- By Saleem H. Ali<p>Saleem H. Ali, an associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont, is the author of Treasures of the Earth (2009), and a forthcoming report on regional pipelines for the Brookings Doha Center. Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Second World (2008).</p>
As the Obama administration rethinks its strategy for South Asian engagement, and Senator John Kerry assumes his duties as Secretary of State, a more "naturalized" approach to diplomacy should be considered. Despite their many differences, South Asia’s acrimonious nations are tied together by ecological factors which can provide fertile ground for regional cooperation, thereby building trust in other areas and reducing chances of greater conflict. The term "ecology" connotes environmental factors such as climate change, water and food availability as well as pollution concerns, but more significantly implies an appreciation for the relationship which humans must have with their environment in order to form productive societies. Given President Barack Obama’s bold statement at his second inauguration regarding the salience of climate change, and his commitment to peace-building in South Asia, the timing may be right for making these connections for ‘green diplomacy.’
The greatest loss of human life and economic damage suffered by South Asia since 2001 has not been due to terrorism and its ensuing conflicts, but rather due to natural disasters ranging from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Indus floods of 2010 to seasonal water shortages and drought. Although such calamities themselves might not be preventable, their human impact can certainly be mitigated. Such mitigation of environmental stresses is most efficacious through regional approaches to ecological cooperation to draw on efficiencies across the ecology of the area. Furthermore, the cooperation from such regionalism has the potential for building trust to resolve long-standing territorial disputes, especially between India and Pakistan.
Raising ecological factors from a technocratic matter to one of high politics will require leaders to reconsider the role of existing regional organizations, most notably the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as well as scientific organizations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). SAARC’s charter, for example, prevents India and Pakistan from linking technical regional cooperation to broader territorial disputes that are deemed to be bilateral matters. However, bilateral agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan are also confined by their highly specific terms of reference. The treaty has been tested by the numerous ongoing disputes between the two countries on water management projects, but it was never intended to be an ecological management agreement; rather, it divided up the rivers based on water flow metrics. Instead of renegotiating an agreement that is structurally focused on dividing natural resources rather than finding environmentally efficient solutions, it would be more productive to consider new cooperative mechanisms regarding conservation and improving the quality of the watershed.
International environmental treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands protection, which include transboundary cooperation within their mandates, can also provide a mechanism for linking ecological cooperation to broader resolution of disputes and enhanced regional security. If with technology nations can find more efficient means of water and energy utilization across South Asia, the pressures on distributive aspects of water and energy scarcity can also be reduced, thus lessening the chance for conflicts over these resources.
The most consequential ecological features in South Asia are the Himalayas and the rivers that are largely derived from their geography. Some of the worst territorial disputes in the region also span these mountains. Hence, scientific and socio-cultural research on mountain ecosystems is likely to play a pivotal role in galvanizing regional cooperation and reaping peace dividends. International development donors need to configure existing programs to incentivize projects that build trust and have the potential for subsequent peace-building.
For example, cooperation on glacial scientific research or estuarine ecology could be constructively linked to resolution prospects for the Siachen and