Climate change could lead to China-India water conflict

Decline in water flow from Tibetan Plateau likely to exacerbate tensions in region over coming decades

Water draining from the Himalayas sustains around 40% of the world's population (Pic: UN Photos)

Water draining from the Himalaya glaciers sustains around 40% of the world’s population (Pic: UN Photos)

By Ed King

Melting Himalayan glaciers and erratic rainfall could exacerbate tensions between central Asian countries later this century, warn defence analysts in a new report.

They say droughts or extreme rains linked to climate change could place growing populations in China, India and Pakistan under increased stress.

Based on latest research by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the study has been published by the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change and Cambridge University.

“There are concerns that tensions will increase due to climate driven water variability in the Trans-boundary drainage systems linked to the vast Tibetan plateau in central Asia, where rivers supply more than one billion people with water,” it says.

Around 40% of the world’s population rely on water from the plateau for survival. It is the source of some of the world’s great rivers, including the Indus, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Yangtze.

Speaking to RTCC, former Royal Navy Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, who reviewed parts of the report, said water shortages would increase the risk of instability in the region.

“If the glaciers melt as a result of the increase in temperatures, after an initial burst of too much water there’s going to be a shortage, and it’s going to compound the problem,” he said.

“Clearly there is a politics in that part of the world which needs to be taken into account when looking at those risks.”

Emerging powers

China-India troop clashes over the past five decades has caused deep mistrust on both sides, while memories of a short but brutal war in 1962 are fresh in the minds of many older politicians.

On Sunday the Foreign Ministers of both countries met in New Delhi, seeking to explore ways to boost economic development and cement their “strategic and cooperative partnership”, according to China’s Wang Yi.

The two emerging superpowers, along with Nepal and Pakistan are already involved in a race to tap the Himalayas for power, with plans for almost 400 hydropower dams in the region.

Even before climate impacts are taken into account, these are likely to cut the flow of water into the major rivers say local experts.

Climate models suggest a ‘peak meltwater’ could be reached by the 2050s, with major rivers losing up to 20% of their flow.

The latest IPCC study into climate science predicts that if greenhouse gas emissions rise at the current rate, global temperatures could rise by 2.6-4.8C by 2100.

Sea levels could also rise 0.45–0.82m higher than current levels, affecting hundreds of millions of people living along coastal areas in East, Southeast and South Asia.

“Some low-lying developing countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Vietnam) and small island states are expected to face unavoidable land loss and annual flooding damage,” says the report.

Wider threats

Other security implications mentioned include conflict over fishing zones as marine life migrates into cooler waters, a fall in food yields and a rise in infectious diseases, potentially leading to mass migration.

Authored by Brigadier General (ret) Wendell Christopher King, Dean at the US Army Command and General Staff College, this is the latest briefing linking climate change to conflict and instability.

Security analysts are increasingly interested in the potential impacts of climate change, labelling it a ‘threat multiplier’, and citing conflicts in North Africa as evidence it is already further destabilising parts of the world.

Many within the security community believe governments are still moving far too slowly to address climate change, relying on a glacial UN set of negotiations to achieve a solution.

Pentagon: Climate change is a ‘national security’ issue

US Navy analysts already believe many coastal bases could be submerged if sea levels continue to rise, forcing them to either move elsewhere or raise sea defences.

Defense Department warnings are also having an effect on the political establishment, according to former US Marine Corps Brigadier General Stephen Cheney.

He believes the consensus in Washington is slowly shifting back towards the centre, allowing many Republicans the political space to back climate action.

“We’re saying hey – why can’t you guys – particularly on Capitol Hill – get off the dime and realise that CO2 is causing this and put an end to it. And I think we’re starting to get some traction now,” Cheney told RTCC.

“Senators and Congressmen from coal states are pandering to their electorate… they’re not going to say anything that’s going to harm their electorate. If it was after the election perhaps we’d have a different story.

“Long term the burning of coal is killing us, and the carbon standards are aimed almost directly at that industry.”

Report: Security experts warn of future climate costs

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