A new Cold War in the Himalaya

Glacial lake in the Kangchenjunga region in eastern Nepal near the border with China and India. The Himalaya face the twin threats of climate change and geopolitical rivalry. Photo: Alton Byers

For centuries, the Himalaya served as any icy frontier between empires, but even though because of connectivity it is no longer a barrier, the world’s highest mountain range has become a climate and geopolitical hotspot.  

Recent violent clashes between India and China in Ladakh and a border dispute between India and Nepal over a Himalayan valley have added to existing hostility between India and Pakistan as well as friction between China and Bhutan over Doklam

This comes on top of a climate emergency that is melting Asia’s water tower, the source of most the region’s big rivers on which 2 billion people downstream depend. 

Last week’s BECA pact between India and the United States is seen by many as a military alliance aimed at containing China, which makes their already ecologically fragile Himalayan border a strategic frontline in a new Cold War.

“The geopolitical strain across the Himalaya is taking attention away from climate change that will cause a future water crisis across South and Southeast Asia and China, which in turn will increase interstate tension even more,” predicted Sophia Kalantzakos, a professor at New York University Abu Dhabi at last week’s virtual conference, ‘The Himalayas: Geopolitics and Ecology of Melting Mountains’, that brought together academics and researchers from around the world.

Himalayan rivers and weather patterns do not respect borders, but experts said, governments make plans only up to the point where the rivers reach their national boundary and no further.  

“Recent tensions between India and China, India and Pakistan, and even India and Nepal mean that there is even less chance of cooperation between countries in the Himalaya,” said Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, who has worked on eco-system based governance of rivers in India for 35 years.

Other speakers in the virtual panels warned that while modern connectivity had made the Himalaya less of a physical barrier, that had also given the mountainous border between states a new strategic importance. Development of infrastructure had therefore become a matter of national security with competing schemes like China’s BRI and the American MCC.

“The Himalaya is no longer the natural barrier it once was, it is a now a contested border. But for us the mountains are home, they are not a boundary,” said Dipak Gyawali, a researchers who was once Nepal’s Minister for Water Resources. “The trouble is development has got completely securitised, and we are worried because climate change does not figure in any of this.” 

Virtual panel on ‘The Himalayas: Hotspot of Geopolitics?’ with Sophia Kalantzakos, Alex Davis, Ruth Gamble, Dipak Gyawali and Jayanta Bandyopadhyay on 29 October.

As the mountains melt, glaciers are turning into dangerously large lakes that have been bursting with increasing frequency. Alton Byers, an American mountaineer and geographer who specialises in mitigating glacial hazards in the Andes and Himalaya warned that Nepal and other countries in the region faced accelerated dangers from these lakes bursting.

Byers showed repeat photography using Swiss mountaineer Fritz Müller’s hotographs of the Khumbu Glacier from 1956, and comparing it with recent ones he had taken to reveal the loss in ice mass. “The concern about these lakes is the amount of water they hold,” he said. “Imja Lake has about 80 million m3 of water, and the concern is that if this is released suddenly it can result in a glacier lake outburst flood, unleashing enormous devastation downstream.”  

Reducing the risk posed by glacial lakes means lowering their water levels, but that is expensive business, Byers said. Many of these lakes also drain into rivers that flow into another country, for instance from China to India, or from China to Nepal so there has to be inter-state cooperation in mitigating the danger.

“We have an international order that is not fit for the purpose of confronting the climate emergency,” added Ruth Gamble, environmental and cultural historian of the Himalaya. “There’s no system, no imperative to look after rivers. We have states looking after their own interests, own territory, own securitisation and they don’t match with each other.”

The virtual conference on 29-30 October was organised by faculty and alumni from New York University Abu Dhabi in collaboration with the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich. The group is also running the interdisciplinary research initiative, Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water. 

Panels also looked at the non-human Himalaya and the region’s rich, but threatened, biodiversity. Charles Siebert, an author who has written extensively about wild elephants, said that despite the deaths and disruptions, the Covid-19 pandemic had forced people to take nature seriously again.

“The virus is forcing a human retreat, maybe there is something positive about this forced pause,” he said.

While the Himalaya may be a shared home for people, wildlife conservationists stressed that the mountains do not actually belong to anyone. 

As Alex Davis, professor at The University of Western Australia put it, “The earth is an actor in this conflict. The mountains are alive. The challenge is to protect biodiversity of the Himalaya while addressing human needs.” 

Nepali mountaineer and activist Shailee Basnet agreed. After climbing Mt Everest and the seven highest peaks in all seven continents, she said evidence of the impact of global warming could be seen everywhere – from the Andes to the Caucuses, from the Rockies to the Himalaya. 

She added: “When I was in the mountains, I really felt for the first time in my life, that there is no distinction between me and nature. I was an integral part of nature, and the mountains were speaking to me.” 

Read also:

Tracing past glacial floods in Kangchenjunga, Alton Byers

When melting mountains shake, Kunda Dixit

Himalayan rivalry impacts climate science, Ramesh Bushal

Trans-Himalayan handshake, Editorial

The India Nepal China geopolitical tri-junction, Kunda Dixit

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