Home Magazines Cover Story India & Pakistan on the Ecological Brink

India & Pakistan on the Ecological Brink

Sanctuary Cover Story October 2011:In a 2008 paper, former Union cabinet minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, opined that India's energy security could not be addressed without consideration of the country's neighbourhood policy. In other words, energy security was not just a national policy issue but a foreign policy and cross-border issue. What is true for energy policy is even truer for climate change and for India's water security.


I reflected on this as I sat in the conference room of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), where we had just launched an Indo-Pak initiative to promote cooperation on climate change, water and disaster risk reduction. I was there to learn about our neighbours and this was my first visit to the city of my forebears.

From the introductory words of the vice-chancellor onwards – himself a distinguished academic on climate and security issues – key experts spoke of the necessity of a regional approach to tackling the expected ravages of climate change. From changing river flows, to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, to diseases spreading further afield, the impacts of climate change would not respect political boundaries.

Species such as this snow leopard Uncia uncia are what are called indicator species – their presence or decline are a symbol of the health of the environment they live in. Today, snow leopards are increasingly rare – an alarm bell for both countries to realise the gravity of the ecological crisis they will face if climate change continues unchecked.
Species such as this snow leopard Uncia uncia are what are called indicator species – their presence or decline are a symbol of the health of the environment they live in. Today, snow leopards are increasingly rare – an alarm bell for both countries to realise the gravity of the ecological crisis they will face if climate change continues unchecked.

Flooded Pakistan

Water insecurity – the Achilles heel of both countries – could become the first flashpoint for tension and conflict. What would our nations do then? Would there be combat or cooperation?

These are not academic questions. India and Pakistan are both acutely vulnerable to natural resource constraints and natural disasters. Scientists predict that climate change will intensify the frequency and impact of natural disasters in our region. Those hardest hit will be least able to cope. A combination of unsustainable resource use, poor planning, under-investment in adaptation and underlying social inequities will magnify the impact.

We had a dangerous foretaste of what could be in store with the unprecedented floods of July 2010 in Pakistan. Floods are not new to Pakistan, the country has been flooded 67 times since 1947 but the floods of 2010 were the worst to hit the country. More than one-fifth of Pakistan was under water, with almost the entire northern part and most of the central region flooded. More than 20 million people were reported to be displaced, with 1,985 fatalities and 2,964 casualties. The international community mounted the largest ever humanitarian appeal in United Nations (UN) history. This helped in reducing the loss of life and enabling relief to reach many affected communities. However, the impact has been huge and long-lasting - with women, children, the elderly and infirm, minorities, the landless and displaced being the worst affected.

In a recent assessment, Oxfam reports that "some 1.6 million houses were damaged or destroyed, and more than five million jobs were lost. Damage to agricultural crops, irrigation systems and infrastructure was massive. Economic growth was stunted by two per cent over the past year." The displaced communities continue to struggle to survive and the slow progress that was made in rural areas has been negated.

As happened in India after the supercyclone of 1999 in Orissa, the floods in Pakistan have wiped out decades of development gains. The authorities estimate that reconstruction after the floods could cost the country up to $10.9 billion - almost one-quarter of its national budget. Whether the reconstruction will be 'Build Back Better' is anyone's guess. The fact is that one year after the floods, more than 800,000 families are estimated to remain without permanent shelter, and more than a million people are in need of food assistance. Communities that are hard to reach in remote districts or the conflict-ridden northern provinces remain forgotten victims. Natural disasters often push communities to the very brink and insurgency, which is already a major issue in the region, will only be aggravated.We can find parallels to this situation in India but this story has unfolded across a highly sensitive border in a shared river basin with a shared monsoon system.

Floods, such as this one in Lidar in Pahalgaum Kashmir, will become commonplace if climate change continues unchecked. We are currently at 389 ppm and if our fossil-fuel powered growth paradigm is not changed, we will quickly reach the 450 ppm mark and enter a phase of uncontrolled global warming.
Floods, such as this one in Lidar in Pahalgaum Kashmir, will become commonplace if climate change continues unchecked. We are currently at 389 ppm and if our fossil-fuel powered growth paradigm is not changed, we will quickly reach the 450 ppm mark and enter a phase of uncontrolled global warming.

