Economic cooperation way to strengthen South Asia’s climate crisis

By Himani Sanagaram-

A webinar hosted by Stimson Center on May 1 brought together by South Asian Voices with the Third Pole on trans-boundary solutions to shared climate challenges in South Asia lamented on the lack of regional cooperation among South Asian countries.

The series aimed at igniting dialogue for more action because there is very little regional cooperation in South Asia on climate change.

SAARC, ASEAN, BIMSTEC, SCO, Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal Initiative (BBIN), and Indian Ocean Rim Association are some organizations that have integrated climate change into their agenda with little effect.

The panel included Omair Ahmad, South Asia Managing Editor, The Third Pole and Dialogue Earth; Soraya Kishtwari, Asia Pacific Editor, The Third Pole and Dialogue Earth; Ambika Vishwanath, Co-Founder and Director, Kubernein Initiative; Saniya Saroha, Research Analyst, Kubernein Initiative; Dharam Uprety, Thematic Lead for Climate Resilience, Practical Action South Asia; moderated by Mahika Khosla, Research Assistant and Deputy Editor of South Asian Voices, Stimson Center.

South Asian climate experts delved into ways and means the region can collaborate to mitigate transboundary impacts of climate change. Despite shared vulnerabilities and similar institutional frameworks, structural barriers such as data secrecy and outdated agreements often hinder the path toward meaningful cooperation.

They spoke about by Vietnam Transboundary haze and Indonesia forest fires. “We need people who are making money on cooperation to drive the agenda,” said Omair Ahmad.

In 2016 when Xi Jinping made his first and only visit to Dhaka, he said. “We all drink from the same water.” It was a lovely statement for a powerful country in the region to make about transboundary and River Basin cooperation. Unfortunately, nothing has come out of that statement. There has been no clear indication that China wants to look at a larger basin wide management of water systems in South Asia,” Ahmad added.

Saroha said that because of existing issues and power dynamics, that Asian countries have, it is very difficult to have a regional cooperation but there are interesting regional mechanisms that already exist although they are not national.

South Asian countries have had a long history of conflict like disputed borders, rivalry between two nuclear powers and complexities driven by relationships that India shares with China.

“Water has always indirectly been part of these conflicts and used as a tool and mostly as a weapon – when Doklam’s standoff happened China stopped sharing water data with India; and when Pulwama attack happened India claimed to divert the flow of the Indus River,” Saroha said.

“Track 1 Initiatives which are regional government organizations like ICIMOD, have provided platform where all multilateral stakeholders can actually discuss and put in their best practices about all these issues that are going on – success and challenges,” Saroha said.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has its presence in the Indian state of Assam. The platform helps people to people connection for climate change and water issues. It is an intergovernmental knowledge and learning center working on behalf of the people of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). They are based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and work in and for our eight regional member countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

“Also Track 2 Initiatives that are non-organizational, non-governmental regional organizations. There are some regional organizations like South Asian Water Initiative (SAWI) and so there are already existing mechanisms but we should put them to better use,” Saroha explained.

“Data analysis over 122 years shows that temperatures have risen in India with implications on the Himalayan region in Nepal,” Uprety said. “We do not have the infrastructure- the technology that can be used in all countries to bring complex science for use of citizens for hazards in SE Nepal, he said.

Uprety said that South Asian countries are going in isolation, they sometimes join hands with least developed countries and sometimes with G-77 countries. “On a large scale, our agendas are bit diversified and not unified. It is very hard to get funding for the Green Climate Fund for the countries, particularly developing countries. We could have a SAARC climate fund for South Asian countries but that is not even discussed. SAARC has drafted a number of strategies but they are not legally binding implementations,” Uprety added. We do not know whether the comprehensive framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) plan drafted in 2007 is under implementation or not,” Uprety informed.

“The political tensions among South Asian countries are one of the upsetting factors to make more effective climate action. We can localize our agenda and problems, and challenges faced by South Asian countries. There is no SAARC negotiation team or expert team formed for international negotiation-these are some challenges, “Uprety said.

This creates an opaque bureaucracy nationally and regionally and that creates data secrecy aspects that are stemming cooperation,” moderator Mahika Khosla said.

