The past few weeks have marked some interesting developments in terms of ties between India and Pakistan. The higher-ups of both countries have hinted at a potential thaw after two years of escalated conflict. In a national security seminar held in Islamabad, the Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa stated that ‘it is time to bury the past and move forward’ – a change in posture towards India. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to this shift by sending a letter mentioning desire for cordial relations to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Pakistan’s National Day.
Amid these gestures, both countries have resumed talks over water sharing under the Permanent Indus Commission whose previous meeting was held in 2019. The commission was established to manage the goals of the Indus Water Treaty signed by both neighbors in 1960. While there has been much bickering in the recent years over the contents of the treaty, it has mostly survived the test of time – and of several wars.
A key factor in the water dispute, climate change has been deemed as a threat multiplier by many experts. Natural disasters and water scarcity are some of its signs that have been quite visible in India and Pakistan over the past few years. The 2020 urban flood in Karachi and the February 2021 flash flood in Uttarakhand are its most recent examples. Climate change induced water scarcity also aggravates pre-existing tensions over distribution of water.
The World Bank estimates that natural disasters in South Asia will cause an average annual loss of $160 billion in the region by 2030. Climate change could push an additional 62 million people below the extreme poverty line in the next ten years. Such a challenge cannot be overcome through a unilateral approach and requires a consensus-based solution. Thus, the all-encompassing nature of climate change makes it inevitable for South Asia’s two largest countries, India and Pakistan, to collaborate on the issue. The recent thaw might be the right time to explore possibilities of cooperation over climate change.
Firstly, the subcontinent is home to some of the largest glaciers outside the poles. Designating these shared glaciers as protected zones might prove to be a good start. A joint research group with access to both sides of the border can be formulated to study the glaciers and provide recommendations for their protection. Since their melting has direct effects on the Indus River, its prevention can help de-escalate tensions induced by water scarcity.
Secondly, negotiation over water extraction mechanisms from cross border aquifers can go a long way in preserving these water resources. Despite divergent perspectives on water distribution under the Indus Water Treaty, aquifers along the border are equally accessible to both countries. Without any regulation, these already stressed aquifers can lead to a use-it-or-lose-it scenario; whereby both countries increase the rate of water extraction and cause their depletion. Thus, the only way to avoid such a situation is by jointly chalking out a mechanism for their use.
Thirdly, trade under the model of a green economy can prove to be beneficial for both countries. The Pakistani government has recently committed itself to the introduction of electric vehicles into its market. India’s vibrant automobile industry could cater to Pakistan’s increasing demand. Apart from transport, there can be other exchanges in green technologies and related expertise in industrial, agricultural, and energy sectors. As a part of the current thaw, this would provide two-fold benefits by not only aiding environmental efforts but also promoting economic interdependence.
It is therefore prudent to believe that even though there is a possibility that climate change might escalate tensions between India and Pakistan, it can also turn out to be a blessing in disguise and push both countries closer in efforts to counter it. During the Cold War, US President Ronald Reagan candidly asked Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev whether the Soviet Union would help the United States if it were suddenly attacked by aliens from outer space. Both rivals agreed that they would aid each other if such a scenario were ever to present itself. “So that’s interesting,” remarked Premier Gorbachev with a laugh.
Maybe climate change is that metaphorical alien invasion when it comes to India and Pakistan.
*Saif Khattak, is a Pakistan based writer and author