Abdul Waris Hameed
The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it – Robert Swan
Climate change is a reality that has manifested itself in different forms over the past decade. From fast-melting glaciers and unprecedented heatwaves to colder winters and extreme variations in rain and snow patterns, climate change has shown many hues and colors. In Asia, 48.3 million people have been affected by the climate crisis, with the economic costs amounting to 35.6 billion USD. The impact of climate change-laden crisis on South Asia has been one of the worse in the world. The turn of the last decade and years that followed were marked by climate calamities in South Asia, with India and Pakistan bearing the brunt. Therefore, it is important to ascertain the impacts of climate change on South Asia. Besides, it is essential to explore the possible policy options that can be opted in order to control the magnitude of the disasters that are queued up due to this phenomenon.
In 2022, Pakistan faced one of the worst kinds of floods in history that affected more than 30 million people while displacing 7.9 million across the country. Floods affected 9.4 million acres of agriculture land, and in the Sindh province alone 45 percent of the cotton crop, 31 percent rice, 7 percent sugarcane, and 85 percent of date production was lost. The World Bank reported economic losses of 15 billion USD owing to the floods of 2022 while the agricultural, livestock, and infrastructural losses accounted for more than 14 billion USD adding up to the total losses of about 30 billion USD. These figures of loss and damage are because of the floods of 2022 alone. The other aspects of climate change like heatwaves have contributed their fair share as well. Last year, the unprecedented heatwaves damaged the crops, as evidenced by a 50 percent decline in the mango crop and a 10 percent reduction in the wheat crop, disrupting the whole food supply chain in the country as well as damaging the exports.
Climate change has produced serious challenges for India as well. In 2021, the changing climatic patterns caused less rain in various parts of India that pushed one fifth of that country into drought. Decreased rainfall lowered the crop yield in the affected region. In Nagaland, an estimated 70 percent reduction in the yield was reported. Other than this scanty rain, in 2022, India recorded the hottest month of April in its history. Between March and May, 2022, India recorded more than 250 days (cumulatively) of heatwaves in different regions. The February of 2023 has been recorded as the hottest February in the last 122 years by the India Meteorological Department. These heatwaves reduced the wheat yield in Punjab by 50 percent and is estimated to have impacted 50 million farmers working for the sugar industry as the sugarcane produce decreased by 30 percent. Higher temperatures catalyzed the process of precipitation that resulted in heavy rainfalls. During the monsoon season, many parts of India received more rainfall than the average that caused urban floodings. India’s IT hub, Bengaluru, was flooded in August and September, causing a loss of billions of rupees to the Indian economy. For example, one of the associations of Bengaluru, Outer Ring Road Companies Association (ARRC), estimated a loss of 2.2 billion rupees alone. Similarly, floods in different parts of India like Assam, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat affected more than 6 million people with hundreds of deaths reported as well.
Afghanistan is another country battling climate change. It is the sixth most affected country by the said phenomenon. The changing climatic patterns are responsible for frequent floods and droughts as well. Droughts are becoming long, as in 2018 it was reported that 2/3rd of the population moved due to food insecurity. War-torn Afghanistan is ill-equipped as far as disaster management is concerned. Poor economic and governance structures at all levels bar the population from adopting methods that can help them in the face of such calamities. As per the World Bank, between the years 2015 and 2020, 50 million people were affected by droughts in Afghanistan. The said country is being currently neglected at the International fora due to the Taliban’s takeover. At COP27 in Sharm El- Sheikh, no government official was invited from Afghanistan even though the country has been made a battleground for more than 40 years by the Western bloc. People in Afghanistan suffer from malnutrition and are vulnerable to climatic disasters and the issues that emanate from them.
Another wraith that looms over South Asian countries, especially India and Pakistan, is the smog and the resultant deteriorating air quality. Smog is a mixture of pollutants released in the air by intense industrial activity, agricultural burning, and vehicles mixed with moisture that forms a thick layer in the atmosphere. Both the countries are experiencing hazardous levels of air quality since the start of the last decade. Major metropolitans in Lahore and New Delhi have been in a constant race to top the Air Quality Index (AQI) since 2016 while cities like Islamabad, Karachi, Lucknow, and Mumbai joined the race later on. Smog poses a serious risk to human capital in both the countries. Health issues like cardiovascular disfunction, respiratory diseases, and liver and diabetic issues are known effects of smog. Experts have reported that as a consequence of smog, the average age in Lahore will go down by 5 years while in New Delhi, it will reduce by 7 years. Figures like these are not only worrisome but also horrifying. Economic losses due to declining air quality and smog are also scary as one study reports a loss of 95 billion USD annually, which is 3 percent of the GDP, to the Indian economy.
All these issues combined pose multidimensional threats to national security as they directly impact economic, food, and human security. It can be argued that the challenges brought to the fore by climate change will not only have repercussions on security. It is now more a question of states’ survival. Huge losses to the agricultural produce on which both countries depend heavily to feed their populations and drive up their exports. Also, the hazardous impacts on the human health leave no space for waiting and not acting swiftly to counter these issues. The crisis generated by climate change has serious implications for regional security.
So far, these countries have tried hard to counter the climate crisis at the policy level, but the effectiveness at the operational level is unsatisfactory. One major obstacle in countering the climate crisis has been the lack of synergy among the institutions at the national level and no cooperation among the states at the regional level. The threat sprouting from the ongoing climate crisis is a unified one to the region, and therefore a policy and strategic level cooperation is necessary for any countermeasures to have a significant impact. One very important step to be taken in this regard is to initiate regional level dialogue, or sign an agreement similar to the Paris Agreement (2014) that can ultimately take the shape of a regional level organization.
This decade must be taken as the Decade of Climate Diplomacy, especially at the regional level. In South Asia, this is only possible if the two most important stakeholders i.e. India and Pakistan, understand the gravity of this crisis and can shift this issue in the higher political arena by securitizing it both at national and regional levels.
This recommendation may seem far away from the realist paradigm and much closer to the liberal theory, but this is not the case. The suggested cooperation is not for mutual benefit but against a unified threat that is creating a security-cum- survival issue. This is very similar to the idea of military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or Warsaw Pact. However, since the threat is non-traditional in nature, the paradigm of security would be the same. Be it the Kashmir issue or any other ideological difference between India and Pakistan, they will all cease to exist if the actual existence of these states is under threat. When the human capital of these states will not be able to survive, or will start having shorter life spans, what difference will it make if one state dominates the other? It is therefore reasonable to contend that the crisis of climate change does not need a visa to cross the international borders.
Abdul Waris Hameed is Lecturer, School of Integrated Social Sciences, The University of Lahore.