The Vicious Cycle Of Conflict And Climate Change In The Himalaya

The Himalaya has played host to conflict for centuries, with modern conflicts centred largely around international borders and ethnic disputes stretching across borders from Afghanistan to Myanmar, after the region was decolonized following the Second World War. A relatively new element shifting state tactics within the ongoing conflict is the looming threat of climate change. As the effects of climate change are beginning to be felt within the region, an increasing amount of state control over natural resources, and competitive development for the sake of the expansion of territorial control has been witnessed. La Trobe Asia released research this month indicating the increased militarization of the region, fast-paced development, and competition for natural resources is exacerbating local climate change while contributing to cultural destruction in the mountains.

Dr Alexander Davis, a New Generation Network Fellow in Politics at La Trobe University, and one of the authors of the research brief, recognized three interrelated factors that are currently threatening the Himalaya in a podcast related to the brief.

“There’s the threat of global warming. The Himalaya is warming at something near twice the global average I think a scientific report found recently, and this means that the ice caps are threatened. This is further exacerbated due to some of the political issues. So, the fact that the Himalayan ice cap is militarized by India, China and Pakistan make it very difficult for them to work together to protect the ice cap. Aside from this political and environmental threat, there’s also an ongoing cultural transformation that’s accelerated in the last twenty years. Because of these contested borders, sending more and more troops, and infrastructure and people- that’s transforming local cultures.”

China, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bhutan have each made claims to contested lands since decolonization occurred (minority ethnic and sub-national groups, such as the Kashmiri, Tibetan and Bodo movements’ claims to contested lands must also not be forgotten), and out of these countries, Nepal and China are the only two countries that have managed to resolve a single border dispute since the 1950s. It is estimated by La Trobe Asia that as many as a million troops from each of the invested countries can be stationed along disputed borders at any one time. The ongoing development of roads, infrastructure, airports, urban areas and mines to facilitate the movement and accommodation of these troops leaves a destabilizing footprint on the hydrological, ecological and cultural systems around them.

The stationing of troops is not the sole destabilising factor. According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the majority of countries spread along the Himalayan region are already energy and water-starved; a scenario that has led to the construction of approximately 550 competing hydropower dam projects across the region, some on seismically sensitive areas. The frenzy to secure energy and water resources for each individual state has meant a lack of cooperative exploration into solutions that encompass the region’s ecological systems as a whole has led to a potentially fruitless endeavour for all, and has set precedence for a future resource war where states upstream, such as China, have the potential to limit supply to those downstream. State solutions have also failed to take into account local ethnic groups’, and indigenous peoples’ perspectives.

Dubbed the world’s “Third Pole”, The Himalaya store the third largest amount of ice after Antarctica and the Artic, and play a key role in stabilising global climatic cycles. The region stores freshwater for hotter, drier periods, while its spring melt recharges the groundwater of most of Asia’s largest rivers. A fifth of the world’s population relies upon the continued operation of these rivers for drinking water and agriculture. Furthermore, the mountains are home to a population of 60 million ethnically diverse people, who speak a variety of 80 different languages and host a long list of endangered species. Given the significant role the mountains play, research presented by La Trobe Asia is concerning for the future climate and security of the Himalaya.

Instead of competing with each other for the continued acquisition of territory for use in a future that each of the states is potentially increasingly threatening, states should concede to work together to create joint, cross-border development initiatives that both nurture ecological systems, and respect local cultural customs. Simon Marsden, a professor at Flinders University in South Australia, has advocated for the formation of a Himalayan Council, akin to that of the Arctic Council, that focuses on international cooperation, particularly amongst those states positioned along the Himalaya, that provides space for non-governmental bodies, local concern groups, scientists and indigenous groups. The La Trobe Asia brief also puts forward policy solutions centred around demilitarization, the cease of construction of large hydropower dams along unstable fault lines, international cooperation, greater funding for ICIMOD, as well as the prioritization of the Himalaya by the Green Climate Fund and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Action must be taken to decelerate climate change in the Himalaya, prevent further environmental and cultural depredation, and guard against a further potential conflict that could arise from the added pressure of climate change on already existing conflict.

Katherine Everest