Global Warming

Why South Asia can't afford to be glacial in its response to climate change

Are we living in the hope that our vulnerability will act like some sort of protective charm?

The climate impact map of South Asia is getting darker and more complicated by the day. Cyclone Roanu hit Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar last week, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and adding to the numbers who are already without shelter and livelihood as a result of climate-induced river bank erosion and saline intrusion.

The record high temperatures combined with the drought that is sweeping across India is driving many thousands from their villages in search of water and shelter. The pictures of devastating floods in Pakistan in 2013, which affected 18 million people and forced many from their homes, is still fresh in my mind.

It is now visibly clear in South Asia that we are living with climate change – erratic weather patterns, extreme weather events, more frequent floods and droughts are just some of the hallmarks. These changes – and their impact on human security and state stability – cause me concern. Perhaps this is just the beginning of the things to come. As a soldier, what worries me most is whether we ready for the battle.

Making matters worse

In South Asia, we know, almost to a soul, that climate change will result in more frequent and more intense natural disasters, spurring water and food shortages, mass displacement and migration, and competition over land and natural resources. We repeat over and over the horrors that await, in the hope our vulnerability acts like some sort of protective charm.

And we know that it is water in particular that is the Achilles heel of the region – either too much all at once or too little for too long, the havoc climate change is wreaking on our glaciers and our monsoons already too much. On a related note, food insecurity will also drive violent conflict between communities within a country as the agriculture sector struggles to provide food to the two billion people in the region. In short, climate change-driven extreme weather is likely to come together with existing conditions on the ground, such as societal tensions, and economic instability, to threaten regional and international security.

The key message from the World Humanitarian Summit last week was that increasingly frequent and complex crises are stretching our capacity to cope. We need to find new ways of working. That’s why in a new report, colleagues Air Marshal AK Singh (Retd) of India and Lt General Tariq Waseem Ghazi of Pakistan have joined me to call for the military services throughout the region – not traditionally known to be the best of friends – to cooperate in order to stem the threat from these burgeoning climate impacts.

Raising the bar

While South Asia has a long history of regional instability, the challenge of addressing climate change actually represents an opportunity to catalyse long-term peace in the region through continuous dialogue and cooperation. If South Asia succeeds in joining forces against this common and urgent challenge, it would be a model for other parts of the world.

Because the military is so often among the first responders to crisis, such cooperation would reduce the potential for widespread human suffering when crisis hits. Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan currently have no working arrangement in place that promotes coordination between the three countries when a disaster such a flood or earthquake hits the region, despite the countries signing on to the Sendai Disaster Risk framework forged last year.

It is not that there is no cooperation. It may surprise some, but Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan already have effective trans-boundary water management agreements in place which seek to resolve disputes. In the face of a warming world, it is clear that there is a need for more such agreements and for the scope of existing ones to be expanded.

We’re living in a digital age and yet much of the way we work has more in common with the days of the carrier pigeon than the 21st century. Currently, information on water flows and temperature shifts is considered “sensitive data” and so not shared, even though it can help shape a collective early warning response to threats. If we use the big data revolution to share information and shape policies, we can help prevent climate risks leading to conflict, humanitarian crises and the spread of extremism by groups that exploit opportunities in times of crises and instability.

That has got to be better than sitting in the dark and repeating incantations.

Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (Retd) of Bangladesh is the chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change and President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.

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