In a report published last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) listed India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan among the eleven countries considered to be "highly vulnerable" to climate change. This is due to their limited ability to respond to environmental and societal crises caused by climate change.
Geographically, the Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindukush (HKH) mountain ranges span eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. These highlands, which are spread across Ladakh, Aksai Chin, Jammu, Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, contain more ice in their 54,252 glaciers than anywhere outside the Arctic or Antarctica, and are therefore extremely susceptible to global warming.
Global temperatures are expected to rise by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius the end of this century. With ice melting more rapidly, billions of people could be displaced from the HKH region. This would have a drastic transnational impact on sectors including agriculture, tourism, and hydroelectric power.
Pakistan is a climate change hotspot with nearly 7,200 glaciers. Its agricultural economy could suffer estimated yearly losses of $3.8 billion as a result of climate change. This year, around 60% of the country was flooded due to a three-month monsoon; parts of its Sindh province remain submerged after receiving 400 to 800% more rainfall than usual.
Meanwhile, India experienced flooding in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telegana, and Madhya Pradesh, as well as droughts in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. As a result, it lost a quarter of its wheat and a third of its rice crop. Bangladesh has also been plagued by both drought and floods.
Unfortunately, as yearly temperature spikes produce extreme weather events, geopolitical tensions are also likely to increase in the region by 2040. Melting glaciers and overflowing rivers cross political boundaries and could affect cities as distant as Kabul, Lahore, New Delhi, and Dhaka.
A Myriad of Risks
First, disputes over water will emerge as a key flashpoint in India and throughout South Asia. As the climate becomes more unpredictable, upper riparian states such as China and India will try to control their water sources. In 1960, the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan reduced the risk of conflict over water, but rapid climate change could destabilize the situation.
In addition, any clash in the HKH region could further degrade the environment and damage mega-glaciers. The disputed status of parts of the Himalayan region might also hinder effective policy-making. This is because when rivers flood, they are often diverted into neighboring regions or dams are built to store that water without prior mutual agreement.
Second, weather calamities might cause mass migration, including mass movement across borders, which would create diplomatic and foreign policy hurdles. According to the World Bank, there could be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Half of these displaced people will come from Africa while the rest will come from East and South Asia.
Even an internal exodus within the region could cause tensions. In Pakistan, rural migration from flood-affected areas to Karachi, the capital of Sindh, has not been welcomed by earlier waves of migrants in Karachi or the millions of Afghan refugees already living there.
Third, a climate emergency will create socio-political instability.
Managing large populations in an emergency is challenging, since factors like food insecurity and shortages of clean water and medicine could lead low-income segments of society to take to the streets. Such political activism could impact relief efforts and divert public attention away from the human suffering caused by climate change. This could produce a dangerous cocktail of circumstances that could topple governments.
In flood-affected areas in Pakistan, locals are grappling with long-term instability and income inequality. With flooded roads and train routes, a shortage of supplies, and destruction of crops, machinery, houses, roads, and land, it could take years to bring peace and stability to these areas.
Lack of communication between key countries in the region could also hinder timely climate change efforts. South Asia finds itself at a critical turning point. Countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh need to create joint mechanisms to proactively address climate change before extreme weather events become more severe and more frequent.
Given this situation, the only viable option is to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has suffered from dysfunction over the last decade. Since 1985, SAARC has developed an extensive network of regional centers as well as a permanent secretariat in Kathmandu, Nepal, and can serve as an effective forum for dialogue and cooperation.
Real-time data on river flows could be shared from countries at different points along rivers (whether upstream or downstream), while sophisticated weather stations could share storm warnings and reports on snowfall and ice patterns. Neighboring countries could also pitch in to help with food shortages.
Regional cooperation is essential for effective mutual assistance, protecting critical food supply chains, and preventing armed conflict. SAARC previously attempted to promote cooperation in these areas during the pandemic, but now needs to fully regain the people’s trust.