Climate change: Risks to India’s national security

Climate Risks to Indian National Security

Brahma Chellaney
From: Indian Climate Policy: Choices and Challenges, Edited By
David Michel and Amit Pandya (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, November 2009)

India may be a great power-in-waiting, but it probably lives in the world’s
worst neighborhood. Whichever way India looks, it sees crisis across its
frontiers. The tyranny of geography that India confronts is only getting worse,
putting greater pressure on its security. To this picture must now be added the
risks from climate change, which has been correctly identified as a threat
multiplier. What all this underscores is the need for the Indian republic to evolve
more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defense as
well as to build greater state capacity in order to meet contingencies.

Climate change, unfortunately, has become a divisive issue internationally before
a plan for a low-carbon future has evolved. At a time of greater international
divisiveness on core challenges – from disarmament and terrorism to the energy
crisis and the Doha Round of world trade talks – the world can ill afford political
rancor over a climate crisis that threatens to exacerbate security challenges.
While gaps in scientific knowledge make it easy to exaggerate or underestimate
the likely impact of climate change, three broad strategic effects can be
visualized in relation to India.

1. Climate change would intensify interstate and intrastate competition over
natural resources, making resource conflicts more likely.

A new Great Game over water could unfold, given China’s control over the
source of most of Asia’s major rivers—the Plateau of Tibet. Accelerated melting
of glaciers and mountain snows would affect river water flows, although higher
average temperatures are likely to bring more rainfall in the tropics.

Intrastate water disputes already are endemic in Asia, with India being the most
prominent case. But it is the potential for interstate water conflict in Asia that
ought to be of greater concern because of the strategic ramifications.

Tibet’s water-related status in the world indeed is unique. No other area in the
world is a water repository of such size, serving as a lifeline for nearly half of the
global population living in southern and southeastern Asia and China. Tibet’s
vast glaciers, huge underground springs, and high altitude have endowed it with
the world’s greatest river systems. But China is now pursuing major inter-basin
and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau which threaten to
diminish international river flows into India and other co-riparian states. In fact,
China has been damming most international rivers flowing out of Tibet (Tibet’s
fragile ecosystem is already threatened by global warming). The only rivers on
which no hydro-engineering works have been undertaken so far are the Indus
(whose basin falls mostly in India and Pakistan), and the Salween (which flows
into Burma and Thailand.) Local authorities in China’s Yunnan province,
however, are considering damming the Salween in the quake-prone upstream

Before such hydro-engineering projects sow the seeds of water conflict, China
ought to build institutionalized, cooperative river basin arrangements with
downstream states. Against this background, it is hardly a surprise that water is
becoming a key security issue in Sino-Indian relations and is a potential source of
enduring discord. India has been pressing China for transparency, greater
hydrological data-sharing, and a commitment not to redirect the natural flow of
any river or diminish cross-border water flows. But even a joint expert-level
mechanism – set up in 2007 merely for “interaction and cooperation” on
hydrological data – has proven of little value. The most dangerous idea China is
toying with is the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra River, known as
Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans. Diversion of the Brahmaputra’s water to the
parched Yellow River is an idea that China does not discuss in public because the
project implies environmental devastation of India’s northeastern plains and
eastern Bangladesh and would thus be akin to a declaration of water war against
India and Bangladesh.

China and India already are water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated
farming and water-intensive industries – together with the demands of a rising
middle class – have led to a severe struggle for more water. Indeed, both
countries have entered an era of perennial water scarcity. Rapid economic
growth could slow in the face of acute scarcity if the demand for water continues
to grow at its current frantic pace. Such a development would transform China
and India – both food-exporting countries – into major importers and would thus
exacerbate the global food crisis.

2. Higher frequency of extreme weather events (such as hurricanes, flooding,
and drought) and a rise in ocean levels are likely to spur greater interstate
and intrastate migration – especially of the poor and the vulnerable – from
the delta and coastal regions to the hinterlands.

Such an influx of outsiders would socially swamp inland areas and upset existing
fragile ethnic balances—provoking a backlash that strains internal and regional
security. It should not be forgotten that many societies in the region are a potent
mix of ethnicity, culture, and religion.

