Climate and Security:
“Water is Pakistan’s Biggest Security Challenge”

Prof. Adil Najam is the founding Dean of Boston University’s School of International Affairs, the Pardee School. He was the former Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Dr. Adil Najam was the Lead Author of the second and third reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), work for which the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Award in 2006. His research spans a range on international policy issues, including environment and development, climate change, human security and human development, global governance, and higher education, among others. Pakistan Politico in an exclusive interview ask Dr. Najam about the climate security nexus.

Could you shed some light on why you chose to do some academic work on a less-talked about constituent of national security, especially at a time when kinetic and other security-related factors are dominating academia and media?

My concern about the climate-security link comes from the security side of the equation, much more than from the climate or environment side. The single most important question that should occupy the attention of anyone studying security is: What or who is making us insecure? How? And, what can be done about it?

The moment you confront this question honestly and seriously, you come to the realization that the so-called ‘traditional’ security discourse, while critically important, is also incomplete. To ignore non-traditional dimensions of security is, in fact, to make the modern state less secure, including on national security. This led me to my 2003 book “Environment, Development and Human Security” and has now, fifteen years later, brought me back to the question of climate and security in Pakistan in a research project I am doing along with my BU Pardee School colleague Henrik Selin.

Why climate?

Mostly because climate change is rapidly and dangerously expanding the ‘theatre of insecurity’, especially in countries like Pakistan and South Asia as a whole. Water. Food. Drought. Heatwaves. Disasters. Migration. Disease. These are just a few of the additional insecurity stresses that climate change exacerbates. And because nature does not respect political boundaries, all these things happen across countries and regions. But, most importantly, climatic change is defined by its elements of unpredictability and surprise. And nothing complicates security the way unpredictability and surprise can.

Look around Pakistan or at South Asia as a whole, even in the last ten years, and you see a constant procession of climatic crises that not only make the lives of people miserable, they actually make them insecure. It is not just that every time there is a flood or drought or disaster it distracts the security apparatus from its ‘traditional’ duties by turning them into relief officials. It is also that each episode also imposes new law and order burdens and ultimately they gnaw away at efficacy and effectiveness of the security apparatus.

But is it really fair to see climate change as a military challenge?

I do believe that the key challenges from the climate and security nexus relate to climate impacts as threat-multipliers, primarily but not only, to internal security and very often in terms of human insecurities. However, the purely military and military preparedness aspects cannot be ignored either. Whether it is Hannibal taking his elephants up the Alps, Napoleon getting his army to return from Russia, or Alexander trying to cross the Indus, the importance of climate to security has always been abundantly clear to military planners. What Climate Change does is that it adds the dimension of ‘change’ and, therefore, huge surprise, to the equation. That is not a pretty scenario.

Source: AFP

Do you think that security planners across the world, and in Pakistan, appreciate change as a security threat, especially when they have more immediate threats like terrorism, insurgencies, etc. to worry about.

From my experience, I find that when you propose the linkage to senior security planners – certainly in both U.S.A. and in Pakistan – they instinctively see the connection and recognize its importance. In fact, they will then talk about it in fairly sophisticated ways. However, it is also very clear – and they will acknowledge this – that climate change is NOT at all a priority on their security radars. There are too many more immediate distractions that they have to worry about. Plus, climate change is too complex and uncertain a challenge for them to be able to grapple with.

What aspects of climate change impacts should Pakistani security planners be most worried about?

Water. Above all else.

There is no doubt in my mind that water is one of the biggest security challenges for Pakistan. It is existential. It is no longer long-term; it is immediate-term. It may even be as big or bigger than any inter-state threat we have from our very hostile neighborhood.

The interesting thing, related to your last question, is that there is a near consensus that water is not just a major developmental concern for Pakistan, but a potential security challenge. That it has been and can be a trigger to violence. That it is both a quantity and quality challenge. That it has both domestic and national security dimensions. On all of this, everyone agrees. But beyond this – and especially on the question of what to do about it – there is no discussion. Very little thought, and no action. Here is a looming existential threat everyone recognizes. Yet, we seem to be just waiting for something bad to happen; then we will respond. Here is the bad news: ‘Then’ would already be too late.

So, how should Pakistan, including its security planners, think about climate change?

There have been essentially two ways in which security planners around the world, including in Pakistan, have thought about climate change. The first is in terms of being a provider for disaster relief. When climatic or other disasters strike, the security apparatus is often deployed as the first- and front-line of disaster relief. In Pakistan this has now taken institutional form in the shape of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). This is important, even critical, work. But for most part it is reactive and it is very expensive. Importantly, in a world of climate change the likelihood of disasters is constantly increasing. Which means that no matter how good we make our disaster relief apparatus, it will continuously be surpassed by the increasingly number of disasters.

The second is to think about reducing the environmental impact of security infrastructure and activities. After all, and certainly in Pakistan, the environmental footprint of security institutions is huge: massive civil installations and vehicular fleets; employer of, literally, armies of people; implementer of large projects, manager of gigantic tracts of land; producer of vast amounts of pollution; etc. In all these and other capacities, the security infrastructure is a very large producer of environmental impacts, including greenhouse gasses. Therefore, in some countries militaries use their leverage of scale to reduce environmental impacts, and especially make significant reductions in greenhouse emissions. In Pakistan, our security forces have not yet, but should, do more on its own environmental impact since that could have large positive benefits for the country.

There is, of course, a third aspect which, I think, is most important for Pakistan: to reduce the likely impacts of the threat before it actually manifests itself. Security folks call this threat management. Climate people call it resilience. In our case it means taking steps that will increase our ability to withstand the impacts of future climate events that might impinge on security. A lot of this will be about building more resilient infrastructure. But it is also about improved water management strategies, enhanced energy and food security, better urban planning, and including an analysis of climatic variables in strategic security deployments.

Is this what you mean by what you call living in the “Age of Adaptation”?

Yes. Climate change is a reality. And its biggest implication is that we now have to learn how to live in the ‘Age of Adaptation.’ That means adapting to new realities, including on security.

Early warning and disaster relief is good, but that only means having the ability to get out of the way of or dealing with the impacts of disaster. Reducing our own emissions is absolutely necessary, but Pakistan is a fairly small country in terms of its emissions and our actions alone cannot shift the direction of climate change. Most important of all is to reduce the impacts of the climatic threat by building resilience. In the Age of Adaption, resilience will be the single biggest guarantor of a nation’s climatic security. To think about climate in a security context, is to think about resilience.


  1. Good interview.

    No one can explain complex issue with the clarity that Dr. Adil Najam can. He has been a lone voice on climate change for two decades now. If only anyone would listen. Why can’t our politicians be like him!

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