Peace and conflict in South Asia have traditionally been underpinned by three regional realities: internal issues of civil war and ethno-religious violence and separatism, military conflict between India and Pakistan, and political conflicts between India and the smaller states of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, writes researcher and policy analyst MS Huda.
Climate change has the potential to put tremendous pressure on all of these vulnerabilities. South Asia is one of the most critically placed regions in the world, projected to experience the brunt of the planet’s environmental breakdown. Almost 700 million people have already been affected by at least one climate-related disaster in the last decade. Climate, while not the primary driver of conflict, exacerbates pre-existent socio-political and economic contexts that ignite conflict. As researchers Femia and Werrell write, “Climate change, by compromising a state’s ability to provide basic resources to its population, can significantly erode its output legitimacy.” They point out that such erosion can contribute to fragility and state failure, which, in turn, has implications for regional and international security.
Climate change has the potential to put pressure on all the vulnerabilities and border tensions India already faces with Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Indian leaders have often threatened to dam the rivers or reduce their flow into Pakistan as a reprisal for Pakistani attacks, which in turn, has provoked counter-threats from Pakistan.
Many coastal regions of Bangladesh and India will be especially prone to a combination of storm surges and sea-level rise.
Historically, cross-border movements between these three nations have been a major trigger for violent conflicts, and mass climate-induced migration could be the most destabilising trigger of all.
The real discussion is not on how to address ‘degrowth’ in the Global South, but to find optimal ways to help grassroots movements scale up and find a seat at policymaking tables.
Threats & Counter-Threats Between India and Pak
Sharing the Ganga Brahmaputra basin (GBM) with Bangladesh and the Indus basin with Pakistan, riparian conflicts are a key concern for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The 1960 Kabul Water Treaty between India & Pakistan and the 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty between India & Bangladesh do little to de-escalate tensions at a time when religion-based tensions between Hindus and Muslims are at a new high – a factor that has long been a source of hostility between the three countries.
Indian leaders have threatened at times to dam the rivers or otherwise reduce their flow into Pakistan as a reprisal for Pakistani attacks on Indian bases in disputed territories of Kashmir (through which the tributaries flow), which in turn, has provoked counter-threats from Pakistani leaders.
Many coastal regions of Bangladesh and India will be especially prone to a combination of storm surges and sea-level rise, which will worsen existing coastal erosion, and a combination of droughts and flooding will worsen Pakistan’s food insecurity. In fact, according to the 2021 Ecological Threat Report, approximately 850 million people in the subcontinent are already suffering from moderate to severe food insecurity.
Can Climate Tensions Exacerbate Religious Conflicts?
Historically, cross-border movements between these three nations have been a major trigger for violent conflicts and war, and mass climate-induced migration could be the most destabilising trigger of all. The mass movement of vulnerable, persecuted groups – ethnic Pashtuns fleeing floods in Pakistan, Muslims displaced by drought in India, and Rohingya refugees leaving flooded cities in Bangladesh – could stoke communal tensions and violence. Without any legal protection, climate refugees are going to increase manifold times in the upcoming years.
India already has the highest level of disaster displacement in South Asia. In 2020, Climate Action Network and ActionAid published a report predicting that more than 4.5 crore people may be forced to migrate by 2050 due to intense, frequent and costly natural disasters. In the face of such a large potential shock to cross-border systems, there is a need for proactive policy interventions to support, provide for, and rehabilitate climate-impacted communities.
Currently, relations between India and Pakistan are particularly volatile, and while India has a very strong relationship with the ruling elites in Dhaka, the BJP does not share the same affinity with the people of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. State-sponsored Islamophobia, including, India’s recently passed Citizen (Amendment) Act, is only a manifestation of the violent hostility of these tempers.
International security researchers, such as Michael Klare, have flagged the real risk of Indian and Pakistani armies turning to nuclear warfare in the event of failing to diplomatically solve potential riparian conflicts in Indus’s Ravi, Bea, and Sutlej that flow from India to Pakistan.
