution, contamination of water, waste mismanagement, and the destruction of forests, mangroves and other natural habitats. Tellingly, the tsunami wreaked destruction with a vengeance on beaches that had been cleared of mangroves for development.

The November 2006 Stern report, commissioned by the British government, has rightly pointed to the need for the rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, to be part of a global effort to tackle the problem of climate change, even though the main responsibility (as it admits) lies with rich nations that must act now to start reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Researchers from the US Department of Energy have reported in the Geophysical Research Letters that China’s skies have darkened over the past fifty years, possibly due to haze resulting from a nine-fold increase in fossil-fuel emissions, and that the amount of solar radiation measured at more than 500 stations in China actually fell between 1954 and 2001, despite a decrease in cloud cover.[2]

The magnitude of future climate change, however, is uncertain and is likely to vary from area to area, and from coastal region to the hinterland. That makes it difficult to reach general conclusions on climate changes and their likely security implications in southern Asia. For example, several studies on the regional impact of climate change have shown that warming will be the least in the islands and coastal areas of the Indian subcontinent and the greatest in the inland continental areas of the subcontinent, except during the June to August monsoon period when reduced warming is likely to occur in the hinterland. The table below illustrates such a scenario:


Temperature Change Scenarios for 2010 and 2070 (°Celsius)








Coastal southern Asia 0.1-0.5 0.4-3.0 Inland southern Asia, but not in the summer monsoon months of June, July & August 0.3-0.7 1.1-4.5 Hinterland southern Asia from June to August 0.1-0.3 0.4-2.0

Source: Whetton, 1994


In examining rainfall scenarios, the impact of climate change has to be assessed on the two main rainfall seasons — the South-West Monsoon in the summer and the North-East Monsoon in the winter. Several studies, including by the Climate Impact Group (1992) and R. Suppiah (1994), report the likelihood that global warming could actually strengthen monsoon circulation and bring increased rainfall in both monsoon seasons.[3] Changes in non-monsoon, or dry-season, rainfall have been more difficult to assess.

Projections of regionally averaged changes in rainfall for the years 2010 and 2070 are given in this table:  


Rainfall Scenarios for 2010 and 2070 (% change)



Wet Season

Dry Season

Wet Season

Dry Season


South-West Monsoon Region India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines (western part), and Vietnam (except east coast)



0 to 10

-10 to +10

North-East Monsoon Region Sri Lanka, India’s Tamil Nadu state, Indonesia, Philippines (east part), Vietnam (east coast) and Malaysia

0 to -5


-5 to +15

0 to +10

South Asian Subregion (15-30°N; 65-95°E)

0 to +10

-5 to +5

+5 to +50

-5 to +20


Source: Whetton, 1994


The impact of climate change, however, can already be seen today. Winter 2006-07, for instance, was unusually mild in Tibet, ‘the roof of the world’, raising concerns about the accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayan region. Most major rivers of Asia originate in Tibet, including the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Mekong, the Salween, the Karnali and the Sutlej. China’s state press reported record high temperatures in Tibet in early January 2007. For example, in the Amdo area, in the north-east of traditional Tibet, the temperature on 5 January 2007 reached 21.8°C – 1.7 degrees higher than the record set for the same day in 1996. Meteorological data in Tibet began to be collected only in 1970.

 The Tibetan plateau, seen as a barometer of climate conditions in southern and central Asia and in China, is experiencing, according to a January 2007 scientific survey quoted by the state-run People’s Daily, faster glacial melt and other ecological change. The survey, conducted by the Remote Sensing Department of the China Aero Geophysical Survey, warned that the Himalayan glaciers could be reduced by nearly a third by 2050 and up to half by 2090 at the current rate. The glacial melt, the survey reportedly went on to caution, would further deplete Tibet’s water resources — a lifeline for the peoples of southern Asia and China. 

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