Climate of distrust
By Latha Jishnu
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
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
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.
South Asia should integrate climate action with sustainable
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
As such, climate change will
be a major challenge to growth and development in the coming
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
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
Since further climate change
is inevitable, countries need to buckle down to adaptation
measures that will bring about immediate benefits and reduce
Experts say that adaptation
is fundamentally about risk management and that South Asia
could explore the many options before it, especially in
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
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
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.