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Ecological Cooperation in South Asia: The Way Forward

By Saleem H. Ali | New America Foundation | January 25, 2013

CREDIT: T. Saldanha (CC).


The greatest loss of human life and economic damage suffered by South Asia since 2001 has not been due to terrorism and its ensuing conflicts but rather due to natural disasters, ranging from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Indus floods of 2010 to seasonal water shortages and drought. Although such calamities themselves might not be preventable, their human impact can certainly be mitigated.

This report argues that such mitigation of environmental stresses is possible only through regional approaches to ecological cooperation. Furthermore, the ecological cooperation from such regionalism has the potential for building trust to resolve long-standing territorial disputes, especially between India and Pakistan. Raising ecological factors from a technocratic matter to one of high politics will require leaders to reconsider the role of existing regional organizations, most notably the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as well as scientific organizations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

SAARC's charter, for example, prevents India and Pakistan from linking technical regional cooperation to broader territorial disputes that are deemed to be bilateral matters. However, bilateral agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan are also confined by their highly specific terms of reference. The treaty has been tested with numerous ongoing disputes between the two countries on water management projects, but it was never intended to be an ecological management agreement; rather, it divided up the rivers based on water flow metrics.

Instead of renegotiating an agreement that is structurally focused on dividing natural resources rather than finding environmentally efficient solutions, it would be more productive to consider new cooperative mechanisms regarding conservation and improving the quality of the watershed.

International environmental treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands protection, which have transboundary cooperation within their mandates, can also provide a mechanism for linking ecological cooperation to broader resolution of disputes and enhanced regional security. If with technology nations can find more efficient means of water and energy utilization across South Asia, the pressures on distributive aspects of water and energy scarcity can also be reduced, thus lessening the chance for conflicts over these resources.

The most consequential ecological features in South Asia are the Himalayas and the rivers that are largely derived from their geography. Some of the worst territorial disputes in the region also span these mountains. Hence, scientific and sociocultural research on mountain ecosystems is likely to play a pivotal role in galvanizing regional cooperation and reaping peace dividends.

International development donors need to configure existing programs to incentivize projects that build trust and have the potential for subsequent peace-building. For example, cooperation on glacial scientific research or estuarine ecology could be constructively linked to resolution prospects for the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes. Some of the notable programs with potential for such reconfiguration include the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE), the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy (SARI/Energy), and the South Asian Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP). Yet, the current approach of donors, as exemplified by efforts such as ICIMOD's program covering seven transboundary corridors (none of which include both India and Pakistan), tends to focus on the low-hanging fruit rather than initiatives that could provide a more lasting impact on regional peace.

Connecting environmental factors with basic human necessities such as food and healthcare can also raise the political prominence of these approaches. Recent concerns about communicable diseases such as dengue and polio can provide impetus for regional cooperation that has broader peace-building goals.

Trade can also be more appropriately configured to consider environmental factors as a cooperative mechanism. For example, goods for which one country has a comparative advantage in terms of climate or water availability could be targeted for trade priority. Thus trade should focus on importing products whose energy or water inputs are more efficiently obtained elsewhere rather than trying to build massive new domestic infrastructure for water or energy.

At the same time, trade in energy itself, through efforts such as gas pipelines or technology transfer for renewable energy infrastructure, should be encouraged, as the huge rise in resource consumption projected for South Asia will require supply-side as well as demand-side cooperative strategies.

This report concludes with six key policy recommendations derived from the analyses conducted:

a) Salience of SAARC: Despite its poor performance historically, SAARC has regional legitimacy and a professional base that should be cultivated and empowered to implement environmental diplomacy and regional peace-building.

b) Beyond the Indus Waters Treaty: Having served an important purpose of preventing riparian conflict, the treaty should maintain this role with additional regional technology transfer and integrated water management initiatives to reduce inefficiencies.

c) Mountains Matter: Cooperative programs by international donors should strengthen their focus on mountain ecosystems, given their prominent environmental vulnerability as well as their importance in defining territorial borders.

d) Invoking Environmental Treaties: South Asian countries have ratified several notable environmental treaties with regional cooperation as part of their mandates, which treaty secretariats should invoke as part of the countries' obligations.

e) Broadening Knowledge Networks: Scientific cooperation through academic institutions should be given priority in visa regulations and development assistance with the goal of establishing regional knowledge networks that enhance the capacity for joint environmental research.

f) Crisis Communication: Proactive rather than reactive strategies for building regional resilience against natural disasters should be enhanced in the areas of environmental health, building on the success of flood-monitoring programs.

In summary, this report finds that a gradual shift from bilateralism to multilateralism is essential for the ecologically sustainable development of South Asia. Such a shift should be instrumentally used for peace-building and is an underutilized diplomatic tool that has much potential for achieving broader international security objectives in the region.

External Link: CONTINUE READING: Ecological Cooperation in South Asia [PDF]

Read More: Agriculture, Aid, Communication, Conservation, Diplomacy, Economy, Energy, Environment, Health, Peace, Security, Sustainability, Technology, Trade, India, Pakistan, Asia

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