As the Obama administration rethinks its strategy for South Asian engagement, and Senator John Kerry assumes his duties as Secretary of State, a more "naturalized" approach to diplomacy should be considered. Despite their many differences, South Asia's acrimonious nations are tied together by ecological factors which can provide fertile ground for regional cooperation, thereby building trust in other areas and reducing chances of greater conflict. The term "ecology" connotes environmental factors such as climate change, water and food availability as well as pollution concerns, but more significantly implies an appreciation for the relationship which humans must have with their environment in order to form productive societies. Given President Barack Obama's bold statement at his second inauguration regarding the salience of climate change, and his commitment to peace-building in South Asia, the timing may be right for making these connections for 'green diplomacy.'
The greatest loss of human life and economic damage suffered by South Asia since 2001 has not been due to terrorism and its ensuing conflicts, but rather due to natural disasters ranging from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Indus floods of 2010 to seasonal water shortages and drought. Although such calamities themselves might not be preventable, their human impact can certainly be mitigated. Such mitigation of environmental stresses is most efficacious through regional approaches to ecological cooperation to draw on efficiencies across the ecology of the area. Furthermore, the cooperation from such regionalism has the potential for building trust to resolve long-standing territorial disputes, especially between India and Pakistan.
Raising ecological factors from a technocratic matter to one of high politics will require leaders to reconsider the role of existing regional organizations, most notably the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as well as scientific organizations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). SAARC's charter, for example, prevents India and Pakistan from linking technical regional cooperation to broader territorial disputes that are deemed to be bilateral matters. However, bilateral agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan are also confined by their highly specific terms of reference. The treaty has been tested by the numerous ongoing disputes between the two countries on water management projects, but it was never intended to be an ecological management agreement; rather, it divided up the rivers based on water flow metrics. Instead of renegotiating an agreement that is structurally focused on dividing natural resources rather than finding environmentally efficient solutions, it would be more productive to consider new cooperative mechanisms regarding conservation and improving the quality of the watershed.
International environmental treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands protection, which include transboundary cooperation within their mandates, can also provide a mechanism for linking ecological cooperation to broader resolution of disputes and enhanced regional security. If with technology nations can find more efficient means of water and energy utilization across South Asia, the pressures on distributive aspects of water and energy scarcity can also be reduced, thus lessening the chance for conflicts over these resources.
The most consequential ecological features in South Asia are the Himalayas and the rivers that are largely derived from their geography. Some of the worst territorial disputes in the region also span these mountains. Hence, scientific and socio-cultural research on mountain ecosystems is likely to play a pivotal role in galvanizing regional cooperation and reaping peace dividends. International development donors need to configure existing programs to incentivize projects that build trust and have the potential for subsequent peace-building.
For example, cooperation on glacial scientific research or estuarine ecology could be constructively linked to resolution prospects for the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes. Some of the notable programs with potential for such reconfiguration include the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE), the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy (SARI/Energy), and the South Asian Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP). Yet, the current approach of donors, as exemplified by efforts such as ICIMOD's program covering seven transboundary corridors (none of which include both India and Pakistan), tends to focus on the low-hanging fruit rather than initiatives that could provide a more lasting impact on regional peace. Connecting environmental factors with basic human necessities such as food and healthcare can also raise the political prominence of these approaches. Recent concerns about communicable diseases such as dengue and polio can provide impetus for regional cooperation that has broader peace-building goals.
Trade can also be more appropriately configured to consider environmental factors as a cooperative mechanism. For example, goods for which one country has a comparative advantage in terms of climate or water availability could be targeted for trade priority. Thus trade should focus on importing products whose energy or water inputs are more efficiently obtained elsewhere rather than trying to build massive new domestic infrastructure for water or energy. At the same time, trade in energy itself, through efforts such as gas pipelines or technology transfer for renewable energy infrastructure, should be encouraged, as the huge rise in resource consumption projected for South Asia will require supply-side as well as demand-side cooperative strategies.
All of these prospects for ‘green diplomacy' are pragmatic and plausible if science can be coupled with good leadership and resource incentives from the international community. South Asia has much potential for development and peace but the linkage between ecology and security will be essential in most efficiently and effectively realizing that potential.
