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That sinking feeling

Understanding climate change and security and exploring the intersection between the two will be vital to peace and stability in South Asia, writes Uttam Kumar Sinha.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2009 02:16 IST

We have increasingly become a ‘risk society’ — to borrow a phrase from Ulrich Beck — living in the times of heightened warnings and predictions. One cannot dismiss the fact that climate change threatens to reintroduce resource issues as major sources of regional insecurity — particularly the interlocking challenges of food, energy and water (FEW).

This set of critical drivers will present combined challenges and will reinforce each other as never before. First, as population grows, competition for FEW will increase. Second, with the risks that climate change assigns, FEW will be subjected to many stresses and strains. Climate change is no longer just an environment issue; it’s now widely interpreted as ‘an-all-encompassing’ threat to peace and security. In South Asia it will be far more abrupt, from cycles of glacial melts and unpredictable patterns of the monsoon. The impact of climate change on water resources and food production, in particular, will be severe. It’s estimated that every 1 degree centigrade rise in temperature would reduce wheat production by 4 to 5 million tonnes. The dependence of agriculture on energy will also increase in the same ratio.

Another important set of social impacts in South Asia would be the potential displacement of millions of people as a consequence of rise in sea levels. Together, this will force people to either fight to secure their share of diminishing resources or flee to other locations. Time is also a critical factor in finding responses to the impact of climate change. Since it’s a gradual phenomenon, it is in the uncertainty of climate change both in terms of time framework and the evidence, from where threats emerge.

Climate change can potentially change the conditions of conflict. It could either be a ‘threat multiplier’ or a ‘threat reducer’. Yet, one needs to consider the impact from the ‘down-side risks’. For example, melting of the Himalayan glaciers will have catastrophic consequences. From the ‘up-side risks’, if climate change does not turn out to be calamitous given its uncertainty then policies and actions can be readjusted and reversed.

Understanding climate change and security and exploring the intersection between the two will be vital to peace and stability in South Asia. The emphasis needs to be on determining whether to adopt a broader regional climate policy or to have specific State responses to climate threats. A preventive regional policy will be of paramount importance. Climate change has the propensity to overburden some States in South Asia, which are already fragile and conflict-prone. The attainment of developmental goals in the region should be the driving force for States to adopt comprehensive climate change policies. Such an approach would require viewing adaptation and mitigation strategies as complements rather than competing alternatives.

Further, South Asian states will have to work on a two-front strategy: strengthening diplomatic relations and regional institutions for sharing climate-related information and to domestically engage in energy efficiency, energy renewal and resource conservation. Debating the likelihood of the runaway consequences of climate change should not obscure the reality that decisions need to be made, even in the face of uncertainty.

Uttam Kumar Sinha is a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

The views expressed by the author are personal.