The South Asia Channel

Green diplomacy

As the Obama administration rethinks its strategy for South Asian engagement, and Senator John Kerry assumes his duties as Secretary of State, a more "naturalized" approach to diplomacy should be considered. Despite their many differences, South Asia's acrimonious nations are tied together by ecological factors which can provide fertile ground for regional cooperation, thereby building trust in other areas and reducing chances of greater conflict. The term "ecology" connotes environmental factors such as climate change, water and food availability as well as pollution concerns, but more significantly implies an appreciation for the relationship which humans must have with their environment in order to form productive societies. Given President Barack Obama's bold statement at his second inauguration regarding the salience of climate change, and his commitment to peace-building in South Asia, the timing may be right for making these connections for 'green diplomacy.'

The greatest loss of human life and economic damage suffered by South Asia since 2001 has not been due to terrorism and its ensuing conflicts, but rather due to natural disasters ranging from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Indus floods of 2010 to seasonal water shortages and drought.  Although such calamities themselves might not be preventable, their human impact can certainly be mitigated. Such mitigation of environmental stresses is most efficacious through regional approaches to ecological cooperation to draw on efficiencies across the ecology of the area. Furthermore, the cooperation from such regionalism has the potential for building trust to resolve long-standing territorial disputes, especially between India and Pakistan. 

Raising ecological factors from a technocratic matter to one of high politics will require leaders to reconsider the role of existing regional organizations, most notably the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as well as scientific organizations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). SAARC's charter, for example, prevents India and Pakistan from linking technical regional cooperation to broader territorial disputes that are deemed to be bilateral matters. However, bilateral agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan are also confined by their highly specific terms of reference. The treaty has been tested by the numerous ongoing disputes between the two countries on water management projects, but it was never intended to be an ecological management agreement; rather, it divided up the rivers based on water flow metrics. Instead of renegotiating an agreement that is structurally focused on dividing natural resources rather than finding environmentally efficient solutions, it would be more productive to consider new cooperative mechanisms regarding conservation and improving the quality of the watershed.

International environmental treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands protection, which include transboundary cooperation within their mandates, can also provide a mechanism for linking ecological cooperation to broader resolution of disputes and enhanced regional security. If with technology nations can find more efficient means of water and energy utilization across South Asia, the pressures on distributive aspects of water and energy scarcity can also be reduced, thus lessening the chance for conflicts over these resources.

The most consequential ecological features in South Asia are the Himalayas and the rivers that are largely derived from their geography. Some of the worst territorial disputes in the region also span these mountains. Hence, scientific and socio-cultural research on mountain ecosystems is likely to play a pivotal role in galvanizing regional cooperation and reaping peace dividends. International development donors need to configure existing programs to incentivize projects that build trust and have the potential for subsequent peace-building.

For example, cooperation on glacial scientific research or estuarine ecology could be constructively linked to resolution prospects for the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes.  Some of the notable programs with potential for such reconfiguration include the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE), the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy (SARI/Energy), and the South Asian Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP). Yet, the current approach of donors, as exemplified by efforts such as ICIMOD's program covering seven transboundary corridors (none of which include both India and Pakistan), tends to focus on the low-hanging fruit rather than initiatives that could provide a more lasting impact on regional peace. Connecting environmental factors with basic human necessities such as food and healthcare can also raise the political prominence of these approaches. Recent concerns about communicable diseases such as dengue and polio can provide impetus for regional cooperation that has broader peace-building goals.  

Trade can also be more appropriately configured to consider environmental factors as a cooperative mechanism. For example, goods for which one country has a comparative advantage in terms of climate or water availability could be targeted for trade priority. Thus trade should focus on importing products whose energy or water inputs are more efficiently obtained elsewhere rather than trying to build massive new domestic infrastructure for water or energy. At the same time, trade in energy itself, through efforts such as gas pipelines or technology transfer for renewable energy infrastructure, should be encouraged, as the huge rise in resource consumption projected for South Asia will require supply-side as well as demand-side cooperative strategies.

All of these prospects for ‘green diplomacy' are pragmatic and plausible if science can be coupled with good leadership and resource incentives from the international community.  South Asia has much potential for development and peace but the linkage between ecology and security will be essential in most efficiently and effectively realizing that potential.

Saleem H. Ali is professor of politics and international studies at the University of Queensland Australia, and the founding director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont. He is the author most recently of a report titled "Ecological Cooperation in South Asia: The Way Forward"  for the New America Foundation. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/GettyImages