The Challenge of Climate Change in Southern Asia Part II

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

Part II of paper published in

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

Larger Security Implications

Despite its grave long-term implications, climate change has aroused more international political passion than a concrete global response to meet the threat it poses. Whatever the form and content of the Kyoto Protocol’s successor, climate change needs to be tackled at multiple levels — international, regional and national. However, no region, in whatever way defined, can constitute a sufficient unit to tackle climate change. For example, given Tibet’s role as the central water source for southern Asia and China, the destinies of the Indian subcontinent and the People’s Republic are inextricably linked.

The potential impact of climate change on the availability of water resources is a critical component of the challenge that stares at Asia, which, as a whole, has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic metres per person — than any other continent outside of Antarctica, according to a 2006 United Nations report.[4] This report states, when the estimated reserves of lakes, rivers and groundwater are added up, Asia has marginally less water per person than Europe or Africa, one-quarter that of North America, nearly one-tenth that of South America and twenty times less than Australia and Pacific islands. Yet Asia is home to more than half of the human population.

The Himalayan glaciers that feed Asia’s largest rivers — the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsampo), Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow and Sutlej — are clearly beginning to melt at a faster pace due to global warming. Glaciers are a natural storage system, releasing maximum water when it is most required — the hot summer months. The shrinking ice sheets, however, could threaten to seriously aggravate water imbalances and shortages in southern Asia and China. Additionally, as the melting accelerates, this phenomenon also threatens to cause extensive flooding in India and Bangladesh, followed by a reduction in river flows.

In southern Asia, climate changes are likely to bring about important shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns, a rise in sea levels, and a rise in the frequency and intensity of anomalous weather events, such as cyclones, flooding and droughts. These trends, cumulatively, would play havoc with agriculture (on which a majority of the national populations subsist) and also impact on hydropower generation and conservation strategies. The weaker the economic and social base and higher the reliance on natural resources, the more a community will be adversely affected by climate change. In other words, the poorer parts of southern Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Indian states like Assam and Bihar, are likely to bear the brunt.

While it is scientifically not possible to predict future events with any degree of certainty, a linear projection of ongoing climate changes can help us to draw some reasonable conclusions, with the aim of controlling anthropogenic factors contributing to climate change and to examine possible new practices and strategies whereby communities could be helped to adapt to the changes in ways that minimize the impact of climate change. In southern Asia, three broad conclusions can be drawn on the security implications of climate change:

(1)                          Given the region’s heavy dependence both on the glacially sourced water reserves of the Himalayas and on monsoon precipitation, climate changes are likely to intensify inter-state and intra-state conflicts in southern Asia over water issues. That, in turn, could exacerbate or re-open disputes over territories that are either the original source of water or through which major rivers flow, such as Tibet and Jammu and Kashmir.

(2)                          Sea-level rise and frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts and monsoonal or cyclonic flooding are likely to spur greater inter-state and intra-state migration — especially of the poor and the vulnerable — from delta and coastal regions to the hinterland. Such an influx of outsiders would socially swamp inland areas, upsetting the existing fragile ethnic balance and provoking a backlash that strains internal and regional security. For example, India, officially home to sixteen million illegal Bangladeshi settlers, could see an influx of tens of millions of more Bangladeshis crossing over an international border too porous to patrol effectively. More broadly, the political stability and internal cohesion of nations could be undermined.  

(3)                          Human security probably would be the main casualty of climate change. Social and economic disparities are likely to intensify within the nation states of southern Asia as climatic change delivers a bigger blow to certain sectors of the economy, particularly agriculture, and to low-lying coastal and delta areas. That will make the tasks of good governance and sustainable development more onerous.

Conflicts over Water Resources

Hundreds of millions of people in southern and south-eastern Asia and China are without access to safe drinking water. This situation would aggravate markedly if current projections of climate change come true. Loss of meltwater from rapidly thawing glaciers could drive, for example, large numbers of subsistence farmers into Indian and Chinese cities.

