by General Bikram Singh, Former Chief of Army Staff
“Indeed, where climate change dries up rivers, reduces harvest, destroys critical infrastructure and displaces communities, it exacerbates the risks of conflict”
– Antonio Gueterres
The release of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on August 9, 2021, set the media abuzz with issues concerning climate change. However, owing to the extensive coverage of the national press’s geopolitical developments in the AfPak region, the same did not score the desired traction. Global warming has been repeatedly flagged by the IPCC in all its reports as the gravest threat to humanity, requiring urgent and focused mitigation initiatives by the international community. According to the IPCC, global temperatures would cross the level of 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decade. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically curtailed, the rising temperatures will spell disaster for life on our planet.
The number of climate-related disasters has tripled in the last three decades owing to a sluggish approach by most countries in evolving and implementing their National Climate Adaptation Plans (NCAP) in conformity with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In the last few months, devastating floods caused by torrential rains have triggered unprecedented landslides and ravaged villages and towns in Europe, China, and India. For the first time, western Canada recorded a scorching temperature measuring 49.6 degrees Celsius in the town of Lytton on June 30, 2021. Extreme heat and dry conditions have also fuelled wildfires the world over.
The rise in sea levels caused by the melting of polar ice and glaciers coupled with more frequent and intense coastal cyclones are threatening ecology, coastal infrastructure and various assets such as the industry, roads, railway lines, airfields, ports, harbours, tourist resorts, habitation and the electricity generation plants. As per the open-source information, while the global sea level has risen by about eight to nine inches since 1900, two-third of this rise has been recorded in the last two and half decades, pointing to the accelerated pace of global warming.
In South Asia, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has predicted that 17 percent of Bangladesh will be submerged by 2050, creating 20 million climate refugees, who would have no option but to gravitate towards India. The rising seas also threaten the very existence of Maldives. It is assessed that by 2100, almost 200 natural inhabited islands would submerge. In Myanmar, the sea is expected to inundate up to 10 km along the coastline of the Yangon delta in the next two decades. These encroachments by the ocean coupled with droughts, floods, erratic rainfall, cyclones, and other climate-driven disasters would force people to flee their homes in search of safer areas. The data released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in April this year shows that the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters since 2010 is 21.5 million. This figure is expected to go up to 1.2 billion by 2050, as predicted by the Institute for Economics & Peace, an Australian think tank.
India too has been a victim of nature’s fury from time to time. This year alone, cyclones ravaged both our coastlines inflicting loss to life and property. While cyclone Tauktae hit the southern Gujarat coast on May 17, 2021, cyclone Yaas hit Odisha and West Bengal coasts about a week later. In addition, torrential rains wrecked havoc in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Landslides in some of the hill states damaged roads, bridges and habitat. The rising temperatures also caused fires that ravaged forests in most of our states. A total of 3,45,989 forest fires were recorded across the country from November 2020 to June 2021, as per the government figures given out in response to a starred Rajya Sabha question.
Being 7th amongst the most climate-affected countries globally, India would continue to witness extreme climate events, displacing millions of people in the years to come. Between 1990 and 2016, we lost 235 square km of land to shoreline erosion, and according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, about 3.6 million people were displaced annually between 2008 and 2018. By 2050, the situation would exacerbate with the additional load of almost 20 million climate refugees just from Bangladesh, as assessed by WEF. Climate refugees would also trickle in from other affected countries of our neighbourhood, causing heavy stress on the existing facilities and governance ecosystem, triggering interstate conflicts. The scarcity of shelter, water, food, jobs and other amenities would create law and order problems in and around our urban centres, requiring additional police, central police organisation and even military resources. In all probability, insurgencies too would be fuelled to push people across our porous borders.
The security of our critical national assets located along the eastern and western cyclone-prone coasts needs ongoing attention. In addition to the military installations, most of our existing and planned civilian nuclear reactors and heavy water plants are located in these vulnerable zones. While hardening of various facilities by erecting dikes, dams, sea walls and surge barriers has been undertaken, adaptation response measures need to be upgraded regularly based on the global best practices. The contingency plans should also be rehearsed and updated periodically to ensure the infallible safety of our assets. Furthermore, lessons drawn from the Fukushima Daiichi accident of March 2011 should also be factored into our security plans.
Management of humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters would put heavy stress on the military resources along the coastline and other parts of the country. Even though the NDMA is the lead agency to deal with such national emergencies, the military’s pan India deployment and its commitment to our people’s safety would invariably make it the first or concurrent responder. As a tenet, when disasters strike and the lives of our people are at stake, the military does not wait to be requisitioned by the civil authority.
Military’s long term perspective plans and future warfighting strategies should consider the impact of global warming to minimise climate risks. The combat power should be adapted to withstand future climate shocks while pursuing national security goals and objectives. This would also require relocating some of our bases and installations from high vulnerability zones to safer areas. The training schedules and methodologies would require adaptation due to rising temperatures and flooding, which would shrink training areas and limit outdoor training hours. The disruptions of the lines of communications would cause heavy stress on the engineers and the airlift resources.
Apart from our focus on mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prudence suggests that we carry out a detailed study of the worst-case scenario expected in 2050. It will help us evolve future adaptation response measures and develop a more robust and relevant national disaster management capability. While doing so, we must not forget that the maximum security challenges would arise from the influx of climate refugees and internally displaced people. Therefore, besides augmenting the NDMA resources, priority should also be accorded to the bolstering of our security forces to enable them to effectively seal our borders and deal with heightened internal security situations. Raising additional departmental and non-departmental Territorial Army resources such as infantry, medical, engineer and inland water transport units should be considered.
Political will is vital for nations’ successful implementation of NCAPs to fulfil their commitment towards the Paris Agreement. As a regional power, India should take the lead in evolving a collaborative regional strategy that caters for mitigation and adaptation initiatives with oversight mechanisms. We all need to act in unison and with a sense of urgency. Failure to do so would deny our future generations their right to live in a healthy and secure environment.