Understanding Climate Change as a National Security Concern

30 Jun, 2019    ·   5596

Avino Niphi explores the India-Bangladesh context and argues why viewing climate change as a national security concern could help facilitate sound policy-making and timely action on both domestic and trans-national levels.

The scientific community has unequivocally confirmed the alarming severity of climate change impacts arising from excessive anthropogenic influence. Over the years, the frequency of extreme weather conditions has been observed to have a direct bearing on the availability of water in India and consequent effects on agricultural productivity, economic growth and social stability. In addition, the relationship between climate change, peace, security and development is also becoming more apparent.

Human security lies at the core of climate change impacts. However, the impact on human security is not accorded high priority status in national and/or regional policy-making agendas in most contexts. As the central security provider for the people it governs, the state would benefit from expanding the discourse on climate change to view it also as a national security concern. Doing so could facilitate overcoming the prevailing sluggishness in policymaking aimed at tackling climate issues while also keeping the focus on human security. Given how effects of climate change overlap with traditional security concerns within the policy domain, such an approach could provide an entry-point to formulating timely mitigation-based state responses.

On a transnational level, the impact that climate change could have on a country is much greater and could unfold as matters of national security. In this regard, the vulnerability of the Indo-Bangladesh region to climate change is a helpful case study to understand the inter-linkages in the long term national security concerns and priorities of both countries. Alongside India’s proneness to climate related risks, Bangladesh has been ranked the 7th worst weather affected country since 1998. Today, two-thirds of Bangladesh’s territory is situated less than five meters above sea level, significantly affecting the country’s agricultural productivity.

Climate Change and the India-Bangladesh Context
While both India and Bangladesh have managed to create a space for themselves in the international community through impressive economic growth rates and have stabilised their bilateral relations since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the dual consequences of climate change, i.e. environmental degradation and the perceived threat to national security due to the cross-border influx of migrants, have often manifested in bilateral relations. Intensification of these concerns could potentially roll back years of socio-economic progress in both countries as well as bilateral rapport-building.

An estimated 13.3 million people in Bangladesh are expected to be displaced by 2050 due to climate-change induced effects. In such a scenario, migratory responses among those affected seem inevitable. For a country that is locked by Indian territory on three sides, and by the Bay of Bengal on the fourth, the optimal recourse for climate displaced people in Bangladesh would be to relocate and seek refuge either in other parts of Bangladesh or into the other proximate regions, i.e. north-east Indian states and West Bengal. However, from the Indian perspective, the north-eastern states are not economically equipped to handle any major migrant influx; and West Bengal, the fourth most populous state, is likely to face demographic unrest as a side effect of mass influx of people. The resultant competition over opportunities and resources would pose a challenge to economic capacity and social stability in these areas while also creating a simultaneous decline in Bangladesh’s labour force and productivity. While frictions arising from cross-border migration from Bangladesh have already manifested in a variety of Indian states bordering Bangladesh, India’s Assam state emerges as a prime example where the issue has been identified as an act of “external aggression” by the former governor of Assam and the Indian Supreme Court.

It would thus be worthwhile for New Delhi and Dhaka to coordinate with each other to address the issue sustainably. Such coordination might, in fact, also help prepare both countries for a potential future scenario when large scale climate-induced migration from Bangladesh into India occurs.

Another issue that could possibly get aggravated due to climate change effects is the disputes over trans-boundary rivers. Tensions over trans-boundary river waters have been known to trigger a variety of conflicts in different parts of the world. Despite India and Bangladesh sharing 54 trans-boundary rivers, there exists only one water sharing treaty between the two, i.e. the Ganga waters sharing treaty, which was signed in 1996 for a period of 30 years (renewable by mutual consent). As a lower riparian, Bangladesh’s water security is directly vulnerable to the effects of upper riparian India’s activities on these rivers. Damming and other activities on these rivers in India have an impact on availability of water for irrigation, industry, energy demands, and public consumption in Bangladesh.

Equally, India’s national security and stability is connected to those of Bangladesh’s. The effects of climate change on Bangladesh are likely to be projected onto India, over and above the latter’s own vulnerability to climate change impacts. In order to safeguard its national interests, India, therefore, needs to coordinate with Bangladesh to begin managing these issues well in advance.

Given the circumstances, viewing climate change as a national security related concern could open conversations among governments regarding potential future scenarios. This provides an avenue for both countries to build capacities and introduce anticipatory measures in a timely manner. Mutuality of interests on these issues could also be amplified in policy discourses to speed up identification of remedial measures. Discussing climate change from a national security perspective with the same degree of attention and urgency as any other strategic concern is imperative also because it can provide a potent segue for prioritising climate change not only in the national and bilateral policymaking domain but also on the regional level.

Looking Ahead
In January 2019, the UN Security Council demonstrated renewed interest in discussing the risks posed by climate change to peace, security and development. A similar debate in India on national security concerns linked to climate change would be extremely useful for related policymaking and public consciousness. This, in turn, will be contributory to fostering conditions necessary for ensuring human security since ensuring national security is not merely about protecting territory but also about providing protection for the peoples in that territory.

At present, India’s climate policy is fragmented and does not address the wider and impeding national security related concerns. While this study looked at the India-Bangladesh context, India also directly neighbours six other countries. Given that the cumulative impact of climate change also has the potential to catalyse conflict by aggravating unresolved domestic and transnational security issues, examining climate change as a national and regional security concern could help spark more comprehensive and coordinated domestic policy action as well as facilitate regional cooperation.

Avino Niphi
is a Research Intern with the South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP) at IPCS.