Border Disputes Threaten Climate Science in the Himalayas

Molden recalls how bad blood almost thwarted a key program involving the sharing of water data. In that instance, he says, an international team of scientists had gathered in Nepal, at ICIMOD headquarters, when one scientist claimed—without evidence—that data sharing would create a national security threat. Molden says he worried that the scientist would press the issue with politicians, who might have called for an end to the collaborative project. “Luckily,” he says, “we had enough friends in enough places” that they were able to defuse the tension.

In 2017, Chinese and Indian troops faced off on a strategically important strip of land in the mountain nation of Bhutan. Shortly after, China suspended the continuous supply of data on rainfall, water level, and discharge that had helped downstream Indian communities predict and prepare for flooding events.

“A lot of people in this region say information is power, and they would like to retain that, control their power,” says Arun Shrestha, a climate change specialist who studies water systems and glaciers for ICIMOD. “They would think that having information gives you the upper hand in discussions and negotiations.”

The chronic border conflict between China and India flared up again last May, with troops clashing along the Line of Actual Control in the northeastern part of Ladakh. In June, 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed in the fighting. In the subsequent months, India raised tariffs on many products it imports from China on which many of its industries—including renewable energy—depend. That border confrontation continues to this day, posing a national security threat for both nations. In this particular instance, wildlife management programs may have suffered the biggest scientific blow, but tension in the region threatens to disrupt climate science too.

China and India have a lot to gain from climate cooperation, says climate policy researcher Robert Mizo of the University of Delhi in India. The two nations face similar challenges, including curbing pollution and safeguarding the glaciers, which feed the river systems that serve as vital sources of freshwater to both nations. And China and India often form a united front on climate diplomacy, with similar perspectives on issues such as emission caps.

Indian and Chinese leaders have so far missed some opportunities to work together to mitigate the impacts of climate change, Mizo says, noting that the lack of cooperation doesn’t bode well for the environment. Either countries need to solve the problem of border security, he says, or they need to learn to separate border issues from climate change efforts. So far, he concedes, this hasn’t happened.

Even when data is shared freely, geopolitics can intrude on the science, says Ruth Gamble, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. An expert in the history of Himalayan environmental changes, Gamble looked at efforts to study black carbon in the region. According to Gamble, black carbon contributes significantly to the region’s warming. But when she looked at the available studies, she was surprised to discover that the bulk of the Chinese mapping efforts took place near the Indian border or in the middle of the Tibetan Plateau where nomad communities burn yak dung. Meanwhile, there was a dearth of data from the Chinese industrial areas where much coal is burned.

“I’m not actually sure that anyone set out to do this,” Gamble says. But, she adds, “you get this kind of implicit nationalism in the way that these things are done. And then Indian sources will say ‘No, no, it’s not us; it’s China. They’re the ones that produce a lot of carbon.’”

Today, the Ladakh standoff represents a major threat to Himalayan science, yet Molden says he feels that governments really do want to “leave a door open for science.” Last October, with political relations at one of the lowest points in recent history, government officials from India, China, and the other Himalayan countries signed a joint declaration committing to increased cooperation in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

For now the declaration remains aspirational. Molden acknowledges that after the violence at the border, there may be some areas in which both sides are more cautious about sharing information. “Luckily, on the science side, there’s typically been an open space for that kind of dialog,” he says, “in spite of tension.”


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