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How Can Climate Change Trigger Conflict in South Asia?

Food insecurity, migration, water stress and economic recession are some of the impacts associated with climate change. Termed as a “threat multiplier,” climate change is increasingly being recognized as a trigger of violent conflict around the world. It has been identified as a factor in raising the threshold for open conflict in Syria. The perils of climate change can’t be more emphasized than in the conflict-straddled region of South Asia, home to two nuclear powers, and neighboring China, a key player in the power dynamics of the region.

Boasting a trans-national drainage system, the Tibetan Plateau is the main source of water for the region. It is the point of origin for the region’s major rivers – Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, Mekong and Brahmaputra, catering to 40 percent of the world’s population. In fact shared waters, and the contests they conjure lie at the heart of the region’s most disparaging conflicts.

The conflict symbolizing this phenomenon in the most stark manner is the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. Premised on the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people, it also overlaps with Pakistan’s pursuit of water security. With all of Pakistan’s major rivers flowing from the Indian administered part of Kashmir, the issue has always been of intrinsic importance for Pakistan, amply emphasized by its first Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan, who sanctified Kashmir as a lifeline and key element ofPakistan’s security construct. Rivers originating from Kashmir are Pakistan’s main source of irrigation, driving its primarily agriculture based economy. Over time the issue has acquired greater national security significance. Cited as a “flashpoint” by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Kashmir has been at the core of three conflicts (in 1948, 1965, and 1999) between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Of late, the controversy surrounding the construction of dams by India over rivers flowing into Pakistan from Kashmir, such as the Baglihar Dam and the Kishanganga Dam, has added to tensions. Moreover the erratic rainfall, along with flash floods induced by melting glaciers, has wreaked havoc in Pakistan – an almost annual occurrence since 2010. Coinciding with India’s construction of dams in Kashmir, which once completed will allow it greater leverage over the flow of water into Pakistan, popular perception in Pakistan already identifies India as the miscreant behind these catastrophes.

The melting of the glaciers in the region also has an added significance for Indo-Pak relations. The Siachin Glacier – another flash point between the two countries — goes on to feed into the Indus River and is melting at the fastest rate among the glaciers in the region. Categorized as one of the most depleted river basins in the world, the downstream areas of the Indus River are facing considerable strain, with dried out areas being abandoned by local farmers and fishermen.

According to Michael Kugelman from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, “In areas where you used to have raging rivers, you have, essentially, streams or even puddles and not much else.” This will have a long term imprint on the economic as well as security equation of the region. Furthermore, the type of extreme weather conditions witnessed by Pakistan in recent years have also affected agricultural yield with predictions of a global slump in agricultural production driving a 40-50 percent increase in food prices by 2050.

Resource scarcity along with growing food and water insecurity in Pakistan, a country grappling with extremist instability, coupled with the popular belief of a mischief-mongering neighbor could further exacerbate tensions between the two countries. Although the Indus Water Treaty (1960) – in which the World Bank arbitrated a water sharing agreement between both countries — has stood the test of time, altering patterns of climate change and consumption demand could undermine this otherwise stabilizing mechanism.

Equally daunting are the dynamics of the China-India matrix, also marred by contested boundaries and shared water resources. The main sticking point on this front is the Brahmaputra River flowing from China into India and onward to Bangladesh. As a precaution against the coming water stress, China has undertaken the embankment and diversion of the river along with plans to build various hydro-power dams over it. This has unnerved the lower riparian recipients especially as the river is the primary source of water for India’s Northeast and Bangladesh, affecting the entire gamut of its livelihood and sustenance.

India also fears encroachment on the McMahon line by China (the disputed border between both countries) as the latter continues to push boundaries and militarize the vicinity through vast road and communication networks. China is also keen to acquire the disputed Doklam plateau in Bhutan which lies immediately east of Indian forces in Sikkim – another disputed region between India and China. China also plans to construct more military infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau with monitoring capabilities focused on India. The setting up of heavily fortified permanent military infrastructure was previously unthinkable in the area due to (then) harsh weather conditions but less extreme conditions due to rising temperatures and melting glaciers, have allowed China to build bunkers in the Aksai Chin region, while its frequent military forays into Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir have frustrated India. China’s plans of widening the strategic Karakoram highway into Pakistan have also unsettled India.

Further, climatic occurrences such as artificial lakes created due to landslides in the upper part of the river network with consequences – including flooding – for India downstream or China’s inability to warn India in accordance to a 2000 agreement such as during the Tsangpo river crisis in 2004, can further become a cause of friction, especially if India suffers a major disaster accentuated by lack of Chinese warning or worse, by Chinese acts to protect its national interests.

Escalating migration from Bangladesh into India, as the effects of climate change set in, has been another cause of concern. With flooding – the central cause of migration — intensifying, new dynamics have also come into play. Often presented as the “poster child” for the adverse effects of global warming, Bangladesh’s rising sea-levels will submerge much of its low-lying coast line, displacing around 18 million people. The damming of rivers upstream by both India and China could also render Bangladesh’s river systems dry for 6-7 months annually. Sinking or settling land due to overuse of groundwater, aggravated by flood induced salinity, is reducing land productivity especially in the farming of rice – Bangladesh’s main staple. Projected estimates suggest that 25 percent of Bangladeshi land as it stood in 1989 could either disappear or become uninhabitable by 2100.


With survival at stake, most Bangladeshis will have to make their way into other territories – Assam in northeast India being a traditional destination. The influx into the region has led to a greater scramble for its limited resources sparking frequent violence. This has led to recurrent communal tensions, which could be exploited by trans-national elements such as ISIS or al Qaeda with the latter citing widespread violence against Muslim Bengali migrants in 2014 as one of the causes (along with Kashmir) for establishing its local off-shoot, AQIS (al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent). All these matters could come to a head, providing for a lethal ignition in the region.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the consequences of climate change are yet to be fully appreciated by the stakeholders in South Asia, more so by India which sits at the crossroads of the tenuous regional fault lines. Living on borrowed time, so to speak, the regional actors need to act fast before the region’s inherent conflicts entwined with the ravages of climate change overtake them. The upcoming Paris conference on climate change could provide just the opportunity. Allowing for a constructive dialogue it could pave the way for a more integrated regional response, enhancing institutional engagement but more importantly underscoring the political will and vision to deliver.