The problem with South Asia is the issue of “the dog that did not bark”, we know about hostilities between India and Pakistan and India and China – but we don’t talk about where the opportunity and money is—because money talks and everything else walks. In the Arctic Circle surrounded by eight countries – some of them have incredibly conflicted relationship like the United States and Russia, but some have had great economic cooperation like Norway and Russia in managing marine stocks because it was making money for them,” Ahmad opined.

Ahmad said that only defense and security establishments are making money. These establishments will not benefit from better relations and you are not going to have better relations when these are all your top decision makers. “In Nepal, threshold insurance level for farmers is an example of how insurance is a major issue when it comes to making money,” Ahmad said.

“Often the data we are asking for is the wrong data. Reports show that the data that India is asking from China is being collected from the wrong areas because that’s not where the Brahmaputra River gets its main amount of water. Largely that water is within Indian territory but even the water that flows in from Tibetan territory under Chinese control where we’re asking for water data is not where it exists. We need to have an honest conversation that is broadened with experts with actually good robust data in the public domain. That’s the only way we’re going to go ahead with this,” Ahmad said.

“The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) for its time made sense. But in today’s day and age this doesn’t make sense. We need to make amendments to take into consideration what is happening today,” said Ambica Vishwanath. The IWT from 1961-62 needs to be amended for economic development. “Often times, we are asking the wrong questions – so we are solving for the wrong problem at that moment and that is how we contribute to entire loop. So, we have to change the way we ask the questions. If we cannot solve for water, we cannot solve for anything else and that’s where we have to begin,” she added.

“Politicization of issues between India and Bangladesh like CAA sideline really important changes that need to be addressed like climate change and migration,” Kishtwari said.

“In India where politicians are rallying their base, they are contributing to creating sometimes a very hostile environment for immigrants. Certainly there can  be a surge in nationalistic sentiment and political rhetoric which ends up sharply influencing policymaking and so with regards in India we are in a situation where we are in a regional cooperation perspective and certainly in the context of climate migration we have a country like Bangladesh; a neighbor and ally which has often felt the full brunt of this rhetoric, we’ve seen what is happening in terms of the Sunderbans, and rising sea-level cyclones contributing to displaced peoples crossing the borders over to India.

India is holding elections this year and results will be declared on June 4.

“During an election campaign you’ll have issues such as jobs, economic growth, and precious resources that are meant to galvanize and intensify nationalist support and so important things like climate change and migration are sidelined in favor of more immediately rewarding issues to drum up the base. So, you have effective regional cooperation on climate migration policies that requires trust and mutual respect and such rhetoric essentially just undermines these sorts of policies,” Kishtwari said.

Hope still exists. “India and Pakistan can collaborate on culture and tradition as Northern India and Pakistan have almost similar culture,” Saroha said.

Saroha also said there is regional Sunderbans Cooperation Initiative to enhance understanding and collaboration since 2015.

The Bangladesh-India Sundarban Region Cooperation Initiative (BI-SRCI) is a consortium that has been implementing a “knowledge-based advocacy initiative”.  Sunderbans has many rare and endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger, Ganges, and Irawadi dolphins.

“The issue of South East Asia is more nuanced. China has said that downstream countries have to understand upstream countries’ constraints and really look at what China wants to do and everybody else should just follow along. There has been an interesting conversation between ASEAN states and China and part of it has been based on the Mekong River Commission. This is something that’s missing in South Asia,” Ahmad said.

The Mekong River Commission strengthens basin-wide monitoring, forecasting, impact assessment and dissemination of results for better decision-making and development of water and related resources for mutual benefit of Lower Mekong countries – Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and the people’s wellbeing.

We don’t have a place around which we and China can say we talk around this. SAARC has been defunct for ten years in real terms at the higher level.  We desperately need such institutions to exist for China to come onboard,” Ahmad said.

In 2009, LeT’s Hafiz Saeed banged on “either their water will flow or blood will flow,” he is right to a certain degree… we cannot tolerate bad actors and non-state actors like Hafiz Saeed capturing that conversation – we need to focus on making money to drive climate change.

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