Inter-state and intra-state disputes over water resources are already an observable fact in southern Asia. While the Baglihar Dam epitomizes the latest India-Pakistan river water-sharing disagreement — which resulted in World Bank arbitration and the appointment of a neutral expert, who gave his final report in February 2007 largely in New Delhi’s favour — the intra-state disputes are illustrated by the row within Pakistan over Punjab’s appropriation of water resources to the detriment of downstream Sindh and Baluchistan, and by the various wrangles in India — between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Punjab and Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Southern Asia’s vulnerability to climate changes has been highlighted by its heavy dependence on the precipitation of an unpredictable monsoon and on river waters sourced from the glacier thaw in the mighty Himalayas. Climate change is bound to impact both on monsoon precipitation and on the availability of Himalayan water resources. As a result, profound socio-economic changes are likely to be triggered, for which the region is ill-prepared.

            If water becomes both an underlying factor in inter-state tensions and increasingly a scarce and precious commodity domestically, water wars will inevitably follow in southern Asia. Pakistan depends on rivers flowing in from Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, although none originate there. Today, India controls only 45 per cent of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir, with Pakistan holding 35 per cent of it and China the remaining 20 per cent. But the part India holds has the Indus and its tributaries flowing into Pakistani-administered territories. Hard-line forces in Pakistan — the Islamists and the ruling military — have sought to keep the Kashmir issue alive by linking Islamabad’s desire to change the territorial status quo to the control of rivers that are the lifeblood of Pakistan.

The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty — a generous pact on India’s part — reserves 56 per cent of the catchment flow for Pakistan, with India getting the remainder flow. The treaty gives India the right to build hydroelectric plants on the three rivers reserved for Pakistan so long as they do not change the water flow downstream into Pakistan. The treaty has not only survived wars and crises, but also has enabled both countries to build extensive canal systems for irrigation.  Although the treaty is open-ended, India could be tempted to seek its re-negotiation on less generous terms, if climate changes exacerbate its own water and power shortages. Unilateral abrogation, of course, would trigger political turmoil.

Water resources also remain the crux of the spotlight on Tibet. China has created unease in India over persistent reports that it plans to divert the fast-flowing Brahmaputra River northwards to feed the arid areas in the Chinese heartland and to generate power. Beijing, however, has acknowledged that it is damming the Sutlej River in Tibet, but claimed that the dam is intended not to divert water northwards but to generate electricity. The Chinese project has been blamed for causing flash floods downstream in India’s Himachal Pradesh state.  

               The Tibetan plateau’s geopolitical importance is evident from the fact that Tibet, in the shape and size it existed independently up to 1950, comprises approximately one fourth of China’s land mass today, and has given Han China, for the first time in history, a contiguous border with Burma, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Kashmir. Just twelve years after the Sino-Indian military frontiers met for the first time in history, China invaded India after consolidating its hold over the Tibetan plateau.

            Tibet’s annexation also gave China access to the vast mineral wealth and water resources there. As China’s hunger for primary commodities has grown, so too has its exploitation of Tibet’s resources. The $6.2 billion China-Tibet railway from Gormu to Lhasa, while making more vulnerable the fragile ecology of Tibet, aids the mineral exploitation of the Tibetan plateau, besides strengthening China’s hold on Tibet. With more Han settlers coming into Tibet, the trend towards Tibet’s Sinicization and the economic marginalization of its native people has only accelerated. Yet China has failed to win over the Tibetan people, whose struggle for self-rule remains a model non-violent resistance movement. Climate change will only add to Tibet’s geopolitical weight, and help focus more international attention on that high plateau where the average altitude is more than 13,000 feet.

            The water resource-related changes in southern Asia will necessitate the region’s adaptation to alternatives based on newer technologies and methods. Given that the region will inescapably have to reduce its reliance on the natural bounty of the Himalayas as temperatures rise and the glacier melt accelerates, efficient rain-water harvesting will have to be embraced. The silver lining for the region is that the rise in temperatures under enhanced greenhouse conditions will actually bring more rainfall through the South-West and South-East Monsoon in the summer and the North-East Monsoon in the winter. The monsoonal bounty thus would need to be tapped through cost-effective technologies to provide a practical answer to the challenges arising from dwindling Himalayan river waters.

