Missed in the debate over climate change has been the strategic implications, says Rajeev Sharma. In Asia they could be catastrophic.
For all the heat generated by discussions of global warming in recent months, it is an often overlooked fact that climate change has the potential to create border disputes that in some cases could even provoke clashes between states. Throw into the mix three nuclear-armed nations with a history of disagreements, and the stakes of any conflict rise incalculably.
Yet such a scenario is becoming increasingly likely as glaciers around the world melt, blurring international boundaries. The chastened United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, still doesn’t dispute that glaciers are melting; the only question is how fast. The phenomenon is already pushing Europeans and Africans to redraw their borders. Switzerland and Italy, for example, were forced to introduce draft resolutions in their respective parliaments for fresh border demarcations after alpine glaciers started melting unusually quickly. And in Africa, meanwhile, climate change has caused rivers to change course over the past few years. Many African nations have rivers marking international boundaries and are understandably worried about these changing course and therefore cutting into their borders. Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan are just some of the African countries that have indicated apprehension about their international boundaries.
But it is in Asia where a truly nightmarish scenario could play out between India, Pakistan and China–nuclear weapon states that between them have the highest concentration of glaciers in the world outside the polar regions.
A case in point is the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram range, the largest glacier outside the polar region, which is the site of a major bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. According to scientific data, Siachen Glacier is melting at the rate of about 110 meters a year–among the fastest of any glaciers in the world.
The glacier’s melting ice is the main source of the Nubra River, which itself drains into the Shyok River. These are two of the main rivers in Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. The Shyok also joins the Indus River, and forms the major source of water for Pakistan.