British consultancy Maplecroft listed India as second in the group of countries most at risk from climate change. Bangladesh came first, facing the loss of a large part of its coastal landmass to rising waters.
India can turn its plans for climate management into a game-changer for subcontinental relations: Can environmental diplomacy transcend political boundaries and help India forge closer ties in the region?
At the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Thimphu, Bhutan, this year, South Asia nations agreed on a 16-point action plan, including measures like planting 10 million trees in the next five years and setting up inter-governmental marine, mountain and monsoon initiatives.
Rivalries overshadow implementation
Unfortunately, given the SAARC’s track record of allowing subcontinental rivalries (primarily India-Pakistan) to overshadow their implementation of decisions, those initiatives are unlikely to see quick action. However, the urgency of the situation, particularly the prospect of thousands of ‘climate refugees’ being forced out of their homes, requires India to lead the way as the subcontinent comes to grips with global warming.
Sundarbans: The Green Boundary
Two recent projects may serve as role models – the first is an initiative to save the Sunderbans. Earlier this year, India and Bangladesh decided to set up the Sundarbans Eco-System Forum to protect the 10,000 sq.km of mangroves that span both countries. While India and Bangladesh have spent much of this year ironing out their differences over terror groups, trade barriers and border fencing, they can and must take quicker strides on an issue like joint management of the mangroves before 75 per cent of them disappear, as is predicted by the university survey. A similar concern led India to join hands with China and Nepal this year to agree on a framework, the Kailash Sacred Landscape initiative, to conserve the ecosystem of Mount Kailash. The melting Siachen glacier is another border-transcending issue. After the devastating floods in Pakistan this year, there is much that India and Pakistan can share on managing river systems. In fact, in a year when dialogue on all other bilateral issues floundered, the discussions of the Indus Water Commission in the Pakistani Parliament this month shone by comparison.
While talks break down frequently on terror and strategic issues, dialogue on environment can ‘flow’ more naturally to a resolution. To that end, South Block must look at ways of collaborating on research, encourage scientist exchanges and build capacity for decades to come, opening new avenues of engagement with each of India’s neighbours.
Finally, environmental negotiations give India and China another opportunity to work on their otherwise tricky relationship. With every indication that this year’s climate change conference in Mexico will again see an equally tough fight between the developed world and the developing world, India and China are once again working together on their strategy for 2010 – carrying the spirit of Copenhagen to Cancun, as it were. This despite all the bad blood over China’s aggression on visa issues, and Indian ire over the border.
Power Play Tandem
The changing environment offers India new avenues to forge ties within the neighbourhood and beyond, as it claims its position both as a subcontinental leader and Asian power. Perhaps the big push will come with the Environment and External Affairs Ministries working in tandem: because climate change, like terror, cyber warfare and other 21st Century threats to the world, knows no boundaries.