Climate Change And The Monsoons

Unlike in India, I found little inhibition in Pakistan in referring to climate impacts on the monsoons. I found scientists and officials openly talking about the destabilisation of the monsoon rains as a result of climate change. In India this is rare, with the scientific establishment holding to the party line that there is no discernible impact on the monsoons and stories to the contrary are exaggerated.

While anyone working in the area of climate change is familiar with the disclaimer that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, the World Meteorological Office in an unprecedented move in October 2010 linked the flooding in Pakistan to climate change. In a media interview, the WMO's director of World Climate Research Programme, Ghassem Asrar, openly linked the flooding to the same weather phenomena that had caused the record heat wave in Russia that year, and flooding and mudslides in China. He is reported to have said, "There's no doubt that clearly climate change is contributing, a major contributing factor," and the floods were a sign of more to come. The Government of Pakistan also publicly endorsed the UN's attribution to climate change.

It is not known what India's security analysts thought of this unprecedented natural catastrophe across the border in its most sensitive neighbour. Or whether they had any regard for the potential of spill-over impacts such as forced migration across the Indian border. These matters were not discussed in the Indian media. The official Indian response was to offer financial humanitarian assistance. An offer of doctors was reportedly rejected by the Government of Pakistan.

My own response to the floods was very personal. An Indian Punjabi, I felt an affinity with the affected people. My family had come from Lahore. But for an accident of history, that could have been us. The Pakistani people did not deserve this. Twenty million people uprooted from their homes - many potentially never to return - was a calamity beyond belief. The thought of mothers, like me, having to cope with sick, hungry and scared children under such awful circumstances needed a response. I made my donation but I also mobilised my networks.

Time To Work Together

Times of crisis are times of solidarity.

Had relations between India and Pakistan been normal, there is much more we could and would have done. But our response as a nation was perfunctory. We could not deploy all the assets we had at our disposal - medical experts, disaster professionals and others - in the aid of a neighbour, because of our history of friction. This did not serve the people, only the politics. Yet it is precisely this people-to-people solidarity that will build the trust that will help us normalise relations. Practical, helpful acts that will pave the way for more meaningful openings. Once the people lead, the politicians will follow.

I found support from the World Economic Forum and a ready platform for mobilisation through the WEF's community of Young Global Leaders (YGL) to which I belong. We raised funds but we went beyond fundraising to use action on the floods as a strategic entry point to more effective people-to-people diplomacy. Over the past year, a small core group of us - Indians and Pakistanis - created a Task Force on Indo-Pak relations and beavered away to create links and platforms for action. We decided to start with a conference in Pakistan addressing the shared agenda of climate change, water and disaster risk reduction. Pakistani colleagues such as Umar Saif, Kasim Kasuri, Munizae Jehangir and Saleem Ali - all YGLs and prominent in their fields - were instrumental in this. On the Indian side, YGLs such as Sandeep Naik and Barkha Dutt played a key role.

We did not limit the initiative to YGLs but invited other networks and institutions. The U.K. government (Department for International Development) and the Norwegians gave support and Aman-ki-Asha and China Dialogue brought relevant expertise. We managed to acquire visas for all Indian participants we applied for - thanks to extraordinary efforts made by Pakistani colleagues and the cooperation of the authorities.

The launch conference of the event took place at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) with almost 200 participants in attendance. The event was webcast and those who could not attend from India in person, joined virtually via teleconference. For all those who had said that such an event was not possible, we would not get visas and there would be official obstruction, we showed there was a way.

Vision For The Future

Our intention was to invite those who could help make Indo-Pak cooperation on climate change, water and disaster risk reduction a reality. Participants ranged from policymakers, practitioners, civil society leaders, academics, scientists, students, donors, journalists and activists. We also managed to attract leading Pakistani politicians and Indian parliamentarians such as Manish Tiwari (Congress), Chandan Mitra (BJP) and Jai Panda (BJD), who participated in a televised debate.

We were inspired by colleagues from Ecopeace/ Friends of the Earth Middle East who have shown the value - and necessity - of Track II channels, based on informal people-to-people diplomacy, for resolving entrenched resource-sharing issues in areas of conflict. The payback has also been felt on the economic bottom-line with increased investment. If Ecopeace could succeed in bringing together communities from Jordan, Israel and Palestine to create community-based water sharing and conservation programmes - which created stability, improved the business environment and attracted trade and investment - why couldn't we do the same in the two Punjabs. This is now what we are working on.

