The South Asia Channel

Put Climate Change on the Agenda for India-Pakistan Relations

Put Climate Change on the Agenda for India-Pakistan Relations

In late April, earlier than expected monsoon-type rain caused the deaths of at least 37 people in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. A similar bout of unseasonably heavy rains ruined a large part of the wheat crop in India’s Punjab, Harayana, and Uttar Pradesh states. These events, while superficially isolated instances of extreme weather, may be harbingers of growing climatic uncertainty throughout South Asia.

Unlike the other transnational challenges including terrorism and nuclear proliferation that have plagued the region for decades, the increasing threat from climate change cannot be deterred through alliances with larger states or more military spending. More importantly, whatever steps the nations in the region take on their own to address this growing challenge are likely to be insufficient: if they want to make progress against the impact of climate change, they must learn to work together.

The increasing unpredictability of weather patterns augurs poorly for a region where agriculture still makes up a significant portion of the economy. Nearly half of India’s total labor force is employed in agriculture and allied sectors; in Pakistan it is over 40 percent, according to the World Bank. For those who do not make their living on the farm, city life will grow more precarious as well. Climate change induced sea-level rise poses significant risks to both Karachi and Mumbai. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts that severe weather events will be an accelerating trend for much of the next century.

South Asia’s response to the challenges posed by climate change suffers from lack of coordination. Due in large part to historical tensions and military conflict between India and Pakistan preventing normal diplomatic or trade relations, South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world, as argued in a report released by the Century Foundation’s International Working Group on Pakistan. There are some institutions, such as the Indus Water Treaty regime and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), currently in existence to deal with questions of natural resource management in a limited context, but South Asia itself has no overarching permanent regional strategy or forum to address policy responses in this area. There is no greater over-the-horizon threat for the region than climate change and any agenda for regional cooperation should place it high on the priority list.

Preventative action coordinated between India and Pakistan is needed. Otherwise, there is a risk that projects meant to ameliorate climate change will, if they proceed on separate tracks, only exacerbate tensions between the two nations. India’s search for cleaner sources of energy to meet growing energy needs may lead it to invest more heavily in hydropower, potentially impacting Pakistan’s downstream access, a potential dispute presaged by Pakistan’s desire for international arbitration to settle a current dispute over Indian construction plans. The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), which since the 1960s has governed the sharing of river-borne water resources, has been a remarkably durable regime. The question is whether there is sufficient political will and institutional support in the short to medium-term to sustain it through larger crises ahead. In the wake of flooding in Pakistan in September 2014, Mirza Asif Baig, Pakistan’s Commissioner for Indus Waters, had to defend his country’s cooperation with India under the terms of the IWT, flatly denying claims that India deliberately released more water than it was supposed to.

The Paris climate talks, which begin in November, represent the perfect opportunity to put forward an agenda for regular consultation on these issues. India and Pakistan have promised to submit plans to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on how they plan to reduce carbon emissions. The treaty process in Paris will determine whether the totality of those submissions is sufficient to prevent the worst effects of climate change. As negotiators from the Indian and Pakistani sides make their respective cases to the international community about the strength of their commitment, they should also be making the case to each other on the need for concerted action to fight climate change.

Both Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have an interest in prioritizing poverty reduction; both have an interest in doing so in a sustainable way. The responses of both countries are likely to be sufficiently similar that leadership in New Delhi and Islamabad should conceive of a process for sharing best practices. They should begin by facilitating business-to-business interactions by companies that expanding the use of renewable electrical generation. India has set aggressive targets for use of solar energy. Pakistan has recently begun efforts to increase its own ambitions in this sector, revising its utility laws to allow individuals to sell surplus power they generate back to the grid and lowering the import duty on solar panels.

The future of South Asia is an urban one, a trend that will be reflected throughout Asia. Building climate resilient cities will be a necessary part of managing urban areas. Modi pledged that his government will improve mass transit, wastewater and solid waste management facilities in India’s cities. Sharing India’s accumulated knowledge with Pakistan’s cities would go a long way towards building a cooperative agenda throughout the region. These initial steps could, over time, serve as confidence building measures for climate change cooperation an important cornerstone of the bilateral relationship, to the benefit of the region as a whole.

The divisions that have plagued the region for the better part of sixty years have often stood in the way of concerted action to improve human development. It would be extremely detrimental to Indians and Pakistanis if addressing the critical issue of climate change continued to be sacrificed due to the lack of progress on normalization of relations and a seemingly intractable security dilemma. The lost opportunity will only grow worse if both sides cannot overcome their differences in time to develop collaborative policy solutions.