The Potential Threat from Mass Migration

The economically disruptive effects of sea-level rise and extreme weather events are likely to lead to stepped-up inter-state and intra-state migration, as those displaced are forced to relocate inland. The rise of temperature, coupled with potential greater water scarcity in the non-monsoonal seasons, would hit agriculture, irrespective of the farmland’s proximity to or distance from the sea. Given that the agricultural sector is the major source of employment, jobs in the countryside will not be easy to come by for migrants who are compelled to move into the hinterland due to loss of their agricultural land and production. That might only encourage mass influx into the already-crowded cities in southern Asia.

            The threat to Bangladesh’s survival that climate change poses has serious implications for India’s security. After all, India’s own well-being depends on Bangladesh’s well-being.  If Bangladeshis are compelled to migrate in increasingly larger numbers to India, the latter’s national security will take a severe beating. Existing refugee flows from an ever-more Islamized and radicalized Bangladesh are already beginning to seriously undermine social stability in India, making it more difficult for the government to consolidate internal cohesion and safeguard security.

Not many outsiders realize that Bangladesh, without expanding its political borders, has expanded ethnically. As brought out by the 2001 Indian census figures, the Indian districts all round Bangladesh have become Bangladeshi-majority areas. The demographic and social features of the entire western part of India’s Assam state, for example, have changed as a consequence of the influx of Bengali-speaking, predominantly Muslim refugees from Bangladesh. It is perhaps the first time in modern history that a country has expanded its ethnic frontiers without expanding its political borders. In contrast, Han China’s demographic onslaught on Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet was a consequence of the expansion of its political frontiers.

For India, the ethnic expansion of Bangladesh beyond its political borders not only sets up enduring trans-border links, but also makes New Delhi’s already-complex task of border management more burdensome at a time when Bangladesh is emerging as a haven for jihadist groups. Given the artificial borders between India and Bangladesh, even half a million Indian troops deployed along those frontiers cannot plug every porous line bringing refugees or terrorists into India. Now, with ethnically and even religiously similar populations on both sides of the borders, it has become more arduous for border troops to stop the illicit smuggling of human beings, narcotics, etc. 

As a country surrounded by the Indian landmass on three sides, Bangladesh has a unique geography. To help advance its own interests, India needs to become a major stakeholder in Bangladesh’s economic well-being and security.  This imperative has been underlined by the way Islamist forces and extremist groups have continued to gain ground in Bangladesh. The growth of extremism in Bangladesh is a complex phenomenon, and a dysfunctional democracy made matters worse.  India cannot shape developments within Bangladesh, but it can try to be a positive influence. India has to deal with the situation in Bangladesh in strategic terms, with a long-term approach.

If Bangladesh’s radicalization and political turmoil were to continue, India’s security will be very seriously undermined by hostile elements operating out of Bangladesh.  A Bangladesh that sinks deeper in extremism and fundamentalism will be a serious geopolitical headache for India. But a Bangladesh from where the refugee flows become a torrent will be a geopolitical nightmare for India.

Intra-state migration in India resulting from climate change could itself weaken internal cohesion and undermine security.

Human Insecurity Arising from Climate Change

The biggest threat from climate change is to human security, with the poorest being the most vulnerable. The national security of no state can endure growing human insecurity. The impact of climate variability on society will mean change in the social-economic-political environments on which the security of individuals, communities and states rest. Climate change thus needs to be elevated beyond the scientific discourse to a national security issue in India and the other states of southern Asia.

As it is, disparities are widening in southern Asia, despite high GDP growth rates. The growing inequity in southern Asia, and Asia as a whole, has been shown by the United Nations Development Programme’s annual Human Development Report. The report measures inequality on the basis of the ‘gini index’ instead of the ‘gini coefficient’. A gini-index value of 0 represents perfect equality and a value of 100 perfect inequality.

What the report brings out is that, with perhaps the sole exception of Japan, Asian states are becoming increasingly inequitable in terms of distribution of income. Such states even include the three Asian nations still under communist rule — China, Vietnam and Laos. These three one-party states, where income inequalities were narrow not long ago, now measure 44.7, 37.0 and 37.0 respectively on the gini index. With a score of 32.5, India, surprisingly, comes out better than all the three communist-ruled states and even Singapore.[5]  

Yet the spreading Maoist rural insurgency in the poorest districts of India at a time when the country is economically booming is a testament to the costs of growing inequalities. The ragtag bands of rebels wish to supplant Indian parliamentary democracy with a proletariat dictatorship inspired by Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. In fact, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to the extent of declaring Maoist violence as the ‘single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country’. The high incidence of malnutrition among children in some Indian states, particularly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, illustrates why India needs to focus on inclusive growth. 

