Originally Published 2013-10-05 05:58:05 Published on Oct 05, 2013
The US Navy has already developed a generic "Road Map" against climate change while we are yet to assess the impact of such changes, let alone formulate doctrinal responses. Let us not get caught napping.
How prepared is our military for climate change?
" The current apprehensions of environmentalists and common people about the rapidly changing climate and weather patterns have often led to serious debates about its predicted consequences and exaggerated apocalyptic scenarios. While numerous studies have addressed the impact of such changes on geographical regions and on human societies, little attention has been paid to its impact on military operations or on associated issues concerning the national security. Given the lack of serious research in the subject and the "when it happens we will see" attitude of the military, it is doubtful if our armed forces are prepared to deal with eventualities that may arise due to climate change.

However, one of the seminal studies on the subject has been carried out in the US under the patronage of CNA (Institute for Public Research and Center for Naval Analyses), comprising a group of retired military officers. Its report states that "The stresses that climate change will put on our national security will be different from anything we've dealt with in the past." It clearly highlights the enormity of the problem that the Indian Armed Forces are yet to realise.

It is well known that changes in the climatic conditions in an area can lead to a scarcity of natural resources like fresh water (affecting food harvests), rising average temperatures, increasing sea levels, etc, all of which have consequential effects leading to societal tension and regional turmoil. The situation can easily exacerbate, leading to conflagration and conflict between nations that consequence greater misery for the burdened common man.

South Asia is a populous region dependent on agricultural output for feeding its masses, that suffer from a high percentage of poverty. Unfortunately, the agrarian focus of the region makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of weather changes which can play havoc to the harvests. Such conditions can be led either by flooding due to excess rainfall or drought with minimal rains. These have serious implications for the militaries as there would be increased demands for providing assistance during floods and during extreme drought conditions.

The scenario associated with rise in sea level is particularly daunting since nearly 40 percent of Asia's population of 4 billion approximately live within 45 miles of its 130,000-mile-long coastline. Some of the most vulnerable regions to rise in sea level lie along the coasts of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar . Even a moderate rise in sea level will directly impact Maldives and Bangladesh. While the whole Indian Ocean island of Maldives will be inundated, in Bangladesh, it is calculated that 18 percent of the land will be under water, impacting 11 percent of the population. Such a disaster of enormous proportion will create millions of environmental refugees, that would seek to move into India. This would have consequential effects as it would have the potential to create hostility with the local population in an area which already has scarce natural resources like fresh water, fertile land etc. The tension and eventual conflict for basic sustenance in a region would create law and order problems, requiring the intervention of the military.

The Navies and Coast Guards will be required to patrol and check the inflow of environmental refugees using the sea route for travel (boat people ) which would also ensure enhanced involvement in SAR (Search and Rescue) activities at sea. Arrival of refugees will bring numerous attendant problems of sanitation, hygiene and increased cases of infectious disease that have the potential for creating epidemics.

Military infrastructure is also likely to be seriously affected. Most Naval establishments are situated on the seashore which are likely to be inundated - calling for re- allocating such establishments. However, given that defence institutions require large tracts of land in sensitive and strategic areas, the task of reallocation and rebuilding are compounded manifold. In the case of Indian Navy, which has most of its shore establishments located in densely populated metro cities, the level of difficulty increases exponentially.

The enhanced melting of snows in the Himalayan mountains by 2050 along with increased precipitation across northern India is likely to result in extensive flooding, in catchments areas on the western side of the Himalayas, in northern India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. This is likely to have an impact on the glacial borders between India and Pakistan which will effect army deployment pattern on both sides, especially in the disputed region of Siachen, where the glaciers have been melting. Apart from this, excessive melting of snows would make troop movements extremely dangerous, helipads crumble and logistics become a nightmare, calling for newer tactical and strategic approaches.

Thus there is an urgent need to re-assess logistical procedures as well as ordnance procedures given that weapons and their platforms face increased tear and wear due to changing weather conditions.

In the case of the Navy, ships with reduced carbon footprint need to be designed and constructed along with an ability for rapid response and deployments, greater sea-keeping ability for higher sea states and prolonged extreme weather operations.

Climate change is also likely to have major implications on human health issues which in turn may require the assistance of the military in some form or the other. The major affects will concern spreading of vector-borne diseases, such as dengue fever, malaria, and food-borne diseases. Epidemics and pandemics all would require medical help from the military on a war footing.

The entire Indian Ocean Region, especially South Asia, has experienced numerous natural disasters during the last few decades. It has been estimated that over 50 percent of South Asians have been affected by a natural disaster during the last two decades. According to a World Bank report, the human and economic toll has been high with almost 230,000 deaths and about US$45 billion in damages. With climate change, the frequency and intensity of such natural calamities are projected to increase considerably. This would demand the deployment of militaries from the region for humanitarian assistance as was evidenced by the role of the Indian Navy for HADR (Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief ) activities during the Tsunami of 2004.

Warfighting as a whole is likely to be affected by climate change and this would demand for an altered perspective on certain military doctrines. For example, it has been proved that higher temperatures affect aircraft operations on board aircraft carriers. Similarly, changing temperatures affect hydrological conditions, affecting sonar operating conditions on ships. Changing temperatures may also affect air temperatures/local weather conditions, which in turn could possibly affect radar operations, helicopter operations, communications, etc. Some of these aspects have been studied within the prism of climate change, but most of the impacts due to climate change are unknown and hence need deeper research.

It is noteworthy that there have been rudimentary efforts from the military to become "green" and resort to green practices. While the cantonments near the metro cities are a haven for green cover, there are ecological task forces of the Indian Army greening arid desert and barren mountains. The units of defence forces also resort to water harvesting, use of renewable energy like solar panels and green awareness programmes, including non use of poly bags. At the nodal level, a joint service committee has been set up to reduce and finally eliminate use of ODS (Ozone Destroying Substances) in defence applications and find climate friendly replacements . While these are rudimentary efforts in "greening", it is extremely doubtful that our Armed Forces have begun thinking on the lines of developing operational response strategies against climate change. As a nascent beginning, a board of experienced military experts and scientists, can atleast work out the broad contours of the task in hand.

An IDSA organised study group has outlined the broad contours of the problems being faced and published a book "Security Implications of Climate Change in India" that provides an overview. However, it does not cover precise military operations and doctrinal approaches which would naturally require the intervention of serving military personnel.

The US Navy has already developed a generic "Road Map" against climate change while we are yet to assess the impact of such changes, let alone formulate doctrinal responses. Let us not get caught napping, since a World Bank report has predicted that the extremity and frequency of such climate changes will be "... outside the realm of human experience".

(Dr P K Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. He is also the Co Chairman of the CSCAP International Study Group on Naval Enhancement in Asia Pacific. Maritime Security).

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