Rethinking Cooperation in South Asia
Tariq Karim addresses the need to change the paradigm from conflict mitigation to integrated development on a sub-regional basis
Twenty-three years after it was established, despite over-ambitious pronouncement by some leaders about aiming for a Saarc Union and Saarc common currency, Saarc has not achieved much substantially anywhere in the same scale as the EU or the Asean that inspired its formation.
Regrettably, the Saarc process has been held hostage by: the continuing India-Pakistan hostilities that tend to marginalise every other aspect of intra-regional activity, a fortress mindset shaped by the colonial legacy of mutual mistrust, and an over-arching fear on the part of smaller countries of their perceived over-bearing domination by India, and requirement of unanimity in all Saarc decision-making.
In order to realise the vast but yet untapped potential of the region, some other approach is desperately needed now.
What Other Way?
In both the EU and Asean, progress was achieved incrementally. This helped in initial confidence-building and increasing mutual trust.
European co-operation started with six members in three bodies, and then more joined in and areas of cooperation also enlarged. Even now, not all members participate in all projects.
In Asean, the first decade and a half were devoted to solidifying confidence in each other and the process. The pragmatic approach in both processes was: initially, to do what is doable and build confidence and trust. Saarc too, should adopt this approach.
How Can This be Applied to Saarc?
The entire greater Saarc region can be viewed as comprising three sub-regions:
BBIN: Its eastern flank composed of Bangladesh, Bhutan, the north-eastern states of India, and Nepal
ISM: The middle zone consisting of southern India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
IPA: The western sub-region comprising western and north-west India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What interests one sub-region may not interest the others initially; but if the co-operative process is perceptibly significant, it will attract the attention of other sub-regions who will then want to link up with each other.
This would enable Saarc as a whole to embrace a dual-track approach. A sub-region could embark on a fast track approach -- fostering sub-regional coopera-tion and development at the "micro level" -- while the "macro level" process, i.e. the entire region's progress in regional co-operation could continue at more measured pace, until a satisfactory resolution is mutually arrived at between the larger powers. This approach need not be at the expense of the existing Sapta/ Safta and other arrange-ments already effectively in place.
Harmonising Domestic Priorities with Larger Concerns
The entire Saarc region is environmentally vulnerable. This paper is concerned largely with the eastern BBIN sub-region, Saarc's poorest region, as a pilot area for embarking on the sub-regional approach.
Environmental and ecological phenomena transcend political borders, and can only be addressed through cooperative interlocution and accommodating action by the several parties affected. Continuing environmental degradation and neglect in the BBIN sub-region will surely have adverse fall-outs for the greater South Asian region as well.
Substantially large populations, widespread poverty, underdevelopment, frequent natural disasters, festering insurgencies and extremist militant movements, and food crisis could well trigger larger regional instability and insecurity, with people in large numbers voting with their feet that would certainly have wider implications.
Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, a Canadian political scientist, had posited in 2002 that environmental degradation in combination with scarcity lead to violent conflict. One may well query here: Is the BBIN/SAGQ region a likely scenario for the above prognosis to play out?
Environmental Problems of BBIN Sub-region
Of grave concern immediately is incontrovertible evidence revealed by Nasa satellite imagery of serious recession in the glacial size and flow of the Gangotri in Nepal and glaciers everywhere in the Himalayas, which could transform the major rivers, like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra into seasonal rivers in the near future, by 2040 according to some estimates, when the glaciers may have lost most of their existing critical mass at the present rate of melting and depletion.
The looming water crises ahead facing India and China are additional factors of grave concern, particularly for Bangladesh. Reports of China's plan to dam the Brahmaputra -- Yarlung upstream within China -- and divert waters to the Yellow River will exacerbate the situation and have already raised alarms in India and Bangladesh.
Massive deforestation in this sub-region has also contributed to loss of bio-diversity, exacerbating global warming, by reducing areas of carbon sequestration and increasing soil erosion and loss of agricultural and habitable lands.