A nation can ignore the need for inclusive growth only at its own peril, given the likely climate change scenarios. Climate change will impact on human vulnerability, and thus on human security. Disruption arising from climate change will seriously intensify human security challenges and affect broader national security. Therefore, postponing difficult choices to a more difficult future is not prudent policy.

States and communities will need to innovate and manage under a new, climate change driven paradigm. Building greater institutional and organizational capacity will become necessary, along with developing efficient water-resource management in the dry seasons, early warning systems and preparedness, and new farm varieties.

Concluding Observation

Rising sea levels, increasing weather extremes, change in rainfall pattern, disruption of safe-drinking water sources and water scarcities in non-monsoonal months pose serious risks to social and political harmony in southern Asia. Such trends are also likely to influence the vector of disease control and potentially create major public health challenges in this region and beyond. But, as even hurricane Katrina highlighted in New Orleans, it will be the poor who will be the hit the hardest. Furthermore, the impact of climate change will extend beyond human civilization to southern Asia’s exceptionally rich plant and animal world. Today’s endangered species could become extinct tomorrow.

Meeting the challenges posed by climate change, therefore, demands that sustained efforts begin now. That, in turn, means switching to a more climate-friendly path in development and energy needs. The only sure path to energy security, in any event, lies through renewable sources of energy. Renewables also offer clean energy.

For the foreseeable future, however, coal will continue to play a major role in meeting the electricity needs in southern Asia and China. However, India, China and other states need to embrace cleaner technologies, like coal gasification, that hold immense promise to cut down emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants contributing to acid rain, smog and respiratory illness. These newer technologies focus on carbon-capture methods, whether in pulverized coal plants (which grind coal into a dust before burning it to make electricity) or in ‘integrated gasification combined cycle’, or IGCC, plants (which convert coal into a gas that is burned to produce energy). High oil and gas prices are also making the clean coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology attractive.

The clean-coal technologies raise the possibility of Asia satisfying its growing energy needs without accelerating climate change. The newer technologies, of course, are more expensive than conventional coal-burning methods. However, as companies adopt the clean-coal technologies, these newer methods will mature and their economics will cease to be an inhibiting factor for commercialization. Improved techniques will also make carbon sequestration commercially viable.

Given that at best it can be slowed but not stopped, climate change needs to be embraced as a national security issue — but not in the way the Pentagon has toyed with the development of 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.



[1] World Bank, Little Green Data Book 2006 (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2006).

[2]Yun Qian, Dale P. Kaiser, L. Ruby Leung and Ming Xu, ‘More Frequent Cloud-Free Sky and Less Surface Solar Radiation in China From 1955 to 2000’, Geophysical Research Letters (Vol.33, No.1, L01812), 11 January 2006.

[3] P. Whetton, A.B. Pittock and R. Suppiah, ‘Implications of Climate Change for Water Resources in South and Southeast Asia’, in Climate Change in Asia: Thematic Overview (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 1994); Robert T. Watson, Marufu C. Zinyowera Richard H. Moss, David J. Dokken (Eds.), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on The Regional Impacts of Climate Change An Assessment of Vulnerability (1997); R. Suppiah, ‘The Asian Monsoons: Simulations From Four GCMs and Likely Changes Under Enhanced Greenhouse Conditions’, A.J. Jakeman and B. Pittock (eds.) Climate Impact Assessment Methods for Asia and the Pacific, Proceedings of a regional symposium, organized by ANUTECH Pty. Ltd. on behalf of the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau 10-12 March 1993, Canberra, Australia (1994); Climate Impact Group, Climate Change Scenarios for South and Southeast Asia (Aspendale, Australia: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, 1992).

[4] United Nations, The State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific (New York: United Nations, October 2006).

[5] The full gini-index table measuring inequality in income or distribution is available at:

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