South Asia’s new security threats
Michael Kugelman
Over the last few days, parts of coastal India and Bangladesh have been slammed by Cyclone Amphan, the most powerful such storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal, an area that is no stranger to destructive weather events. The storm has uprooted trees, flooded roads, destroyed homes, downed electricity and phone lines, and as of this writing killed nearly 90 people, most of them in the Indian state of West Bengal.
Climate change will increase the ferocity and frequency of storms like Amphan. South Asia is deeply vulnerable to climate change effects thanks to its warm climates, water resource shortages, densely populated coastal areas, agriculture-dependent economies, poor infrastructure and poverty.
Because of its capacity to displace, sicken and kill large numbers of people, climate change qualifies as a non-traditional security threat — a different type of danger than war, terrorism and other traditional security threats.
Cyclone Amphan hit South Asia at a moment when the region is also fighting a serious pandemic, thereby exacerbating how non-traditional security threats are starting to eclipse more serious ones. In fact, in South Asia this shift has been playing out for years. Not only do non-traditional security threats predominate in the region, they also spark tensions, instability and conflict.
Flooding, droughts and other climate change effects have already displaced large numbers of rural residents into cities. Water shortages have caused entire metropolises, such as the Indian megacity of Chennai, and once-mighty rivers, such as parts of the Indus in southern Pakistan, to run dry.
Deepening water insecurity in India and Pakistan has sharpened tensions between the two rivals over rivers that straddle both countries, several of which travel through the disputed region of Kashmir. Local insurgencies — think Baloch separatists in Pakistan and Maoist rebels in India — are fueled in part by grievances centered around the state’s inequitable exploitation of precious natural resources and raw materials.
This is not to say traditional security threats have vanished from South Asia. Many terror groups call the region home. A bloody and interminable war rages in Afghanistan. Border tensions, standoffs and violence play out along the Pakistan-Afghanistan, Pakistan-India, India-Nepal and India-China frontiers. And limited war remains a risk between India and Pakistan.
Still, the dynamic has changed. India and Pakistan formally became nuclear weapons states more than 20 years ago, and those nuclear assets deter them from hot war. Additionally, while terrorism remains a threat, robust counterterrorism operations have badly degraded most of the region’s strongest anti-state militant outfits. Meanwhile, drivers of non-security threats — natural resource shortages, destructive weather events, broader climate change effects — have intensified.
In some contexts, non-security threats are deadlier in the region than traditional ones. Take Pakistan. The UN estimates that contaminated water contributes to 40 percent of the total number of annual deaths in the country. More than 53,000 Pakistani children die each year from waterborne disease.
By contrast, between 2007 and 2014 — the deadliest years for terrorism in Pakistan — the highest annual total for civilian fatalities from terrorism was about 3,000. By no means is this meant to minimize the horrific human impact of terrorism in Pakistan. One death is too many. The point is to highlight a contrast, and to underscore just how deadly non-security threats have become in Pakistan.
Some South Asian countries have adjusted to this evolving threat environment better than others. Bangladesh has long been ahead of the curve. For example, several years ago the Bangladeshi military began running training exercises that simulated how to respond to mass displacements of people fleeing floods.
Bangladesh’s preparedness is unsurprising; with its densely populated cities and especially low-lying geography, it is arguably the most climate change-vulnerable nation in a highly climate change-vulnerable region.
The story is different in India and Pakistan. To be sure, New Delhi and Islamabad are fully aware of these new types of threats, and each capital — and more importantly the state/provincial governments — has announced a series of policies meant to help mitigate climate change and address natural resource shortages.
But progress has been slow, and problematic policies remain in place that end up exacerbating the very problems that need to be solved. In both Pakistan and India, farmers — an important political constituency — often receive generous subsidies for flood irrigation, the most wasteful form of irrigation, and for growing the most water-guzzling crops.
The reality of Cyclone Amphan hitting pandemic-ravaged South Asia should be a wakeup call for those who still shrug off non-traditional security threats. One silver lining to emerge from this story is the opportunity for regions and the broader international community to pursue greater cooperation. These are, after all, quintessential shared threats that are as potent as they are borderless.
The global failure to collectively mobilize to combat COVID-19 does not inspire much hope. And yet given what is coming, the world needs to get its act together.