And while India and Bangladesh are unlikely to engage in military stand-offs due to power disparities as well as mutual dependence, the spectre of environmental peacebuilding calls for a broader appreciation of violence, going beyond military clashes.
Economic Growth vs Sustainability – Can't the Two Concepts Co-Exist?
In India, the problem is not so much about climate denialism as it is about climate apathy or climate ignorance. Most people in the country, regardless of their position of power or political persuasion, would agree that India is experiencing drastic effects as a result of climate change. Yet, for the most part, this isn’t seen as a problem that needs to be addressed in policies or party manifestos.
India sees as much vocal advocacy and cheap auctioning for coal from the Central government as it does for the use of solar energy. With an abundance of coal and massive economic targets to reach, India’s coal production is set to peak in 2030, the same year it set as a target (at the COP26 Summit) for meeting 50 per cent of energy requirements from renewable energy. Since modern energy services, such as reliable electricity, clean cooking fuels and mechanical power are critical for lifting people out of poverty, ending malnutrition, improving health and education outcomes, and raising productivity in agriculture and industry, exiting poverty is almost synonymous with increasing energy consumption.
So, in India, the goals of limiting carbon dioxide emissions and of reducing poverty and inequality are, for the foreseeable future, in conflict. Or, at least, that is the political framing that’s popular.
The idea of degrowth, which promotes a planned reduction of energy and resource use to decenter the idea of growth from economic maximisation and reorient it towards sustainability, is gaining traction in many economies, albeit affluent ones. The term ‘degrowth’ has undesirable negative connotations for activists in the South. But as a tradition of vibrant environmental justice grassroots movements, which animates much of the South Asian landscape (India included), it breaks away from the binary of growth and degrowth to focus on alternative pathways for non-material well-being.
Why Local Movements are Lessons in Policymaking
By building resilience to the capitalist ‘productivity’ rhetoric, Huda states that grassroots initiatives can change both the ‘strategic climate’ in South Asia as well as the fallout of the effects of extreme climate in the sub-continent, by facilitating detente between conflict parties. The ‘Save Nature & Wildlife’ in Bangladesh, the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ and the ‘Gandhian Economy of Permanence’ in India, are some very popular grassroots environmental movements in South Asia that promote living in harmony with nature, ecological sustainability, social well-being, collective knowledge and political diversity.
These movements critique eurocentric, anthropocentric and capitalist modernity – the same ideals that degrowth advocates for. Indeed, the real discussion, it seems, is not on how to address ‘degrowth’ in the Global South, but to find optimal ways to help these grassroots movements scale up and find a seat at policymaking tables.
The case of Bhutan’s healthy Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a good example of what scholar Katsu Masaki refers to as the “the potential of forging ‘partial connections’ between growth-seeking and degrowth-oriented measures”. By making a case for balancing economic growth and non-material well-being, the Bhutanese government, by adopting GNH, unsettles the argument that being against GDP or unconditional GDP growth is not the same as being against growth.
Local Solutions for Global Issues
In his study, Huda reveals through case studies on the Sundarbans forest and the Thar desert, that grassroots initiatives in these areas were more successful in combating racial and xenophobic rhetoric. The abundantly verdant and rich environments of these forests serve as a shared site of détente for both Hindus and Muslims. What makes grassroots activism effective in these sites, which hold the potential for unimaginable violence, is that they provide open channels for communication and enable understanding and trust.
The realisation against the notion that community-based problem-solving cannot be implemented on a large scale must come with an understanding that most national and international problems are actually tackled by smaller provinces, states or communities in a localised manner.
In the three large countries of South Asia – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – which are set to face perilous and extreme climate-related troubles, the promotion of regional and local non-material well-being is both powerful and necessary.
Indeed, focusing on amplifying the work of and solutions provided by these environmental grassroots movements is one way to break the development-emission gridlock. The need of the hour is for the international community and regional civil societies to provide technical and financial support for grassroots interactions.
(Radha Varadarajan is pursuing an MSc in International Politics at SOAS, University of London. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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