India, for example, could face a huge refugee influx from the world’s seventh
most populous country, Bangladesh. Having been born in blood in 1971,
Bangladesh faces extinction from saltwater incursion, with the International
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saying that country is set to lose 17 percent of
its land and 30 percent of its food production by 2050. Bangladesh today faces a
rising frequency of natural disasters. In addition to the millions of Bangladeshis
that already have illegally settled in India, New Delhi would have to brace up for
the potential arrival of tens of millions more people.

For India, the ethnic expansion of Bangladesh beyond its political borders not
only sets up enduring trans-border links, but it also makes New Delhi’s alreadycomplex
task of border management even more onerous. As brought out by
Indian census figures, Indian districts bordering Bangladesh have become
Bangladeshi-majority areas. It is perhaps the first time in modern history that a
country has expanded its ethnic frontiers without expanding its political borders.
“Climate refugees,” however, would not all come from across India’s borders.
Within India itself, those driven out by floods, cyclones, and saltwater incursion
would head for settlements on higher ground. In some cases, the effects of such
refugee influxes would be to undermine social stability and internal cohesion

3. Human security will be the main casualty as climate change delivers a major
blow to vulnerable economic sectors.

Economic and social disparities – already wide in Indian society – would
intensify. The fact that there is a Maoist insurgency in the poorest districts of
India at a time when the country is booming economically is a testament to the
costs of growing inequalities. That ragtag band of rebels wishes to supplant
Indian parliamentary democracy with a proletariat dictatorship inspired by Mao
Zedong’s Little Red Book.

The specter of resource competition, large-scale movement of “climate
refugees,” social and political tensions, and a higher frequency and intensity of
extreme weather events helps underscore the human-security costs. Climate
variability will bring change to the social-economic-political environments on
which the security of individuals and communities rest. Authorities – as well as
communities – will be forced to innovate and manage under a climate changedriven
paradigm. Building greater institutional and organizational capacity,
early-warning systems, more efficient irrigation practices, and new farm varieties
will all become necessary.

Against this background, India is likely to find itself on the frontline of climate
change. To deal with these national security implications, India needs to frame
the concept of security more broadly and redefine its defense planning and
preparedness. Unconventional challenges – from transnational terrorism to
illegal refugee inflows – already have become significant in India’s security
calculus. India also needs to build greater state capacity – at federal, provincial,
and local levels – to tackle various contingencies and adapt to a climate changedriven
paradigm. Climate change holds the greatest risks for India in the
agricultural sector—a sector that employs half of the Indian workforce and yet
makes up just 18 percent of the GDP. The challenge of ensuring food security
and social stability demands greater national investments in rural infrastructure
and agriculture and also simultaneously requires finding a way to leapfrog to
green technologies.

A lot can be done to combat climate change outside any regime. India’s US$ 22
billion solar-energy program, US$ 2.5 billion forestation fund, and new national
energy-efficiency mission are initiatives in the right direction.

Internationally, though, Indian diplomacy must ensure that the country is not
saddled with unfair obligations that compound its challenges. Equity in burdensharing
has to be ensured. The challenge is to devise carbon standards that help
protect the material and social benefits of economic growth in the developing
world without damaging prosperity in the developed countries.

But just as the five original nuclear weapons states helped fashion the 1970
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to perpetuate their privileges, countries
that became wealthy early wish to preserve their prerogatives in a climate change
regime despite their legacy of environmental damage and continuing high carbon
emissions. This has raised the danger of rich nations locking in their advantages
by revising the 1992 Rio bargain and re-jiggering the Kyoto Protocol obligations
through a new regime. This could create another global divide between haves
and have-nots—an NPT of climate change. An enduring international regime to
combat global warming will have to be anchored in differential responsibility, a
concept at the heart of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change and the Kyoto Protocol (it is a concept also embedded in international
law through several other agreements—from the Montreal Protocol on
Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to the Treaty of Maastricht.) Climate
change, it is evident, is not just a matter of science but also a matter of

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