Vectors of Violence: Climate Change and Security in South Asia

24 March 2021   ·   Omair Ahmad

In South Asia, where rising sea levels and drought permanently destroy livelihoods, internal displacement increases. To prevent a growth of extremist armed groups and a surge of violence, the EU and Germany should strengthen their support for disaster preparedness in the region, tap into their experience with transregional approaches, and fund research for adaption measures.

Among the primary consequences of climate change are variations in rainfall patterns, which lead to floods and droughts, rise of the seas, and changes in crop patterns in mountainous areas. In South Asia, all of these issues have an immense impact on livelihoods, population displacement, and food security. Analogous to vectors of a disease, those impacts can become transmitters of violence. To prevent this, Germany and the EU should increase their support for disaster preparedness programs in the region.

These climate change impacts are not far away in time. The crisis is already here: in Afghanistan, in 2018, a year marked by rising militant violence, drought caused more hardship than war due to the lowest snowfall experienced in years. All other South Asian countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh are critically dependent on the monsoon. For example, more than half of all Indian farmers grow their crops in rain-fed areas without access to other irrigation systems. A disruption of the monsoons can be a death blow to their crop for the season, and has resulted in tens of thousands of farmer suicides. Added to that, increasing extreme rainfall events have led to USD 3 billion in damages per year in India.

Rising Sea Levels Permanently Swallow Fertile Land, While the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region Heats Up

While losses due to droughts and floods are, by and large, temporary, those accrued by rising seas are permanent. The Indian Ocean is the fastest warming ocean in the tropics. As water heats, it expands, meaning that the sea rise along the Indian Ocean is greater. The rising sea swallows fertile land, which leads to the displacement of already impoverished people and the destruction of their agricultural land. This impacts India, Myanmar, and Pakistan that all have large coastlines and is probably most dangerous for Bangladesh, as it is a heavily populated low-lying country.

Due to the changing temperature across the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, the mountains are heating up at a higher pace than the plains. Springs, the main source of water for villages, are drying up, half of them becoming seasonal or disappearing completely. 250 million people live in this mountainous region, on the whole poorer than the populations in the plains of the eight countries that border the Himalayas. As the climate changes, crops that used to grow have changed as well, leading to harvest failures in Nepal’s remote Mustang region and in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Additionally, the region, which also includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, and areas of China, is exposed to an increased risk of flash floods and avalanches, as the changing temperatures lead to glaciers melting and moving, eating into the fragile mountains.

More Than a Developmental Issue: Disasters Fuelling Displacement Can Strengthen Extremist Groups

Oftentimes, global actors such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, and countries affected by climate change impacts themselves treat displacement and destruction as mere developmental issues. However, the displacement of large populations from rural to urban areas due to climate change impacts like flooding or, as the Syrian civil war shows, drought should also be addressed from a security perspective. These consequences provide opportunities for recruitment from violent extremist groups which cannot be managed through a development approach alone.

These interlinked disasters are driving massive displacement across South Asia as people struggle to survive. Climate refugees often remain unrecognised in their own country. The attacks on livelihoods leave many people desperate, especially when they are displaced from their communities and lack a social safety net or effective government support. In areas where violent networks already exist, these affected populations constitute a large potential recruiting pool. In other areas, whether as targets or actors, desperate populations with little attachment to existing systems can equally help drive extremist politics. People whose concerns are being overlooked by their government’s “business-as-usual” politics that ignores the climate crisis – and thus their people’s suffering – have an incentive to support those pushing for radical solutions undermining stability.

When disasters affect border communities it is easy to blame the other state, souring relations. India and China share the largest contested border on earth, and they also share rivers. In 2017, the river Siang, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo / Brahmaputra, turned turbid and set off an intense blame game between India and China. Lack of institutionalised information sharing mechanisms left little space to deal with the problems. These suspicions have even worsened in June 2020, after violence along the unresolved India-China border region claimed dozens of lives. A recent mention of dam building by China on the Yarlung Tsangpo in its draft Five Year Plan for 2021-25 led to more concerns.

Prioritise Disaster Preparedness Over Disaster Relief

These are enormous challenges in which external actors such as the EU or Germany can do very little directly, but there is a large role they can play indirectly. First and foremost, the German government and its European partners must address questions of science and technical feasibility. Disaster preparedness is becoming an ever present challenge across South Asia, for which humanitarian actors try to anticipate different disaster types from floods, to avalanches and cyclones. But, as the old adage goes, it is not a natural disaster that kills people – it is bad infrastructure combined with natural disasters. While it is impossible for the EU or Germany to help plan or regulate building durable infrastructure, international donors should use their funds more effectively and reallocate funding set aside for disaster relief for agencies such as the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and use it for disaster preparedness instead.

Engage With Local Governments and Harness Transregional Approaches

In cases where the countries would be willing to allow it, agencies like ECHO could partner with local governments on critical infrastructure planning for disaster preparedness. Although these are long-term efforts, they are more cost effective and can save more lives and minimise losses. If such efforts were made in a regional paradigm, maybe with the partnership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), all actors involved would have an additional benefit of learning from neighbouring countries.

Looking at cooperation from a regional lens, Germany’s and the EU’s experience in navigating extra-territorial issues could be the most obvious benefit for the region. For example, based on its experience, Europe could support the SAARC to improve cooperation regarding jointly owned rivers. As is the case for the Danube, the multi-country river systems Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra need to deal with a variety of issues, including trade or pollution, from a regional perspective. More than 1.5 billion people are dependent on these river basins, with very few transboundary treaties moderating the relationship. The EU could offer lessons learnt on how to peacefully manage difficult decisions, which might otherwise become flashpoints for regional conflict, especially as incidences of droughts rise and the prospects of countries blaming each other for water scarcity escalate.

Support Adaptation Methods and Appropriate Technology to Address Livelihood Crises

Furthermore, Germany and the EU should support South Asia’s adaptation processes by funding research. First, technological advances encompassing off-grid solar, electric vehicles, and a turn to more climate appropriate agriculture can help improving disaster preparedness. Second, in areas such as the major biodiversity hotspots in the Himalayas, local pharmaceutical companies should explore the potential for nature-based pharmacology, possibly in cooperation of global pharmaceutical companies. By financing research and development of medicinal uses of plants, Germany and the EU can support the creation of livelihood opportunities while conditioning sustainable management of the region’s ecology. This is an opportunity to support and create appropriate technology to bolster the regional economy, while at the same time creating benefits for the global community. Ideally, such projects should have started a few decades ago. But the crisis is here and now, and while we may be late, we should start working before it is too late.

Cooperation Climate South Asia

Omair Ahmad

Omair Ahmad is the Managing Editor, South Asia, of The Third Pole, a multilingual news and analysis site that reports on the Hindu Kush Himalayan and Central Asian region.