At the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in 2014, member countries committed to work together against climate change, and raise a collective voice at international fora. That promise has been forgotten as India-Pakistan tensions have nearly derailed the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Even though member states like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal are among the countries most at risk from effects of climate change, and share river basins, a regional approach has been missing.
The next summit was originally planned to be held in Islamabad in 2016, was indefinitely postponed. India alleged that Pakistan was involved in an attack at its military base in Kashmir, and boycotted the conference. Collective dialogue between the member countries on climate have been in limbo ever since.
Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Stamford University in Dhaka, says that the need for South Asian solidarity to combat the effects of climate change is now more urgent than ever.
According to a report published by Germanwatch in 2021, Bangladesh is the seventh, Pakistan the eighth and Nepal the tenth most impacted country by the climate crisis.
“South Asian countries have not been able to sit together, discuss common issues, and come up with a unified vision,” Majumder said. “Doing so would make it easier to pressure developed countries in the international forum.”
SAARC countries also failed to raise their collective concern at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and did not even sit together for discussions on the sidelines.
However, the Minister for Climate and Forest Environment of India, Bhupendra Yadav, says that the discussions were held at ministerial level: “Informal talks took place between the concerned ministers.” No statements were made about what was discussed.
Stretching over 3,500km and across eight countries, the Hindu Kush Himalaya region is the source of 10 of Asia’s largest rivers as well as the biggest volume of ice and snow outside of the Arctic and Antarctica. Considered a biodiversity hotspot, the region is also home to about 1.3 billion people.
But at present, the mountains are warming between 0.3-0.7°C faster than the global average, snowlines are receding, glaciers are shrinking or their lakes in danger of bursting.
Coastal areas of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are threatened by sea-level rise.
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Harjeet Singh, a senior advisor to the International Climate Network, said that SAARC, adds, “The entire region of South Asia is at red alert, it is imperative that the member states work together in this crisis.”
However, India has been opposed to the multi-lateral approach involving its neighbours even though they are all at high risk – their oceans, rivers, deserts and mountain systems.
According to the 2020 report ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region‘ published by the Ministry of Earth Sciences of India, sea levels in India rose by 3.3mm per year between 1993-2017. By the end of this century, the levels are projected to rise by a whoping 300mm.
Yet, India has actively evaded discussions with neighbouring nations. “Climate issues have been overshadowed by geopolitical issues,” says Ahmed Kamruzzaman Majumdar. “Pakistan also does not seem interested in holding talks with India.”
Nepal’s former Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali also says that SAARC has become a victim of bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan. “SAARC could be more active, but tensions between them have severely hindered regional cooperation,” he says.
India’s interest seems to be strengthening the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), essentially overshadowing SAARC. Apart from SAARC countries, Thailand and Myanmar are also members of BIMSTEC, while Pakistan is not.
Nepal, however, disagrees about moving BIMSTEC forward at the detriment of SAARC. Kathmandu had even proposed to hold the 19th SAARC summit in nations other than Pakistan.
“BIMSTEC is also necessary, but the fact that South Asia is our common identity cannot be overlooked. We actively raised our voice in the government to ensure that SAARC is not overlooked in favour of BIMSTEC,” says Gyawali.
Former Foreign Secretary Madan Bhattarai says that other common problems have been exacerbated by SAARC’s inactivity. “When issues like climate change are dealt with through a forum like SAARC, our collective bargaining strength increases,” he says, “As president, Nepal will have to take initiatives with other member nations.”
He adds that besides climate, other issues like health, tourism, aviation and COVID are common burning issues that require cooperation through bodies like SAARC.
According to Raju Pandit, a climate expert who has participated in various international forums on climate change from Nepal, the issue of climate change has stark differences in outlook among the members of SAARC.
“We are talking about reducing carbon emissions. However, India does not like the idea of cutting back on coal use,” he said. “SAARC is now in a complete coma. If there are regional issues like climate change to deal with, we should lobby for the formation of a separate organization of small landlocked countries like Nepal.”
Translated from the original by Aryan Sitaula.