Strategic Aspects of Climate Change-1
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Issue Vol 25.3 Jul-Sep 2010 | Date : 06 Oct , 2010

A misplaced paranoia

A couple of months back Islamabad went hysterical again. India
as usual was the target. This time it is not about Kashmir or the fate of the Muslim population in India, but a new topic: water. Not completely new, but the virulence was new.


According to the Pakistani media, New Delhi had started a ‘water war’ against Pakistan and decided to starve the country of its due share of water.

Pakistan’s real boss, General Ashfaq Kayani said that India would remain the focus of Pakistani military doctrine so long as Kashmir and Water remained unresolved. The fact that there is an Indus Water Treaty since 1960 and that the agreement despite its limitations (especially for India and more particularly for Kashmir) has worked relatively well was omitted from the debate.

As always, there was a veiled threat at the end: a ‘water war’ may trigger a ‘nuclear war’ if Delhi did not listen to Islamabad. Of course, the American sponsors were immediately called on to restrain India on in the issue.

Dr. Arvind Gupta in a research paper for the IDSA entitled Vicious anti-India propaganda in Pakistan on Water issues1 lists some of the pearls of wisdom found in the Pakistani press:

“¦ the main motivation of MA Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan in 1947-48 was perhaps not the Two-Nation Theory, but the waters of Kashmir “¦

  • Dawn quoted the former Foreign Minister Sardar Asif Ali as saying that “if India continues to deny Pakistan its due share [of water], it can lead to a war between the two countries.” (18 January 2010)
  • In a similar vein, PML (Q) Chief Chaudhary Sujat Hussain said that the water crisis between Pakistan and India could become more serious than terrorism and can result in a war (Dawn, 18 January 2010).
  • Majid Nizami, Chief Editor of Nawi Waqt group of newspapers, said that “Pakistan can become a desert within the next 10 to 15 years. We should show upright posture or otherwise prepare for a nuclear war.” (Dawn, 18 January 2010).
  • Member of the Punjab Assembly Warris Khalo said that India would “remain an enemy” until the Kashmir dispute and water issues are resolved. (Dawn 27 January 2010).
  • Palwasha Khan, Member of National Assembly, accused India of perpetrating ‘water terrorism’ against Pakistan and said that “experts foresee war over the water issue in the future and any war in this region would be no less than a nuclear war.” (Daily Times 17 February 2010).
  • In a recent debate in Pakistan’s National Assembly, several members urged the government to impress on New Delhi “not to use” Pakistan’s share of water (Daily Times, 25 February 2010).
  • Dr. Manzur Ejaz, a commentator, writing in Daily Times (3 March 2010) warned that “unless Pakistan was assured on the supply of water, it will never abandon the proxies that can keep India on its toes by destabilizing Kashmir.” He further added: “for Pakistan the territory of Kashmir may not be as important as the water issue.”

The last comment is the most significant, ‘Kashmir is not as important the water issue’. Why?

Well, in the first place, the main motivation of MA Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan in 1947-48 was perhaps not the Two-Nation Theory, but the waters of Kashmir which were (and are) an existential issue for the Land of the Pure.

He (Quereshi) rightly asked: “Where is the 34 million acre feet of water going? Is India stealing that water from you? No, it is not.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba founder (and mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks) added to the hullabaloo by asserting that the next war between India and Pakistan would be fought over water. Saeed called on the people of Pakistan to stand united against India.

Does the terrorist leader know that since 1960 the Indus Water Treaty has been able to legally deal with all water issues facing India and Pakistan? The ‘water war’ gimmick was probably orchestrated by the Army, which has always found that the best way to keep Pakistan ‘together’ was to point a finger at the ‘eternal’ enemy, India.

Lake at FLB

Fortunately, everything finally ended well. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quereshi declared a few days later that “the Pakistani authorities have a tendency to ‘pass the buck’ and exaggerate differences with India over the sharing of river waters though mismanagement within the country is resulting in the loss of 34 million acre feet of water.”

According to Quereshi, while the average supply of water that reaches Pakistan is 104 million acre feet, the water consumed is 70 million acre feet. He rightly asked: “Where is the 34 million acre feet of water going? Is India stealing that water from you? No, it is not. Please do not fool yourselves and do not misguide the nation. We are mismanaging that water”.2

New Delhi could sigh in relief; India had not committed any crime (for this time at least).

All this frenzy may have been laughable but for a new element coming into play which may turn this dramatic scenario real. It is called Climate Change. The relations between the two neighbours may then become truly tense as the water scarcity will be real. It does not augur well for the future of the subcontinent.