My experience in Lahore, and the overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic response of Pakistani colleagues, has underscored the obvious for me. India and Pakistan share many commonalities but politics has sought to exaggerate the differences. Both countries are highly vulnerable to climate change and natural and man-made disasters. Both countries are acutely vulnerable to water insecurity with attendant consequences for food security, energy security, public health, livelihoods, economic and other impacts. More people have been affected by these issues on a daily basis, than have died in our two countries' wars and conflicts with each other. The reasons for cooperation are many and true security can only be secured through attention to these core issues.

If we want peace, we need a new narrative of cooperation that recognises these growing vulnerabilities and emphasises the value of cooperation over conflict.

Youth Power

Changing demographics are also creating new realities and new opportunities. Both India and Pakistan have witnessed a quadrupling of their populations since 1947 and both have very young populations. If the aspirations of these young people are to be met in a region challenged by resource scarcity and climate change, it will require a new generation of thinking and an intensification of bilateral cooperation.

This is what our effort seeks to do. It brings together young people from the post-1947 generation in Pakistan and India to address shared natural resource and climate challenges with a view to building a new narrative of cooperation based on sensible risk management, benefit sharing and resilience in the face of climate change.

The good news is that the Pakistani youth we met are energised for cooperation on these issues with their Indian counterparts. Students at LUMS have already formed a committee to pursue these issues. There is also a new level of institutional readiness to co-operate on these issues. Both countries have national action plans on climate change in place and have established national and provincial/state authorities on disaster management. Water remains an institutional casualty with few credible bilateral platforms for effective cooperation, but this can only improve with time and effort. For now, our goal is to work on the Punjab-to-Punjab level to explore opportunities for practical, bilateral cooperation on these issues bringing institutions, business and communities together.

In November 2011 we will be reporting on these issues before policymakers and business people at the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit in Mumbai. This effort has only just started and will need to prove itself, but it is a small example of the type of new cross-border dialogue needed if we are to have a climate of peace in an era of climate change. We need all the friends and allies who want to make common cause – and next time perhaps the response to a devastating flood will be different.

Malini Mehra is founder and chief executive of the Centre for Social Markets and a climate campaigner. www.csmworld.org. For more information on the initiative, please see:


Wildlife – The Forgotten Victims

India and Pakistan often talk of their varied strengths – their military strength, their nuclear prowess, their commitment to fight terrorism – but forget to mention, and give importance to, the incredible natural bounty they both possess. A vast array of wild animals inhabit the border areas of India and Pakistan and they are the unmentioned victims of conflict and abandoned peace talks. Many of these species are endangered – snow leopards, black bears, markhor – and are vital to the survival of the ecosystems they inhabit. Their habitats, in turn, are crucial to the water security of both countries. While India and Pakistan urgently need to develop protection plans for their shared rivers, glaciers and wider landscapes, it is of utmost importance that they include wildlife conservation in these programmes. In 2003, a ceasefire was declared by India and Pakistan along the Kashmir border and the absence of violence saw an upsurge in the population of the rare markhor – a clear example of how cross-border cooperation can benefit wild animals. The Kishenganga Project in the Gurez Valley (Sanctuary Vol. XXXI No.4, August 2011) is an opportunity for India and Pakistan to repeat their success with the markhor. The dam is being opposed by communities in both nations and the presence of endangered wildlife including the hangul deer, musk deer, barking deer, ibex and marmot among others is a key factor. If the two nations were to reach an agreement to protect the Valley and allow for small diversions of its water along with a parallel conservation initiative for its wild animals, the people of both nations would benefit. The Thar and the Rann of the Kutchh are two other key wildlife areas that will benefit from such a visionary approach. The solution is simple: a cross-border agreement that dictates the area is one for science and peace, a cross-border force to tackle poaching and a holistic natural resource harvesting programme that allows both nations to extract their fair share of resources without damaging the fragile ecosystems. The question remains: will the two countries be able to set aside their differences for the greater good?


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