Lost Horizons: Melting glaciers in Kashmir causing regional chaos over water shortages

JR UPDATE: The BBC has an interesting piece here, about an incorrect reading from one (very outdated) source for the loss of virtually the Himalayan glacier. I think it would be very good news indeed if the 2035 date were wrong, since that would mean human action could still avert the worst. That said, we know from this CP post, Another climate impact comes faster than predicted: Himalayan glaciers “decapitated” that a major 2008 study, “Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources,” concluded ominously: “If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people. So the good news is the Himalayans will probably endure past 2035 — but if we don’t reverse emissions trends sharply and soon, then before then, we will likely have made their disappearance inevitable with tragic consequences, most like felt by the second half of this century. See this recent story, “Vanishing glaciers jolt smokestack China.”Shangri-La is in trouble.

According to an article by Stephen Faris in Foreign Policy and the IPCC, the Himalayan glacier in the Kashmir province that provides 90 percent of Pakistan’s water for agricultural irrigation will disappear by 2035 as a consequence of climate change.

Appropriately titled “The Last Straw,” the article reviews water conflicts exacerbated by climate change in general while focusing on Pakistan’s unsustainable dependence on Kashmiri waters — a dependence that only exacerbates the long-standing historical, cultural, and religious animosity between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir territory.

Faris reports that a shocking “ninety percent of Pakistan’s agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir.” This water comes from three of the six tributaries that India and Pakistan split in their 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Is the treaty’s continued existence a testament to how future resource shortages will draw normally hostile states into cooperating? Perhaps — the agreement has so far survived three major wars and nearly 50 years of hostile exchanges.

Unfortunately, the treaty’s stability depends on a status quo that no longer exists. By diminishing water flows in the Indus Valley, climate change puts the treaty — and the current tentative peace between Pakistan and India — at risk of collapsing.

Climate change disrupts the natural regulation of the Himalayan glaciers that feed into Kashmir’s waters: by preventing precipitation from freezing in the winter, climate change disrupts the summer melts and prevents farmers from getting adequate water for irrigation during the growing season. In fact, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035.”

The effects are already serious, according to research by the NGO ActionAid discussed by Faris in “The Last Straw”:

In the valley, snow rarely falls and almost never sticks. The summertime levels of streams, rivers, springs, and ponds have dropped. In February 2007, melting snow combined with unseasonably heavy rainfall to undermine the mountain slopes; landslides buried the national highway””the region’s only land connection with the rest of India””for 12 days.

While the United States regulates the Rocky Mountains’ complex cyclical water flows with a series of dams, an infrastructure-based solution remains unrealistic for Kashmiri waters because the province is so disputed. If Pakistan and India co-develop and share a dam, the infrastructure could be used as a weapon during a flare-up of hostilities. One or both of the countries could try to induce flooding or block essential waterflows; meanwhile, neither side is likely to cede their land claims anytime soon.

However, climate change might just be the external threat that forces these nations to settle their Kashmir dispute. The food shortages and water scarcity crises that will soon already plague much of the planet (as predicted by top US intelligence analyst Thomas Fingar) could feasibly force both developing and developed countries, and Pakistan and India specifically, into constructive and cooperative agreements. By necessity, nations will need to work together or collapse under the weight of climate-based resource burdens — this is the future of foreign policy realism.

If cooperation fails to occur over Kashmir, then what happens next? Pakistan won’t just ignore the water flow issues — the government already dedicates thousands of troops to guard Pakistan’s limited wheat supplies, made scarce by (you guessed it) water shortages. And though Pakistan’s democratic institutions remain questionable, grain and water were in fact contentious election issues in 2008. The problem is not going away.

Pakistan, particularly, has a long history of state-sponsored low-intensity conflict in Kashmir, and this will likely continue in some form. Beyond that, any escalation in the region is purely speculative: especially considering that each side possesses nuclear arms, who can predict how the established political and social intensity of the Kashmir issue — incredible as it already is — will interact with the addition of mass water and agriculture shortages? Hopefully, no one will have to.

It’s easy in the West to get so distraught by the effects of climate change in our home countries and so distracted by our domestic policy battles that we often skip over how climate change could simply drive two nuclear powers to war. “The Last Straw” ends on a common-sense note: “If the rivers of Kashmir have the potential to plunge South Asia into chaos, the most effective response might be to do our best to ensure the glaciers never melt at all.”

Preventing outrageous levels of warming “might be” the most effective response? Clearly, we don’t have any constructive alternatives.