A real Issue

Many defense strategists will laugh when they will hear in vogue expression ‘climate change’ associated with military affairs, but they will perhaps think twice when they realize that even the very serious Quadrennial Defense Review Report (QDR) of the US Department of Defence3 has consecrated several pages to the subject in its last issue4.

The chapter titled Crafting a strategic approach to climate and energy states: “Climate change and energy will play significant roles in the future security environment. The Department is developing policies and plans to manage the effects of climate change on its operating environment, missions, and facilities.”

For the Pentagon, one aspect is energy saving. Detailed studies have already been undertaken how the US armed forces could become more energy efficient.5

Though Pakistan is today shouting “˜wolf without factual basis, water wars are looming large on the horizon of the subcontinent.

The second aspect studied in the Report is directly linked to global warming and it should concern all those who plan for future war scenarios in India and elsewhere.

In the words of the US Report: “A series of powerful cross-cutting trends, made more complex by the ongoing economic crisis, threatens to complicate international relations and make the exercise of US statecraft more difficult. The rising demand for resources, rapid urbanization of littoral regions, the effects of climate change, the emergence of new strains of disease, and profound cultural and demographic tensions in several regions are just some of the trends whose complex interplay may spark or exacerbate future conflicts.”

The QDR mentions that the “US Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

Though the Pentagon is of the opinion that: “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.”

The Report mentions that the “extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas.”

This point does not concern us here, but the Pentagon’s description of the consequences of global warming rings a bell for more than one and half billion human beings in South Asia.

When Ismail Serageldin, the then World Bank Vice-President declared in an interview to Newsweek in 1995: “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water,” many laughed. He wanted to bring awareness to the impending water crisis; at that time already, 80 countries and 40 percent of the world’s population faced chronic water problems. But in 1995, this ominous statement did not sound real. Fifteen years later, it is far more concrete and it has strategic implications, the first one being the fictitious scenario invented recently by the military class in Pakistan and trumpeted by its media.

But Not a New Issue

The strategic and political implications of climate change are not new. Michel Danino, a French-born Indian-naturalized scholar recently published a fascinating book The Lost River: on the Trail of the Sarasvati6. His research is a mind-opener on the fate of the mythic river. Taking into account the latest research in fields as different as satellite imagery, archeology, linguistics, paleontology or mythology, Michel says: “The Indian subcontinent was the scene of dramatic upheavals a few thousand years ago. The Northwest region entered an arid phase, and erosion coupled with tectonic events played havoc with river course. One of them disappeared.”

“¦ Pakistan will certainly blame India for it, creating further tensions and eventually a new war.

He further explains: “It has been accepted that the loss of the Sarasvati played a role in the dissolution of the Harappan city states. Why did this remarkable civilisation with its excellent town planning, standardized writing and weight system suddenly collapse?” He adds: “Scholars believe that the Sarasvati river system disappeared creating a domino effect on other settlements”.

There is no doubt that climate changes occurred in the past, with incalculable consequences. It is unfortunately bound to occur again in the future, and this time it will man-made as Danino points out.

Though Pakistan is today shouting ‘wolf’ without factual basis, water wars are looming large on the horizon of the subcontinent. This could bring about tremendous changes in the region, for which strategists and planners should be ready.

Seen with the recent hysteria of our neighbourhood, the past Sarasvati scenario is quite frightening.

Indeed, one day the Indus could dry; what then will happen to Pakistan? What would be the strategic consequences?

A thought-provoking article in the Crest Edition7 of the Times of India entitled Going, going, gone tells us about the drying of the Indian rivers. Whether in India or Pakistan, the ‘killing’ is today man-made: “we slowly kill our rivers, throttle them literally. In the hills, we dam them — drawing water for irrigation, power and direct use. Downstream, once the river hits the plains, it becomes a dumping ground. It’s a double whammy for the river. It’s a tragedy for the people who live along it.” This is amplified by climate change: “What’s making things worse are changes in the catchment areas. With reduction in forests and the disappearance of natural recharge zones in the mountains, less and less water seeps into the rivers. In fact, almost ail Indian rivers seem to be going through these calamitous changes.”

If such a dramatic scenario takes place, Pakistan will certainly blame India for it, creating further tensions and eventually a new war. Islamabad will once again divert international attention on ‘wicked India’ which ‘starves Pakistan of its share of water’.

To be continued…  

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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