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Question – India, being a responsible regional power, should invest in a regional action plan for disaster management. Discuss the statement in light of the increasing vulnerability of the South Asia region. – 19 May 2021
Over the last decade, South Asia’s environmental disasters have increased, and people have suffered greatly. Floods are not uncommon in Pakistan, but when 1/5 of the country was affected by floods in 2010, it became clear that climate change had started taking place on a large scale. According to climate scientists, the major cause of these floods is the rise in sea temperature. Similar catastrophic floods have occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2014, Uttarakhand in 2013 and several parts of India in 2015.
Unlike many developed countries, South Asia is vulnerable to environmental problems due to lack of industrialization and high dependence on agriculture. When a state’s economy weakens due to external, environmental reasons, the country’s security is also negatively affected. The lack of resources due to climate change can further increase tensions between India and Pakistan. For example, Pakistan has accused India of violating the Indus Water Treaty by constructing dams that threaten Pakistan’s food and water security. This tension may be the cause of armed conflict due to the dependence of both countries on water resources. Similarly, the ongoing dispute in Kashmir is not merely ideological. The rivers of Kashmir supply fresh water to one billion people of India and Pakistan. In the same way, conflicts over resources may give extremists an opportunity to increase volatility by taking advantage of the situation.
- Unlike India and Pakistan, over the next 40 years, rising sea levels will submerge 17 percent of Bangladesh’s land surface, leaving 18 million people homeless. In Nepal, 1.7 millimeters of topsoil is destroyed each year during the monsoon cycle, negatively impacting the ability to grow land crops for sale or livelihood.
- A number of political causes in South Asia have spoiled this fragile status quo, including weak institutional mechanisms, effective coordination and lack of preparedness between relevant agencies, and absence of accountability. In 2014, during floods in Indian-administered Kashmir, due to lack of disaster relief resources, locals had to participate in rescue efforts. The Pakistani National Disaster Management Authority has a similar history of inactivity during natural disasters.
- Since environmental challenges do not respect international borders, this fragile situation calls for stronger environmental diplomacy among South Asian states. Bringing these issues internationally will be an important step. Countries should use the platform of South Asian regional cooperation to pressurize internationally and obtain financial support. For example, South Asian countries may also add environmental protection clauses to their security and trade deals with other countries, most notably with the US. Effective lobbying for these issues by South Asian states at international forums is also necessary because the US administration does not seem ready to play the necessary role. Steps such as the appointment of climate change skeptics to important cabinet positions, and the withdrawal of the Paris Climate Accord indicate the administration’s reluctance to tackle the problem, despite the fact that the US could have had a meaningful, positive impact.
India needs to invest in regional disaster relief mechanisms:
- On September 3, 2020, a large raw material carrier MT New Diamond caught fire on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Four ships of the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) carrying a 270,000 tonne oil route to Odisha, and rescuers by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and Navy, were helped to rescue the members and prevent oil spills. India’s response was initiated through the South Asian Cooperative Environmental Protection (SACEP) to coordinate the pollution response in the South Asian sea region. In 2018, India has signed a memorandum of understanding with SACEP appointing ICG as the competent authority for implementation under the initiative.
- This response is unique in the sense that it was developed through a regional framework to address environmental emergencies. Historically, a major feature of India’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) strategy has been the emphasis on bilateral engagement with the affected country. This year, for example, Indian assistance to deal with the MV Wakashio oil spill in Mauritius and aid to countries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic both are technically bilateral. One often cited reason for this is India’s urge to respect regional sovereignty while extending relief measures. The emphasis on bilateral emergency assistance has hindered the development of a regional mechanism for disaster relief in India’s neighborhood.
- After the 2015 Nepal earthquake, India launched its biggest relief operation. However the successful operation sparked some criticism in Nepal, who accused it of hindering other international efforts.
- SAARC has codified disaster management in 2006 by adopting a comprehensive framework on disaster management and establishing the SAARC Disaster Management Center (SDMC) as part of its mandate. In 2011, SAARC approved the agreement on “South Asia Rapid Response to Natural Disaster” (SARRND), which formalized a policy for a cooperative response mechanism in the region. In addition, SAARC Food Bank was established in 2007.
- While these are commendable initiatives, there is still a long way to go towards building an effective regional disaster relief mechanism. This is best illustrated by the fact that despite having an official policy as SARRND, no abstract-level detachment has been deployed during emergencies in the region. Similarly, in BIMSTEC, although Member States have shown willingness to work together on relevant issues, there is a large gap to fill the context of establishing operational procedures for joint relief operations.
- Under BIMSTEC, India is making pioneering efforts for the “Environment and Disaster Management” priority sector, and established the BIMSTEC Center for Weather and Climate as a platform to share information and build capacity on disaster-warning systems.
With climate uncertainty, humanitarian emergencies in the region are on the rise. India should invest in a regional framework for disaster management, and take the lead in establishing a road map for greater cooperation. Coordinating comparative benefits for capacity building and collective action through training and joint exercises will help India to gain goodwill among its neighbors through its disaster relief programs.