September 19, 2010
What are the international relations and security consequences of climate change that South Asia should anticipate?
At the inaugural session of a recent Norwegian Institute of Defence Studies (IFS)-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) conference on grand strategic thinking in India, held in Oslo, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahre Støre, spoke about Norway’s changing strategic horizons in the east and north. In the east, Norway was interested in building further its relationships in South and South-east Asia but saw itself as one among many rather than anticipating a special relationship. It was his exposition on Norway’s northern interests that was illuminating and thought-provoking for someone who cannot imagine anything further north than Norway!
The Norwegian Foreign Minister identified three concerns at the country’s very doorstep. The physical impact of climate change in the Arctic region was the first. The melting ice will open sailing routes in hitherto impassable stretches of the north. With one-fourth of the world’s gas resources being located in the Arctic Sea, the second concern related to the exploitation of natural resource in areas made accessible by melting glaciers. The minister pointed to the imperative of settling delimitation issues and mentioned the imminent Norway-Russia agreement over delimitation in the Barents Sea. Russia and changes within Russia form Norway’s third strategic horizon. The Minister pointed to potential areas of Indo-Norwegian cooperation ranging from scientific to humanitarian to diplomatic and military. But his presentation on Norway’s northern interests raised many questions for me for the South Asian context.
Have we given enough thought to the impact of climate change on our own regional international relations? The Pakistan floods may already presage a re-think of our Indus agreements. If floods and disaster management are going to be added to the agenda of water-sharing, are we looking at a new round of negotiations in years ahead? Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have long been advocates of an integrative approach to riparian issues in the eastern Ganges-Brahmaputra region. Rising sea-levels will also move migration further up the region’s security and economic agendas. Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and large areas of India, including Indian island territories, will experience displacement following inundation and destruction of homes and property along rivers and coasts. This may be the right time to think of cooperative solutions and emergency arrangements.
If there is an assessment of how climate change will affect our food supplies and natural resource base, is it available in the public domain? The Gangetic flood plains are India’s mineral-rich areas. Oil and natural gas have been found off the coasts. What is an opportunity in the northern seas could be a closed door in our much warmer waters. If the ability to exploit newly available resources reduces the global North’s dependence on others, will the premature closing of barely exploited resources increase ours? Perhaps these are questions scientists have already answered; my point is that it is time now to ask them in the context of international relations and security.
For those primarily interested in traditional diplomatic concerns too, I have a question: The Great Game in Afghanistan began as a way to thwart the Russian search for warm sea-ports. If polar sea-routes open up, what happens to Afghanistan? Will it be abandoned, left to heal itself or left to the mercy of its neighbours? For Pakistan, Iran and India, this is a very important consideration because their connection to and interest in Afghanistan is not limited to Great Game ramifications.