In a rare instance of backchannel diplomacy between the two countries, Bangladesh and Pakistan have indicated a desire to advance cultural and economic ties. Previously, the two countries have been at odds with each other following the 1971 war. With the recent interaction initiating prospective reconciliation, fight against climate change could lend itself as a ground for building mutual trust and an impetus to resolve difficulties in the relationship.
However novel the idea may seem, history lauds the precedents that exist. While France and Germany shared a history of bitter ties, what brought the two adversaries on the same side of table was the threat of a common enemy, the Soviet Union. Similarly, in the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan the common enemy is climate change, given both are among top 10 vulnerable countries to climate change according to Global Climate Risk Index 2020. Even more relatable is the Sino-Japanese environmental cooperation that helped China and Japan reconcile their historic animosity.
Leaders on both sides have prioritized climate change response, evident from commitment to the cause even in 2018 election manifestos of the ruling parties in both countries. Redressal of the Pakistan-Bangladesh relationship promises two-way benefits, environmental and strategic. Mindful of the gravity of climate-change induced threats, a collaborative framework could not only help mitigate environmental threats but also address securitized regional issues.
In South Asia, a host of researches on the heels of climate-prone events rationalize that the issue of climate change has moved past from being an environmental concern to being a non-traditional national security threat. Climate change induced impacts, shared by Pakistan and Bangladesh, are coming to the forefront as underlying socioeconomic vulnerabilities.
Among the various repercussion of climate change, both countries are most frequently exposed to flooding and subsequent displacement. While heavy monsoon caused floods in most areas of Pakistan this year, Karachi was worst hit by record-breaking monsoon floods, turning streets into rivers, and displacing millions of people. Against the backdrop of Cyclone Amphan wreaking havoc across Bangladesh in May 2020, the government of Bangladesh had to evacuate more than 2.4 million people to shelters in otherwise safer districts.
As a threat-multiplier, climate change triggers a chain of events: floods lead to migration, migration leads to unemployment which, in turn, leads to poverty, radicalization and internal social conflicts. For example, studies suggest that economically devastated displaced citizens are being recruited by the militant organizations in Bangladesh.
Equally impactful is the water insecurity, and concomitant economic destabilization. Christopher Mitchell’s “scarcity model” contends that unequal distribution of scarce resources inspires conflicts. Similar is the case of water-stressed South Asia where decreasing water-availability would exacerbate tensions between Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and China. Moreover, while agricultural sector makes major contributions to gross domestic product of Bangladesh and Pakistan, not only did floods destroy standing crops this year but agricultural production is expected to reduce in the coming years. Warning increased frequency of the floods in coming years, World Water Development Report 2020 predicted that floods would cost South Asian countries $215 billion each year by 2030. As the climate emergency looms, joint working framework on climate change between Bangladesh and Pakistan would mitigate the threat and work as a confidence building measure to heal the contentious past relationship.
The shared goal of climate resilience makes data sharing and exchange of climate-conscious policies pertinent between government of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Candid knowledge sharing on water levels, storage capacity, early warning mechanism remains sine qua non for climate cooperation. Also, national policies aimed at countering climate change could be exchanged. For example, Islamabad could follow something similar to Bangladesh’s national climate change trust funds for proper management and dispersal of climate financing.
That said, while both Bangladesh and Pakistan suffer from financial constraints to tackle climate change, they can best address the structural inequalities vis-à-vis climate change through joint action. A recent study reiterated that the poorest ten percent in the world have contributed less than five percent of global environment damage. In similar vein, Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the 75th United Nations General Assembly, stated that despite minimal contribution to carbon emissions, Pakistan is most vulnerable to the threats posed by climate change. Realizing how Khan successfully led the “Global Initiative for Debt Relief” for developing countries during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of both countries could initiate a similar campaign for climate funding in accordance with the Paris Agreement commitments.
A bilateral framework would be best suited to address climate-related regional issues and even call attention of regional actors. As Pakistan and Bangladesh are lower riparian to India, New Delhi’s management of upstream rivers concerns them both. While Dhaka has objected to India’s water diversion from the Teesta River during dry seasons, Islamabad resisted water warfare threats in the aftermath of the Uri and Pulwama attacks. Also, last year India released water in the Sutlej River unannounced, inundating fifty-three localities in Pakistan. Thus, negotiating with India from a common ground enables both to argue for fair share of water and avoid diversion mishaps from a leveled playing field.
Meanwhile in pursuing a case for equitable water share, Pakistan and Bangladesh could positively galvanize regional cooperation on climate change. For instance, South Asians nations are interdependent on each other for water. In a similar case, India, lower riparian to China, fears Beijing’s pursuits to dam Brahmaputra. Regional complex security theory maintains that interlinked security issues, such as climate change,. cannot be resolved independently. Thus, borrowing from this, South Asian states could mutually negotiate a sound water sharing treaty catered to the surging climate crisis.
On an endnote, while the climate emergency calls for a collective action to mitigate the threats, the spillover effect for Islamabad and Dhaka would be equally rewarding. Instituting a bilateral framework offers an opportunity to foster mutual trust, reconcile the past differences, and pave way for peaceful, climate-resilient region.
Kashoon Leeza is an Islamabad based independent analyst. She writes for South Asian Voices. She tweets at @Kashoon Leeza