Saleem H. Ali is professor of politics and international studies at the University of Queensland Australia, and the founding director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont. He is the author most recently of a report titled "Ecological Cooperation in South Asia: The Way Forward" for the New America Foundation. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali
Last month, an avalanche on the Siachen glacier in Kashmir killed 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians. The tragedy has intensified debate about the logic of stationing Pakistani and Indian troops on such inhospitable terrain. And it has also brought attention to Pakistan's environmental insecurity.
Siachen is rife with glacial melt; one study concludes the icy peak has retreated nearly two kilometers in less than 20 years. It has also been described as "the world's highest waste dump." Much of this waste-generated from soldiers' food, fuel, and equipment-eventually finds its way to the Indus River Basin, Pakistan's chief water source.
Siachen, in fact, serves as a microcosm of Pakistan's environmental troubles. The nation experiences record-breaking temperatures, torrential rains (nearly 60 percent of Pakistan's annual rainfall comes from monsoons), drought, and glacial melt (Pakistan's United Nations representative, Hussain Haroon, contends that glacial recession on Pakistani mountains has increased by 23 percent over the past decade). Experts estimate that about a quarter of Pakistan's land area and half of its population are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters, and several weeks ago Sindh's environment minister said that millions of people across the province face "acute environmental threats."
The last two years have provided ample proof of Pakistan's climate-change vulnerability. According to climatologists, the devastating floods of 2010-which submerged a fifth of the country and displaced millions-constituted "the worst natural disaster to date attributable to climate change" (a judgment rendered in 2010). They argued that a combination of high temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and lower ones in the Pacific "created the perfect conditions" for the deluge.
The floods' destructiveness was exacerbated by Pakistan's rampant deforestation. UN data and Pakistani media reports paint an alarming picture of this emissions-releasing scourge: Pakistan suffers from the highest annual rate of deforestation in Asia (the nation lost 33 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010), with barely 2 percent of the country's total area remaining forested today. One of the prime perpetrators is the Pakistani Taliban, which has long recognized the revenue-generating potential of logging. During its rule over Swat in northern Pakistan, the Taliban's timber sales eliminated up to 15 percent of the picturesque region's forest cover. Separately, back in the 1990s, wealthy landowners in Sindh ordered laborers to clear forestland for crop cultivation; one small village alone lost 10,000 acres of forest. In both Swat and Sindh, the loss of forestland has facilitated riverbank erosion and deprived the country of a natural bulwark against raging floodwaters.
The next year brought another climate-related disaster: record-setting monsoon rains. Though they produced less destruction and garnered less media attention than the preceding year's floods, nearly nine million people were affected and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed. September 2011 witnessed the most rain ever recorded in southern Pakistan, with monsoon amounts 1,170 percent above normal. Deforestation once again made matters worse. Torrential rains swept away illegally cut logs, with the timber eventually coming to rest under small bridges, blocking the flow of rainwater and diverting it toward populated areas.
Pakistan's environmental insecurity is not merely a matter of nasty weather. In three specific ways, it also threatens the country's fragile stability.
First, climate change vulnerability risks inflaming relations with India. Some Pakistani hardliners accuse their upper riparian neighbor of contributing to the flooding that has ravaged their country in recent years. India, they allege, manipulates Indus Basin river flows so that water gushes downstream into lower riparian Pakistan. "Liberating" India-held Jammu and Kashmir, they argue, is the only way to stop India's hydro machinations. Given the warming trend in Pakistan-India ties over the last year, such rhetoric-produced by an admittedly small minority-is not presently a major concern. However, with flood-exacerbating glacial melt well underway, and with anti-India sentiment becoming more vociferous thanks to the emergence of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, or DPC (a new political movement of militant organizations and conservative religious parties), the relationship could in time be put to the test.
This scenario becomes even more likely if Pakistan's next national election brings to power a more conservative governing coalition that is willing to trumpet the DPC's aggressive views on water-which accuse India not only of flooding Pakistan with the resource, but also of withholding it. At a DPC rally in February, one of the movement's most notorious spokespersons, Hafiz Saeed (leader of the extremist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba), thundered that India was preventing water from flowing into Pakistan.
