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Climate pressures and geopolitics in Pakistan: the case for regional cooperation

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What are the most pressing climatic shocks impacting Pakistan’s security situation?

In the short to medium term, water scarcity in some areas and flooding in others represent the most serious climate-related threats. Water scarcity in parts of Sindh and Balochistan threatens the livelihood of locals who rely on livestock, while flooding threatens the agricultural heartland of Punjab and Sindh.

Similarly, many of Pakistan’s urban areas and farmlands rely on groundwater abstraction to meet domestic, agricultural and industrial needs. Rainfall plays an important role in recharging these aquifers. But increasing temperatures and variations in rainfall, coupled with heat stress and a high population growth rate, will likely drive internal migration and/or displacement. The country already has one of the highest rates of urbanization in the region and climate change is expected to increase that.

In a multi-ethnic country where a considerable portion of the population already lives below the poverty line, unemployment and migration, coupled with resource scarcity can potentially cause a spike in crime, allow sectarian militant networks to find more breathing space and drain valuable financial resources from the national exchequer.

How does climate change influence geopolitical conflicts in Pakistan and the region?

South Asia is among the regions that are most vulnerable to climate change, but cooperation and dialogue between two major players in the region – India and Pakistan – over the matter has been woefully limited.

Changing rainfall patterns, melting glaciers in the Himalayas, higher temperatures and population growth in both countries threaten the Indus Water Treaty agreement reached between them in 1960. So far, the treaty has survived two wars and other military skirmishes.

The nuclear-armed neighbours are already locked in a tense dispute over the territory of Kashmir, the region through which the rivers flow into Pakistan – a country reliant on agriculture.

Similar tensions also exist in China-India and India-Bangladesh relations over water sharing. In a region where three of the four primary stakeholders possess nuclear weapons and are locked in an arms race, the focus has been on managing geopolitical tensions; but climate change, which can multiply and intensify the sources of such tensions, has been given limited priority.

How can the international community support mitigating climate security risks in the region?

As far as climate-related security threats in the region are concerned, diplomacy between the important stakeholders is of paramount importance. At the moment, political tensions between India and Pakistan have limited the scope of engagement over the issue. In this regard, the international community can play a constructive role by supporting diplomatic initiatives with regard to climate change. Pakistan has traditionally focused on the Kashmir dispute as the critical element in all talks, while India has focused on the terrorism issue. There is a convergence of interests in terms of climate change and ample room for cooperation, but political disagreements continue to squeeze this space.

Internally, water-related issues lie behind the security threats that Pakistan faces. At the moment, more than 90% of the country’s freshwater resources are consumed by the agricultural sector (which is notoriously inefficient). Reforming the agricultural sector must, therefore, be an integral component of any climate change risk management strategy, given that water availability has now fallen below 1,000 cubic meters per person. As such, the international community can play an important role in helping Pakistan introduce environmentally sensitive technologies and provide financing options for developing climate change resilient agriculture.


Moeen Khan writes about Pakistani climate and security issues for Pakistan Today. He is a Social Sciences graduate from the Lahore School of Economics, specialized in national security and environmental risk management.

This interview was conducted by Raquel Munayer, adelphi