The Last Straw
If you think these failed states look bad now, wait until the climate changes.
BY STEPHAN FARIS
Hopelessly overcrowded, crippled by poverty, teeming with Islamist militancy, careless with its nukes—it sometimes seems as if Pakistan can’t get any more terrifying. But forget about the Taliban: The country's troubles today pale compared with what it might face 25 years from now. When it comes to the stability of one of the world's most volatile regions, it's the fate of the Himalayan glaciers that should be keeping us awake at night.
In the mountainous area of Kashmir along and around Pakistan's contested border with India lies what might become the epicenter of the problem. Since the separation of the two countries 62 years ago, the argument over whether Kashmir belongs to Muslim Pakistan or secular India has never ceased. Since 1998, when both countries tested nuclear weapons, the conflict has taken on the added risk of escalating into cataclysm. Another increasingly important factor will soon heighten the tension: Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir. "This water issue between India and Pakistan is the key," Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, a parliamentarian from Kashmir, told me. "Much more than any other political or religious concern."
Until now, the two sides had been able to relegate the water issue to the back burner. In 1960, India and Pakistan agreed to divide the six tributaries that form the Indus River. India claimed the three eastern branches, which flow through Punjab. The water in the other three, which pass through Jammu and Kashmir, became Pakistan's. The countries set a cap on how much land Kashmir could irrigate and agreed to strict regulations on how and where water could be stored. The resulting Indus Waters Treaty has survived three wars and nearly 50 years. It's often cited as an example of how resource scarcity can lead to cooperation rather than conflict.
But the treaty's success depends on the maintenance of a status quo that will be disrupted as the world warms. Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.
Research by the global NGO ActionAid has found that the effects are already starting to be felt within Kashmir. In the valley, snow rarely falls and almost never sticks. The summertime levels of streams, rivers, springs, and ponds have dropped. In February 2007, melting snow combined with unseasonably heavy rainfall to undermine the mountain slopes; landslides buried the national highway—the region's only land connection with the rest of India—for 12 days.
Normally, countries control such cyclical water flows with dams, as the United States does with runoff from the Rocky Mountains. For Pakistan, however, that solution is not an option. The best damming sites are in Kashmir, where the Islamabad government has vigorously opposed Indian efforts to tinker with the rivers. The worry is that in times of conflict, India's leaders could cut back on water supplies or unleash a torrent into the country's fields. "In a warlike situation, India could use the project like a bomb," one Kashmiri journalist told me.
Water is already undermining Pakistan's stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls. In 2008, flour became so scarce it turned into an election issue; the government deployed thousands of troops to guard its wheat stores. As the glaciers melt and the rivers dry, this issue will only become more critical. Pakistan—unstable, facing dramatic drops in water supplies, caged in by India's vastly superior conventional forces—will be forced to make one of three choices. It can let its people starve. It can cooperate with India in building dams and reservoirs, handing over control of its waters to the country it regards as the enemy. Or it can ramp up support for the insurgency, gambling that violence can bleed India's resolve without degenerating into full-fledged war. "The idea of ceding territory to India is anathema," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. "Suffering, particularly for the elite, is unacceptable. So what's the other option? Escalate."
"It's very bad news," he adds, referring to the melting glaciers. "It's extremely grim."
The Kashmiri water conflict is just one of many climate-driven geopolitical crises on the horizon. These range from possible economic and treaty conflicts that will likely be resolved peacefully—the waters of the Rio Grande and Colorado River have long been a point of contention between the United States and Mexico, for instance—to possible outright wars. In 2007, the London-based NGO International Alert compiled a list of countries with a high risk of armed conflict due to climate change. They cited no fewer than 46 countries, or one in every four, including some of the world's most gravely unstable countries, such as Somalia, Nigeria, Iran, Colombia, Bolivia, Israel, Indonesia, Bosnia, Algeria, and Peru. Already, climate change might be behind the deep drought that contributed to the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Rising global temperatures are putting the whole world under stress, and the first countries to succumb will be those, such as Sudan, that are least able to adapt. Compare the Netherlands and Bangladesh: Both are vulnerable to rises in sea levels, with large parts of their territory near or under the level of the waves. But the wealthy Dutch are building state-of-the-art flood-control systems and experimenting with floating houses. All the impoverished Bangladeshis can do is prepare to head for higher ground. "It's best not to get too bogged down in the physics of climate," says Nils Gilman, an analyst at Monitor Group and the author of a 2006 report on climate change and national security. "Rather, you should look at the social, physical, and political geography of regions that are impacted."
Indeed, with a population half that of the United States crammed into an area a little smaller than Louisiana, Bangladesh might be among the most imperiled countries on Earth. In a normal decade, the country experiences one major flood. In the last 11 years, its rivers have leapt their banks three times, most recently in 2007. That winter, Cyclone Sidr, a Category 5 storm, tore into the country's coast, flattening tin shacks, ripping through paddies, and plunging the capital into darkness. As many as 10,000 people may have died.
Bangladesh's troubles are likely to ripple across the region, where immigration flows have been historically accompanied by rising tensions. In India's northeastern state of Assam, for instance, rapidly changing demographics have led to riots, massacres, and the rise of an insurgency. As global warming tightens its squeeze on Bangladesh, these pressures will mount. And in a worst-case scenario, in which the country is struck by sudden, cataclysmic flooding, the international community will have to cope with a humanitarian emergency in which tens of millions of waterlogged refugees suddenly flee toward India, Burma, China, and Pakistan.
Indeed, the U.S. military has come to recognize that weakened states—the Bangladeshes and Pakistans of the world—are often breeding grounds for extremism, terrorism, and potentially destabilizing conflict. And as it has done so, it has increasingly deployed in response to natural disasters. Such missions often require a warlike scale of forces, if not warlike duration. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, the United States sent 15,000 military personnel, 25 ships, and 94 aircraft. "The military brings a tremendous capacity of command-and-control and communications," says retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former head of U.S. Central Command. "You have tremendous logistics capability, transportation, engineering, the ability to purify water."
As the world warms, more years could start to look like 2007, when the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced it had responded to a record number of droughts, floods, and storms. Of the 13 natural disasters it responded to, only one—an earthquake in Peru—was not related to the climate.
Worryingly, some analysts have suggested the United States might not fully grasp what it needs to respond to this challenge. The U.S. military has been required by law since 2008 to incorporate climate change into its planning, but though Pentagon strategic documents describe a climate-stressed future, there's little sign the Department of Defense is pivoting to meet it. "Most of the things that the military is requesting are still for a conventional war with a peer competitor," says Sharon Burke, an energy and climate change specialist at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "They say they're going to have more humanitarian missions, but there's no discussion at all of ‘What do you need?'" The rate at which the war in Iraq has chewed through vehicles and equipment, for instance, has astonished military planners. "Is this a forewarning of what it's like to operate in harsher conditions?" Burke asks.
To be sure, some of the more severe consequences of climate change are expected to unfold over a relatively extended time frame. But so does military development, procurement, and planning. As global warming churns the world's weather, it's becoming increasingly clear that it's time to start thinking about the long term. In doing so, the West may need to adopt an even broader definition of what it takes to protect itself from danger. Dealing with the repercussions of its emissions might mean buttressing governments, deploying into disaster zones, or tamping down insurgencies. But the bulk of the West's effort might be better spent at home. If the rivers of Kashmir have the potential to plunge South Asia into chaos, the most effective response might be to do our best to ensure the glaciers never melt at all.
Stephan Faris is the author of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, from which reporting for this article is drawn.
Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images