Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 28, 2020

Climate change induced natural disasters can have quite significant effects on the conflict scenarios in South Asia and, thereby, provide new impetus for terrorist groups to consolidate themselves.

Terror in a renewed era of interstate conflict — Bringing climate change center stage

This article is part of the series — What to Expect from International Relations in 2021.


The year 2020 has been marked by COVID-19, a pandemic that took over the world and complicated the security landscape in various nations of South Asia. The coming years will likely see other natural events assuming prominence and changing the nature of interstate conflicts especially in regions like South Asia. One key phenomenon that is bound to bring about tensions in South Asia is that of climate change. With South Asia being home to some of the nations most likely to be impacted heavily due to climate change, its effects are going to be pervasive and will affect the dynamics of interstate conflict.

As Jeffrey Nesbit and Chaitanya Ravi have argued, one of the defining issues of tension between India and Pakistan will likely be the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and the dwindling of water to rivers such as the Jhelum and Indus, which are shared by both nations. This can have problematic implications for peace in South Asia. In 2016, when India and Pakistan last had a tussle over shared water, India threatened to tear up the peace treaty which, had it happened, would have triggered an immediate war due to the importance of water resources for Pakistan — as warned by Pakistani officials.

In 2016, when India and Pakistan last had a tussle over shared water, India threatened to tear up the peace treaty which, had it happened, would have triggered an immediate war.

Ever since then, water reserves have only dwindled further and will continue to do so over the years. As such, it is likely that this aspect of climate change may trigger conflicts between India and Pakistan. It is within this context that Pakistani-based terrorist groups may decide to engage with India.

Given that Pakistan has often times used terrorist groups such as the Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed as proxies in its conflict with India, it will not be a stretch to see this happening in case of potential water-related wars. Moreover, that the leader of LeT, Hafiz Saeed, threatened India with rivers of blood in retaliation for any water-related aggression only lends credence to the idea that terrorist groups will further attempt to capitalise on any regional conflict.

Another consequence could also be that such terror groups which are known to have strong charity arms will try to increase credibility by providing aid to farmers and villagers living along the borders affected by either the conflict or water shortage. Groups such as Jamaat ud Dawah, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charity face, have previously provided aid in the aftermath of natural disasters that were induced by climate change.

A third consequence would be the growing emergence of environmental refugees from countries like Bangladesh with low lying coasts who shift further into Bangladesh and even into India. This could create tensions since Indian right-wing groups often advocate against migrants from nations like Bangladesh as witnessed in many parts of Bengal and Assam. This is also exacerbated by fears that such camps could become potential places where radicalisation occurs (although such proof is yet to be recorded).

It is important that India and Pakistan incorporate new and emerging issues such as climate change within their foreign and national security policies.

Together, climate change induced natural disasters can have quite significant effects on the conflict scenarios in South Asia and, thereby, provide new impetus for terrorist groups to consolidate themselves.

Against this backdrop, it is important that India and Pakistan incorporate new and emerging issues such as climate change within their foreign and national security policies. For instance, India and Pakistan should ideally revisit the terms of the Indus Water Treaty to account for climate change related issues. Given that it was signed in 1960 and did not envision the challenges of climate change, a revision of terms can help mitigate any potential conflicts. Similarly, India and Bangladesh have to engage on the inevitability of climate refugees and how to address the issue as it pops up in the future.

Moreover, India specifically should update its threat matrix to factor in climate change related terrorism threats as well. While climate change is normally seen as a non-traditional security threat, there are enough instances to demonstrate that it can indeed create tension even in traditional security spaces as well.

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Author

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Non – Resident Associate Fellow working with Professor Harsh Pant in the Strategic Studies Programme. He will be working on ...

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