Second, environmental stress could deepen Pakistan's urban violence. Karachi is often convulsed by such strife, and much of it arises from fierce competition over precious land. Yet Karachi-a coastal, low-lying metropolis-is vulnerable to flooding, cyclones, and other climate-related phenomena that could easily wipe out vast swaths of the city's heavily contested real estate. This means the land that remains could become even more precious, thereby raising the stakes for the city's fighting factions and likely increasing violence. Additionally, many impoverished farmers and fishermen, their livelihoods shattered by water shortages, have migrated to cities. Pakistan's government is woefully unprepared to meet the soaring demand for basic services and natural resources sparked by this influx of migrants. Such privation, over time, could increase poverty and joblessness, breed anger, and spark more urban unrest.
Third, and perhaps most troubling, Pakistan's environmental insecurity imperils nuclear security. The fear here is not of militants seizing nuclear weapons, but rather of the nation experiencing the type of disaster that befell Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant last year. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) sits not only in a flood- and storm-prone area, but also in one of the most densely populated parts of the country. In fact, a study released by the journal Nature and Columbia University this spring concludes that more than eight million people live within 30 kilometers of KANUPP-the largest such figure for any nuclear facility in the world. Nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy describes the 40-year-old KANUUP as a "chronically incontinent" reactor that frequently leaks heavy water. Given the combination of a dysfunctional plant, a large surrounding population, and Pakistan's poor emergency-response capabilities, the consequences of a tsunami or cyclone strike on or near KANUUP could be truly catastrophic. Hoodbhoy predicts not only the release of deadly radioactivity, but also clogged roads, a collapse of vital services, and Karachi-Pakistan's financial capital-taken over by "looters and criminals."
To its credit, Islamabad does not ignore the country's environmental threats. Back in 2002, the Global Change Impact Study Center was formed to undertake climate change research and to advise policymakers and planners on climate issues. In 2005, the government established a Committee on Climate Change (overseen by the prime minister). And in 2010, a task force set up by the Planning Commission issued a report on climate change impacts in Pakistan, which prompted the Ministry of National Disaster Management to fashion a National Climate Change Policy and Action Plan. This strategy was approved in principle by Pakistan's cabinet in March.
Pakistanis have also implemented adaptation and resource-conservation measures. For instance, a new Aga Khan University building in Karachi plans to use stormwater harvesting for plant-watering and wastewater re-use for fountains, fire control, and toilets. Meanwhile, to commemorate Earth Day last month, Karachi officials announced a project to plant 5,000 trees.
Pakistan must do much more to address its climate challenges, which are daunting. Still, while the country is powerless to stop glacial melt or fend off tsunamis, it can nonetheless blunt some of their effects. This can be done by passing more stringent laws on deforestation, repairing leaky and dilapidated dams and canals, and establishing more robust disaster risk reduction mechanisms.
A former Pakistani environment minister has projected that climate change effects could cost Pakistan's economy up to $14 billion per year. Given the inevitability of global warming, Pakistan will undoubtedly be saddled with some of these debts. Yet by taking steps to manage, and reduce, the impacts of climate change, Pakistan can be spared some of these costs-not to mention some of the death and destruction visited on the country by an angry and abused environment.
Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @michaelkugelman
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The floods in Pakistan in 2010 were massive. The rains affected the length of Pakistan, maximally impacting the provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Punjab, and Sindh as well as parts of Baluchistan. Flooding displaced more than 20 million people and covered about one fifth of Pakistan's arable lands -- an area roughly equal to the U.S. eastern seaboard. This flood affected more people than the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Hurricane Katrina (2005), Hurricane Nargis (2005), the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. Irrigation systems were destroyed, crops ruined, and seed stockpiles devastated. More than six million heads of livestock (including poultry) were killed. Yet, amazingly, only 1,985 people perished while another 2,946 were injured.
Given the population density of the affected regions, the poor infrastructure, and the baseline level of poverty, these figures are astonishingly low. In spite of the physical destruction, the fact that fewer than 2,000 Pakistanis died suggests that the Pakistani government did something very well last summer. Amidst numerous ongoing internal security crisis, political challenges and shortfalls of international assistance, Pakistani agencies continue to manage this crisis well despite the serious challenges that remain.
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