Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights of this week: A report from the United Nations highlights Climate Vulnerability of South Asia, try to bring regional players Afghanistan back from the abyss as the Taliban advance, and the Olympic Games in Tokyo gives India a boost.
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The risks of climate change in South Asia
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an important new report this week that UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “Code Red for Humanity”. The IPCC report presents a troubling forecast for South Asia, predicting that the region will experience hotter weather, longer monsoons and increasing droughts over the next two decades, as global warming increases by about 1.5 degrees Celsius overall.
South Asia’s vulnerability to climate change has long been evident. Rising sea levels and floods threaten the coastal states of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Inland Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal are faced with rising temperatures, drought and glacial melting. The region is also home to the lowest lying country in the world: the densely populated island state of the Maldives, which could be flooded in the not too distant future.
Nearly 700 million people – almost half of the population of South Asia – have been affected by at least one climate-related disaster in the past decade, according to the World Bank. India and Pakistan are among the 20 countries most affected by climate change in the 21st century in the Germanwatch think tank’s Global Climate Risk Index 2020. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that climate impacts could rob South Asian countries as much as 13 percent of their GDP by 2050.
The IPCC report comes to similar conclusions as a 2020 study by India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences that predicted India will become drier and hotter in the coming decades, with average temperatures rising nearly 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century become. It also predicted prolonged monsoons, rising temperatures in the Indian Ocean, and rising sea levels of up to nearly a foot in the coming decades.
The region’s vulnerability to climate is a security threat. Increasing water scarcity increases the likelihood of tension between India, Pakistan and China over shared rivers. Pakistan’s main surface water source is the Indus, which flows downstream from Indian-administered Kashmir. The effects of climate change could also exacerbate complaints from Baluch insurgents in Pakistan and Naxalite insurgents in India, both of whom accuse governments of confiscating water and other valuable resources.
But climate-induced mass migration could be the strongest trigger of destabilization. A study by the World Bank from 2018 predicts that by 2050 almost 40 million climate migrants in South Asia, more than 13 million of them in Bangladesh alone, will not have sufficient climate-friendly public measures. Even with these guidelines, the study still predicts nearly 20 million climate migrants by 2050.
In addition, rural-to-urban migration could lead to urban resource scarcity and increase the risk of radicalization among people who lack basic services. The IPCC report predicts that urbanization will also exacerbate heat extremes and floods. The mass movement of vulnerable persecuted groups – ethnic Pashtuns fleeing floods in Pakistan, Muslims displaced by the drought in India, Rohingya refugees leaving flooded cities in Bangladesh – could fuel local tensions and violence.
One of the main messages of the IPCC report is that there is still time to avert a climate catastrophe through stronger containment policies. And to their credit, South Asian countries have spawned many such policies. But poor surveillance and enforcement, corruption and insufficient funding have undermined its effectiveness, as I argued last year.
Some other necessary corrective actions – like creating more non-agricultural livelihood opportunities and strengthening the capacity of officials on the climate front – will take a long time. Regional cooperation efforts are hampered by diplomatic obstacles. Unsurprisingly, South Asian countries are at the bottom of the most recent global environmental sustainability rankings.
Without mitigating, the climate crisis is likely to exacerbate the many fault lines and volatilities in South Asia. In the coming decades, a conflict between India and Pakistan could break out alongside the territory, and Afghan refugees could flee the drought, not just the war.
August 14: Pakistan celebrates its independence day.
15th of August: India celebrates its independence day.
August 17th: The 16th anniversary of the 2005 Bomb attacks in Bangladeshwho saw around 500 explosions across the country is remembered.
August 19: Afghanistan celebrates its independence day.
Regional diplomacy on Afghanistan. The Taliban made great and unprecedented progress in Afghanistan last week, conquering almost a dozen provincial capitals in just a few days. In the midst of this cascading violence, regional diplomacy has intensified. Two meetings this week focused on getting the peace process going again: one between the Troika Plus (China, Pakistan, Russia and the United States) and one between China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and representatives of the EU and the United Nations.
There is little hope of reviving the internal Afghan dialogue unless the Afghan armed forces can regain momentum on the battlefield. But it is a good sign that the regional actors are speaking. They do not have the luxury, like the United States, of leaving Afghanistan and avoiding the spillover effects of war such as refugees, drug trafficking and cross-border terrorism.
Rohingya vaccination campaign. Bangladesh is in the middle of a coronavirus surge fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant. The nationwide test-positive rate is around 30 percent, and less than 5 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. This makes Dhaka’s decision this week all the more urgent to start a vaccination campaign for Rohingya refugees.
Approximately 1 million Rohingya live in overcrowded camps in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, most of which fled military violence in neighboring Myanmar in 2017. Community leaders, health volunteers, and people over 55 will be among the first to be vaccinated.
India makes history in Tokyo. It wasn’t an easy year for India, but the Tokyo Olympics were good for a country in need of a boost. The men’s and women’s field hockey teams reached the semi-finals for the first time. And then came the coup de grace: the Indian javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra became the first Indian gold medalist in his competition and only the second Indian Olympian to win an individual gold medal in a competition.
Chopra’s victory sparked a rare moment of solidarity between India and Pakistan. Pakistani javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem finished fifth and the two Olympians have reportedly become friends. According to Nadeem, Chopra said it was just “bad luck” that Nadeem didn’t do better.
This week the Japanese government released a report of the death of a Sri Lankan woman in one of its immigration prisons in March.
Wishma Sandamali, 33, was detained six months after exceeding her visa; She was arrested at a police station while seeking protection from an abusive friend. While in detention, her health deteriorated rapidly, but her requests for medical help went unanswered. The report suggests reforms, including better medical care and more staff, but immigration activists consider these recommendations to be insufficient.
Sandamali’s case has received relatively little attention outside of Japan, although Piyumi Fonseka, a journalist for the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror, covered the case extensively. The Sri Lankan government has not commented much on this in public. Japan is one of Sri Lanka’s most important bilateral donors.
“When I speak to Afghans, I now have the impression of a population anxiously waiting for a dark shadow to pass over the brighter future they once imagined.”
—Deborah Lyons, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, at a UN Security Council briefing on August 6
A new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs describes how China has targeted Uyghur refugees in Pakistan and Afghanistan since the 1990s. Authors Bradley Jardine and Robert Evans focus on how Beijing rewarded its close ally Islamabad for helping it crack down on the Uighur community.
“In return for development aid, Pakistan signed extradition treaties, arrested people at China’s request, and reprimanded critics of China’s tough policies, making it easier for China to continue to suppress the Uyghurs,” they write. The report puts Pakistan in an awkward position as it refuses to speak out publicly about China’s abuses against the Uyghurs.
Jumakhan Rahyab and Meena Jacob, two young Hazara analysts, warn in South Asian Voices that genocide against the Afghan Hazara minority is a real possibility. “The Hazara community faces a particularly bleak future: an existential threat to its well-being in the form of systemic oppression and marginalization,” they write.
In the Dhaka grandstand Riya Sinha, a New Delhi-based researcher, argues that Bangladesh and India need to make better efforts to strengthen the infrastructure at their borders. “By improving the barriers to physical connectivity, both countries can benefit from the economic potential of bilateral and regional trade,” she writes.
columnist Ozer Khalid writes for Pakistan’s Express Tribune in support of a recently created “New Quad” by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and the United States: “Pakistan’s and US involvement in the New Quad is helping the former great superpowers in the face of the New Cold War between Washington and Beijing. “