By Latha Jishnu
IN September, as a stunned India watched Jammu & Kashmir grapple with unprecedented floods, the worst in living memory as its chief minister described it, there was a call from an acquaintance, a retired professor. “It’s unbelievable what is happening,” she said. “Do you think there was some kind of sabotage?” Srinagar was submerged by a swollen Jhelum that breached its embankments following cloudbursts in the catchment areas, leaving its residents marooned for close to a week.
It was an unsettling query. The academic’s reluctance to accept the floods were an act of God — as the insurance industry would term it — reflects a widespread inability to grasp why a disaster of this magnitude had occurred. Extreme weather events are not easy to separate from routine calamities even if climate change has become part of our vocabulary now. And anything to do with Kashmir is always suspect. But as a decades-old rainfall record was reduced to a footnote in Kashmir’s weather history by cloudbursts that unleashed as much as 450mm of rain in just three days, it turned out to be a disaster with a difference.
For one, it mirrored what was happening across the border in Pakistan. Reports and footage of the huge swathes of flood-covered areas in Pakistani Kashmir with a similar narrative of death and destruction reinforced, possibly for the first time, a feeling of shared victimhood. Although Pakistan has faced a more catastrophic situation, the 2010 flood that the UN categorised as one of the worst disasters in recent history, it had not evoked as much concern across the border as the current one.
What was clearly on display on both sides was the inability of governments to deal with calamities of this nature in which millions have been displaced, robbing them of livelihoods and pushing them further into poverty. What was also apparent in the developments was the official reluctance to accept that South Asia’s climate has changed already and that delay is no longer an option. The impacts are being felt across an expanding area not from floods alone but also on account of rising temperatures that are making agriculture even more risky for the legion of its small and poverty-ridden farmers. As such, climate change will be a major challenge to growth and development in the coming decades.
Here are some of the stark warnings from the Fifth Assessment Report released earlier this year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The most significant warning for South Asia is that marginalised communities, people who are disadvantaged socially, economically, culturally, politically and institutionally, will be highly vulnerable to climate change. Equitable and sustainable development would as a result become that much more difficult to achieve. As climate change impacts economic growth, it would further erode food security. South Asia should, therefore, integrate climate action with inclusive and sustainable economic development.
Can this be done by countries acting alone? IPCC’s Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability emphasises that South Asia stands to benefit from integrated adaptation-mitigation and development approaches undertaken regionally. Since further climate change is inevitable, countries need to buckle down to adaptation measures that will bring about immediate benefits and reduce the impacts. Experts say that adaptation is fundamentally about risk management and that South Asia could explore the many options before it, especially in tandem.
That could prove daunting in the case of India and Pakistan where deep political mistrust colours everything. For instance, as the floodwaters engulfed huge tracts in Pakistani Kashmir, there were reports in the media that India was responsible for it. So widespread was the belief that the upper riparian state was responsible for the flooding downstream that it didn’t help when experts from Islamabad’s reputed think tanks debunked the idea. Finally, some peaceniks from both sides enlisted the help of Harvard professor John Briscoe, winner of the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize, to clarify that the floods were not caused by India opening the gates of the Baglihar dam on the Chenab.
Under the epochal Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, Pakistan holds the right to the water of the three western rivers in the Indus basin (the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). India does have dams on these rivers but claims these are run-of-the-river facilities which it is entitled to set up under the treaty. IWT could be held up as a spectacular example of conflict resolution but there are grave doubts whether it will hold in the time of acute climate crisis since water is a critical component.
This culture of blame in which each and every event is viewed through a nationalistic lens presents a tough barrier to cooperation. But one could start with data-sharing which is important for proper management of shared rivers. India has been less than transparent on this score and both downstream and upstream states have been critical of its failure to share data on its dams.
Exchange of data regarding inflows and outflows from these hydropower systems and making it available on the internet could be the best remedy for stopping the rumour mills which spew malice and misinformation. Briscoe suggests another important supplement for the benefit of basin states: a joint programme to provide people on both sides with objective information on the effects of actions in both India and Pakistan during times of drought and flood. If this task is assigned to a couple of academic institutions in both countries it would ensure more transparency.
Data-sharing might seem like a small step. But given the historical baggage of political mistrust that the nations carry it would entail a major change in mindset. We cannot afford to have Canutes in charge as both countries face an environmental cataclysm. The 11th-century ruler of Denmark is famously credited with having ordered the waves to recede at his command. There are different interpretations of this story. One says Canute did so to show his subjects that he was not powerful enough to stop nature; the other says that he was vainglorious and believed he could. Either way, it would be a disaster for South Asia.
(Article originally published in The Dawn)