The territories of Gilgit-Baltistan, Ladakh, Jammu, Kashmir and Aksai Chin are part of the greater Kashmir issue. These areas remain highly vulnerable to a three-prong crisis: disputes leading to conflicts between India and Pakistan and India and China; a human-induced, warming-caused climate change; and anticipated future water wars. India’s scrapping of occupied Kashmir’s autonomous status has escalated the regional situation with reactions from Pakistan and China. Meanwhile, rising temperatures and changing climate patterns have been wreaking havoc on existing mega glacier bodies across these territories — often termed as the globe’s third pole — harbouring more ice than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctica. The devastating impacts of changing climate patterns are expected to further stress the Indus River Basin which is being shared between Pakistan, India, some parts of China and Afghanistan. Resultantly, upper riparian states might change the course of water to fulfil rising demands and ignite a war between hostile neighbours. In the face of this triple crisis, it is extremely crucial to employ out-of-the-box strategies, using indigenous means to mitigate and resolve the greater Kashmir issue in order to undertake joint climate action and overcome anticipated water wars.
The Gravity of the Triple Crisis
Previously dormant disputes between China and India as well as India and Pakistan have been more active since New Delhi’s unilateral act of scrapping Kashmir’s autonomous status. There are renewed political claims between India and Pakistan over the entire Jammu Kashmir, Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan regions, while India and China remain eyeball to eyeball over the territories of Aksai Chin and Ladakh. Under the circumstances, prospects of a limited or a full-scale war across these territories are highly likely. The ongoing regional arms race and existence of weapons of mass destruction not only threaten the existence of millions of people living in these high valleys but also make billions of people living downstream vulnerable.
More alarmingly, while huge glacier bodies which satisfy the needs of almost 2 billion people have been melting due to global warming, the largest among them, the Siachen glacier, has actively been contested between Pakistan and India. More than 15% of these glaciers have already melted since 1970. If global temperatures are restricted to a 1.5ºC rise, 36% of these glaciers will be gone by 2100. Moreover, a 2º to 5ºC rise in global temperatures will make two thirds of these glaciers disappear. The fast melting of these glaciers is expected to cause floods and droughts in the short and medium run, and dry up of all the main rivers in the long run, and will affect billions of people through impacts on irrigation, agriculture, tourism, hydroelectric power, access to drinking water, flooding, and potential cross-border conflict.
This might affect the existing understanding of the shared river basins, especially between India and Pakistan. Until now, the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 brokered by the World Bank, remains instrumental in averting any major crisis. However, reduced water flow through the Indus will coincide with efforts by India to exploit its position as the upper riparian on key tributaries of the Indus to divert water for its own use. Thereby depriving downstream Pakistan of vital supplies and provoking a war between the two countries. The more concerning fact is that there is a disparity in conventional forces between India and Pakistan that might push things towards igniting a regional nuclear war. Scientists have calculated that such a conflict would result in 50 to 125 million fatalities, and produce a dust cloud covering much of the Earth, decimating global agriculture.
The Possible Way Out
The decades-long chronic disputes are the result of assessing these territories from a geopolitical perspective. Mountain ranges, river basins, and climate change do not respect international borders. However, defying geography, nation-states use territorial sovereignty to claim natural resources within their borders. The rising climate threat to freshwater sources and growing populations demand regional countries to change their lens and show a will to mitigate and resolve these disputes. The long-standing mistrust and ongoing escalation between adversarial neighbours remains a hurdle in achieving that feat. Thus, it is pertinent to entrust and empower the indigenous masses from these territories to find ways and means for the resolution of the greater Kashmir issue. It is imperative that a platform be given to these indigenous people to create a conducive environment for mitigating and resolving disputes over their own land. After all, the regional countries and international community remain unable to defuse the situation for decades.
Keeping in view the significance of these areas for regional and global ecology, one of the ways would be to contextualise it as a Global Environmental Free Zone (GEFZ). A regional consensus over considering these territories free from the barriers of trade and visas will certainly enhance a cooperative environment and increase revenue generation. While regional countries historically having control over these territories will respectively oversee the financial and other technical matters, the people from these mountain communities should be given greater representation to take the lead.
A special office comprising academicians, scientists and other legal experts, should be created to work simultaneously on matters of conflict and climate. These should be governed by the local governments of these mountain communities. A regional headquarters will be required to coordinate policies between and among mountain communities, suitably in GB. For the coordination of policies with regional countries, this newly created office should be represented in central decision making offices i.e. in the respective national assemblies and senates. To pragmatically inculcate this idea, there is a need to employ policy institutes across these areas for advocacy and narrative building. Moreover, the youth across these territories bear a great responsibility to lead green campaigns creating political and social movements in order to increase awareness and apply pressure on regional powers.
The regional countries of China, Pakistan and India must be cognizant of the eco sensitivity and exceptional potential these territories possess in terms of trade/transit routes, hydro power, eco-tourism, adventure sports, minerals, gemstones and so forth. The interplay of hardcore geopolitics and historic positions seem to restrict regional powers’ ability to perceive these territories naturally and utilise their full potential. It is time to forgo traditional thinking and save the region from disputes, climate crisis and anticipated water wars.
The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Research Society of International Law (RSIL), its editorial team, or its affiliated organizations. Moreover, the articles are based upon information the authors consider reliable, but neither RSIL nor its affiliates warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.