‘National security’ is perhaps one of the most nebulous concepts in statecraft. Broadly defined, and borrowing from US Legal, an American legal information provider, “it refers to the protection of a nation from attack or other danger by holding adequate armed forces and guarding state secrets.”According to US Legal, the term encompasses “economic security, monetary security, energy security, environmental security, military security, political security and security of energy and natural resources.”
Sticking with this broad definition of national security, many countries now consider climate change, which imperils the securities mentioned above, a national security threat and are stepping up efforts to cope with its adverse effects. That sadly is not the case in South Asia, and particularly in Nepal, even though the country is highly vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters.
The issue is frequently discussed among academic circles of South Asia, but not at the government or inter-governmental levels. In sharp contrast, the United States incorporated climate change threats in its 2015 National Security Strategy. In 2019, the US Congress finalized the Climate Change National Security Strategy Act, directing “Federal departments and agencies to perform certain functions to ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans, and for other purposes.” Such focused attention on the security implications of climate change has been missing in South Asia.
Our regional bodies like the SAARC and BIMSTEC also overlook this important aspect. For instance, the fourth BIMSTEC summit held in Kathmandu in 2018 expressed serious concern over environmental degradation. Its declaration talks about adverse impact of climate change and global warming on the fragile Himalayan and mountain eco-systems. But it stops short of recognizing climate change as a security threat. Likewise, the SAARC has an action plan on climate change but it too does not mention climate change as security threat for South Asian countries.
Elephant in the room
Climate change can result in large-scale loss of lives and homes. Besides inducing water scarcity and food and electricity crises, it could create fertile ground for terrorist groups and other criminals, posing obvious threat to national security. Floods, wildfires, and other disasters can contribute to social instability and conflict in affected areas.
With this in mind, “we have finally incorporated the issue of environment security and its link to national security in the recently formulated National Security Policy,” says Major General (Retd) Purna Bahadur Silwal, a member of a taskforce formed to draft the policy.
He bemoans the inadequate understanding of national security in government agencies, as climate change is still viewed exclusively through the lens of environmental degradation and natural disasters.
The national army should, Silwal argues, study potential threats of climate change, ensure weather-resilience, and plan for the deployment of its personnel during climate-induced disasters.
The security forces would do well to prepare. In the future, climate-induced natural disasters may put Nepal’s military installments and assets at risk. Climate change is also likely to affect the movement of security forces in times of conflict. The lives and livelihoods of rural folks have already been hit hard, which may lead to large-scale domestic or foreign migration, another potential source of conflict in these xenophobic times.
Maheshwor Dhakal, head of the climate change division at the Ministry of Environment and Population, accepts that climate change is a serious security threat. “Yet this fact is not reflected in government policy documents.”
Perhaps Nepal is more vulnerable to a changing climate compared to other South Asian countries. Its glacier lakes may burst and cause floods, destroying infrastructure and people’s lives in lower lands. According to a report prepared by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD): “One of the more spectacular effects of recent atmospheric warming in the Himalayas has been the creation of melt-water lakes on the lower sections of many glaciers… many of these lakes have burst their natural retaining dams and moraines.”
The report recommends regional-level meets of experts and leaders in order to develop a more coordinated approach to reduce the risk of glacial lake outburst.
All current institutional frameworks focus on disaster management, with the primary responsibility for it falling on the Ministry of Home Affairs and its disaster management unit.
Krishna Prasad Oli, member of the National Planning Commission, also confesses to not seeing climate change as a security risk. “We have a disaster-risk reduction framework from the center to the grassroots,” he says. “Our official documents are yet to portray climate change as a national security threat”