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Climate Change Expected to Amplify Security Risks in South Asia

Two new reports from the Center for Climate and Security warn of threats to the stability and security in South and Southeast Asia.

The reports, authored by the International Military Council on Climate and Security, analyzed how climate changes are a threat multiplier for the regions, with regards to both internal and external security issues.

The reports pointed out various regional tensions that are or will be exacerbated by climate issues, such as shared river basins in South Asia. “The Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus Rivers are of particular concern, given increasing Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani demand for water,” the South Asia report said. “Over half of the latter two rivers’ basins experience both high water stress and high exposure to climate change.”

Security impacts brought on by drought or massive flooding can arise from the economic stress and heightened competition for resources in affected areas.

“Such scenarios are already playing out domestically in the Philippines, in the South China Sea, and in the context of the India-Pakistan and China-India security rivalries, among other locations,” a spokesperson for the Center wrote. “In the India-Pakistan and China-India cases, contestations over transboundary rivers subject to climate-induced floods and droughts are worsening the already intense adversarial relationships between nuclear weapons states.”

The 2010 floods in Pakistan, which killed almost 200 people, also resulted in the Pakistani Taliban gaining regional support by assisting residents recovering from the floods. The terrorist group also demanded that the government reject Western assistance, threatening foreign aid workers if the Pakistani government did not agree to their terms. Ultimately, the terrorists followed through on their threats and murdered the foreign aid workers.

“While investment in infrastructure and jobs has succeeded in suppressing violence in recent years, the advent of climate-induced resource scarcity could fuel a new round of violence” from militant or separatist groups hoping to wrest control of a region, the South Asia report said. “These sensitive internal security situations could be upset by severe weather which impacts the ability of sub-groups to provide for their economic livelihoods.”

The report noted additional impacts from climate upsets, including internal displacement and migration, as well as impacts on military readiness, such as increasing deployments to assist with increasing natural disasters and damages from extreme weather.

The Southeast Asia report specifically noted that although the region is relatively stable, climate-related erosion or extinction of residents’ livelihoods would exacerbate “threats from domestic insurgent groups, violent extremist organizations, and piracy in the Strait of Malacca and broader South China Sea.” Current tensions include disputes over oil, gas, and fishing in the South China Sea, as well as extremist groups such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi and the Abu Sayyaf, which has links to the Islamic State.

“South and Southeast Asian militaries are increasingly adept at responding to climate-induced disasters,” said Rachel Fleishman, a senior fellow at the center and co-author of both reports. “But reactive strategies are not sufficient. …And the devastation [climate change] brings can empower those who seek societal disruption.”

Key recommendations from the reports noted that security leaders should integrate climate change projections and their impacts into their security projections, planning, and training. In addition, foreign policy actors in the areas should incorporate common goals for environmental and climate security into future agreements.

The reports also recommended replacing fossil fuels with low- or no-carbon energy sources, especially pointing to limiting imports of natural gas.

Climate security was also again listed as a topic of national security interest for the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order on 27 January, in which he ordered federal agencies, including the Defense, Energy, and State departments, to develop plans for “climate protection.”

The order also announced that the country will rejoin the Paris Agreement and its efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.