The South Asia Channel

Why South Asia Is So Vulnerable to Climate Change

Flooding, food shortages, and stagnating economic growth are just some of the devastating impacts South Asia may experience due to advancing climate change, according to the United Nations. At the end of March, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long-awaited Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, a report that compiles ...


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Flooding, food shortages, and stagnating economic growth are just some of the devastating impacts South Asia may experience due to advancing climate change, according to the United Nations. At the end of March, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long-awaited Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, a report that compiles the current scientific literature on climate change. It is the second in a three-part series, which variously describes the scientific consensus behind the man-made nature of climate change, the threat it poses, and how mankind should be responding.

Though written in an academic tone, the report’s conclusions are stark and sobering. Even under the most modest assumptions about emissions growth, the future effects of climate change will touch every corner of the globe, with potentially profound consequences for international peace and prosperity.

These effects will be felt worldwide, but they will be especially keen in South Asia – defined as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The report’s assessment of observed impacts — the climate change effects we are already seeing — ranks Asia as the biggest victim of natural disasters last year, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the global economic loss ascribed to natural disasters.

South Asia’s vulnerability to these and future disasters is profound, principally for reasons of population and poverty. The majority of South Asian countries are low- or lower-middle income countries that already struggle to support the daily needs of their growing populations. Because poorer households dedicate more of their budgets to food, they are the most sensitive to weather-related shocks that can make daily staples unaffordable.

A rising sea level and reduced production in agriculture pose the biggest threats. Kolkata, Mumbai, and Dhaka, whose greater urban areas are home to over 46 million people and rising, face the greatest risk of flood-related damage over the next century. Low-lying Bangladesh is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones in the Indian Ocean, which scientific literature suggests will grow more intense in coming decades. In 1991, a 20-foot storm surge that followed a cyclone killed nearly 140,000 people in Bangladesh and left up to 10 million homeless.

Rising sea levels are also likely to threaten rice cultivation; the United Nations Environment Programme estimates a one-meter rise in sea level would inundate 17,000 square kilometers of Bangladesh’s land, over ten percent of its total land mass. This is a serious threat to a country like Bangladesh, where the agriculture sector makes up 20 percent of GDP.

The destruction that flooding could wreak in South Asia’s low-lying and urban areas is cruelly complemented by the effects that drought and changes in seasonal rainfall will have on agriculture. Extreme heat is already disrupting the growing season for regions in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Wheat production in the Indian portion of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, a fertile area that also encompasses parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh, may decrease by up to 50 percent by 2100, harming the hundreds of millions of people who rely on it for sustenance.

As shifting monsoons affect the amount of water available for irrigation, a reduction in the standard of living is all but guaranteed for a region that already is one of the world’s most water-stressed. By mid-century, the IPCC projects that climate change will make South Asia home to the "largest numbers of food-insecure people."

What can be done?

To insulate themselves from these potential threats, South Asian nations will have to invest heavily in both mitigation and adaptation. Two structural factors hold back these efforts: the lack of consensus around international funding and the lack of regional cooperation.

The controversy surrounding the release of the IPCC report demonstrates some of the challenges. According to the New York Times, "several rich countries, including the United States" asked that an estimate of the amount of money necessary for adaptation measures ($100 billion a year) be removed from the report’s summary for policymakers.

Developed countries apparently felt that inclusion of the figure might reinforce arguments that they would need to increase official development assistance to poorer nations – a political non-starter for many in advanced economies. For their part, developing countries insist they need concrete promises from industrialized nations about the level of aid forthcoming, as well as a timeframe for disbursement.

The United States highlights its efforts at cooperating with developing nations as a cornerstone of its strategy for addressing climate change. Unfortunately, these relationships have run into problems on the ground. The United States and India have established joint cooperation on clean energy development, for example, but are also entangled in disputes at the WTO over domestic subsidies for solar manufacturers.

And while India is aggressively expanding its installed solar capacity — including what will be the largest solar plant in the world in Rajasthan — Pakistan and Bangladesh possess almost no non-hydroelectric renewable energy. As renewable energy expands in the United States and the European Union, the opportunity for sharing best practices is too valuable not to pursue.

One solution would be to expand the U.S.-India Energy Dialogue to include all nations in the region and invite more involvement and investment from American private enterprise. This collaboration could satisfy both the developing world’s need for support, and the developed world’s desire to promote their own renewable industries, especially farther up the production value chain.

For example, the advancements in battery technology being made by Tesla may greatly improve the storage of electricity generated from renewable sources. Developing countries could use these new techniques to avoid building expensive power grid systems where smaller networks of battery-equipped solar facilities would be more appropriate, such as rural areas.

Deepening security risks

The regional security framework is another impediment to the adoption of sensible mitigation and adaptation strategy. Not only does the bilateral Indian-Pakistani relationship suffer from the tangled legacy of partition and subsequent wars, Indian-Bangladeshi relations are also complicated, especially over the question of migration.

The United States intelligence community, and in particular, the Department of Defense, are worried that climate change may incite armed conflict in the future. The IPCC is more reserved in drawing a direct link between climate effects and conflict; despite the commonplace rhetoric of "water wars, " India and Pakistan are no more likely to go to war over resources than any other issue that divides them. But tensions still hold back action against climate change, and future scarcities will no doubt be politically and economically challenging to all regional governments.

The IPCC report calls for "enhanced regional cooperation," without suggesting in detail what may be done under the present circumstances. But given the immediate concerns that South Asian countries are facing, it will be some time before they can realistically pursue these ambitious efforts. Bangladesh is embroiled in post-election turmoil; Pakistan is facing a crisis at the hands of internal militancy; India, after its impending election, will try to restore robust economic growth.

Greater economic integration could be another solution to South Asia’s coming resource shortages. World Bank research on climate change in the Philippines, for example, demonstrates that rural villagers recover from weather-related resource shocks more easily the closer they live to markets and critical transportation infrastructure. The more connections to the outside world, the easier it is to obtain less expensive substitute goods from unaffected regions.

Unfortunately, present circumstances offer little cause for optimism. Pakistan has delayed its recognition of India’s most-favored nation status, ostensibly until after Indian elections. And regional energy markets remain highly segmented, despite efforts to integrate them. Only in 2013 was a high-voltage direct current link established between India and Bangladesh. Armed conflict is also a clear impediment to a more economically integrated South Asia: Wars against Taliban elements on both sides of the Durand Line and the contentious Kashmir issue limit trade through Central and South Asia.

The problems the IPCC has identified will become obvious in South Asian economies sooner rather than later. The lack of a cooperative regional framework, as well as the ongoing disputes between the developed and developing worlds are two of the largest factors inhibiting an effective response. Unfortunately, the cost of action will only rise if delayed. It may be a cliché to say that "political will" is the solution to this perplexing problem of governance, but in this case it is very true.


Neil Bhatiya is a Policy Associate at The Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.

Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at The Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank. Follow him on Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.

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