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.
It is clear, then, why the melting of glaciers in the Karakoram region could have a disastrous impact on ties between India and Pakistan. French geologists have already predicted the Indus will become a seasonal river by 2040, which would unnerve Pakistan as its ‘granary basket,’ Punjab, would become increasingly drought-prone and eventually a desert–all within a few decades. It takes no great leap of imagination to see the potential for conflict as the two nations resort to military means to control this water source.
Meanwhile, glacier melting could also be creating a potential flashpoint between India and China. The melting Himalayan glaciers will inevitably induce changes to the McMahon Line, the boundary that separates India and China. Beijing has already embarked upon a long-term strategy of throttling of India’s major water source in the north-east–the Brahmaputra River that originates in China.
India has lodged several official protests over reports that China is constructing large dams and embankments to divert the waters of Brahmaputra. Beijing, for its part, has already taken about 50 kilometres of Bhutan’s territory under the pretext of climate change, and has threatened to construct new roads close to Bhutanese borders, ostensibly to promote tourism. Until a few years ago, regular human activity or movement along the China-Bhutan border was not possible all year round because of extremely cold and snowy conditions. But now, regular activity in the China-Bhutan border area is possible for at least seven months a year.
And Bhutan isn’t the only place Beijing has been taking advantage of climate change. Take, for example, the Tibetan Plateau, where the Chinese are planning to construct further military infrastructure with an eye on India. Beijing reportedly intends to build a radio station and several air strips on the roof of the world where the setting up of heavily fortified permanent military infrastructure was previously not possible because of the harsh conditions. Meanwhile, thawing mountain peaks have emboldened China to widen its all-weather and highly strategic Karakoram highway to Pakistan–a serious headache for India’s military leadership. Climate change has also allowed the Chinese troops to construct massive bunkers in Aksai Chin area in Ladakh, which China wrested from India during the 1962 war and continues to occupy. Construction of bunkers in Aksai Chin was earlier never considered to be feasible or even desirable.
Debate over sea level rises, the rights and wrongs of China’s approach to a climate deal in Copenhagen and the desirability of firm emissions targets vis-à-vis economic growth may be up for debate. But the changing strategic paradigm in Asia as a result of climate changes should not be.