The Future of South Asia: Nuclear, Climate & Security Nexus in India & Pakistan

Earlier this year, The Council on Strategic Risks convened its multidisciplinary Working Group on Climate, Nuclear, and Security Affairs to further investigate the intersections of these trends.  In the forthcoming weeks, CSR will publish a series of posts expanding on workshop discussions.  

By Andrea Rezzonico and Christine Parthemore

The Working Group on Climate, Nuclear, and Security Affairs, a project of CSR’s Converging Risks Lab, examines the nexus of existential threats stemming from climate change and nuclear risks—overlaid on the stress of ongoing security challenges such as terrorism and state fragility.

CSR’s work on intersecting climate, nuclear, and security issues includes trends in both nuclear weapon capabilities and civilian nuclear developments, as both have consequences for the evolving global security environment. In our Working Group’s most recent deliberations, its multidisciplinary experts called out nuclear weapons possessing or hosting countries as the most important for our further research. Not surprisingly, Pakistan and India topped the list.

In late February, Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) launched a deadly attack on Indian forces stationed in Kashmir. India responded by conducting airstrikes on JeM training sites in Pakistan’s territory. The Indian government insisted that militants were killed but Pakistan refutes any casualties, and organized a meeting of its nuclear command authority to discuss retaliation options.

These confrontations are rooted in a decades-long history of simmering and at times hot tensions including over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In recent years both countries have also suffered major energy- and climate-related stresses. This past monsoon season was one of the most devastating in decades while Pakistan set a world temperature record for the month of April. Under some emissions scenarios, studies indicate that key areas in the region may become essentially uninhabitable this century.

Both countries have civil nuclear energy programs as well as nuclear weapons, though neither state is part of the NPT, further complicating the region’s security landscape.

In 2016, nuclear expert Zia Mian noted that in addition to skirmishes along the Line of Control and attacks by Islamist militants on Indian cities, power over the Indus River system could trigger a war between the two countries. Pakistan relies heavily on the river and its tributaries for its water, agriculture, and electricity needs. During the first war over Kashmir in 1948, India cut off a portion of Pakistan’s access to water, essentially utilizing the resource as a weapon of war. In recent days, New Delhi threatened to block Pakistan’s share via dam construction.  Islamabad considers India’s retaliatory hydro- infrastructure development as a “pressing national security threat and one that may call for extreme responses.” For most of this region, demographic trends and climate change projections indicate worsening water issues that both countries will have to grapple with.

Nuclear weapons and climate change are a dangerous and destabilizing combination. If not prepared for and handled properly, the effects of climate change may overwhelm governance mechanisms, threaten state resiliency, act as a threat multiplier, and lead to higher chances of (miscalculated or intentional) conflict escalation, including among nuclear powers. On the other hand, Indo-Pacific countries such as Pakistan, India, and China have a strong role in shaping the international nuclear landscape and the future of arms control, and may take leadership positions in mitigating strategic risks such as climate change and nuclear weapons use. In terms of South Asia’s water challenges, the existential importance of the resource has the potential to either facilitate inter-state cooperation or illicit conflict amongst regional competitors.

After Pakistan shot down an Indian military jet and returned the pilot as a gesture of peace, the situation appears to be stabilizing. However, this has not changed the fact that India and Pakistan will continue to have to manage a complex web of tensions and challenges.

These recent events underscore why CSR will focus this year on further understanding the climate, nuclear, and security nexus for these countries.

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