Bangladesh is very likely to see more frequent and heavier rainfall that would result in more severe flooding and increased land erosion. Flooding in the future is also likely to be more frequent and of longer duration, resulting in substantial crop damage and losses.
Larger Regional Food Issues
According to some calculations, a 2°C increase in mean air temperature could decrease rain-fed rice yields by 5-12% in China. In one scenario, net cereal production in South Asian countries is projected to decline by 4-10% by the end of this century. In Bangladesh, production of rice may fall by just under ten per cent and wheat by a third by the year 2050.
Rising Sea Levels and Vanishing Islands
Sea levels are also rising in the sub-region. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):
"Projected sea level rise could flood the residence of millions of people living in the low lying areas of South, Southeast and East Asia such as in Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and China."
If the Bay of Bengal were to rise by three feet by the turn of the century, it would swallow a fifth of Bangladesh. In all, a dozen islands, home to 70,000 people, are in danger of being submerged by the rising seas.
These Problems Cannot be Ignored or Solved Alone
So far, approaches to solution have been reactive, piecemeal and more mechanistic than dynamic. Entrenched mindsets of "bilateralism" have tended to inculcate an "escapist" syndrome.
It appears that Bangladesh would rather operate in the comfort zone of Bimst-EC, dealing largely with trade issues, rather than look SAGQ in the eye and seek solutions to a set of intertwined and much larger, but potentially far more consequential, issues. Of these, the rivers that form the complex arterial system of Bangladesh are by far the most important.
They all need training and better management, but piecemeal attempts at taming rivers simply will not work. Rivers have a dynamic and force of their own, and only collaborative efforts, involving people living along the rivers from their respective headwaters to their mouths, need to be engaged simultaneously and in tandem.
Suggested in the following page is a new paradigm of collaboration on better and more efficient management of renewable resources and optimising use of non-renewable resources in the sub-region.
Can We Do This?
Yes, we can. If we have the will and the gumption! Bangladesh and India were finally able to resolve the seemingly intractable issue of sharing the Ganges waters. India and Nepal were also able to similarly resolve their own dispute over the Mahakali River. India and Pakistan share the waters of the Indus River through a treaty brokered several decades ago by the World Bank that has withstood the tests of time and several wars between the two.
The same model may well be applied, with some adaptations to fostering sub-regional cooperation. The people of the region and policy makers need to shift from a mindset of reacting to crises to anticipatory thinking.
Collaborative and better management of renewable resources:
A holistic scheme of joint management of shared commons (waters resources, forestry) is suggested as the best possible way of addressing the myriad issues. Such an approach will also spread into:
-Creating massive employment of human resources.
-Expansion of existing irrigation channels.
-Creating water conservation reservoirs.
-Generating hydro-electric power from small to medium-sized hydro-electric projects in a series of barrages that would need to be set up to better manage the waters.
-Preventing land loss.
-Restoring forestry (potentially 25% of the land area).
-Reviving and expanding carbon sequestration zones.
-Reviving and opening up the rivers to better and more optimised used of river transportation.
-Linking/extending infrastructure for people-to-people communication and trade
Such a holistic and integrated approach would automatically synergise linkages between the various activities mentioned above.
Politics and Economics:
Much would depend on the respective, and collective, political will and attitudes of people and political leaderships. In South Asia, the reality is that economics is very much hostage to the political dynamics. The economic engine of any regional or sub-regional cooperation in South Asia will not run without its political spark plugs firing in unison.
Better management and optimising use of non-renewable resources:
The BBIN sub-region has estimated natural gas reserves of 190 billion cbm, coal reserves of over 900 million tons, oil reserves of at least 513 million tons, limestone reserves of over 4.3 billion tons.
Harnessing and proper management and utilisation of these resources would serve to dramatically transform the sub-region, and drastically eliminate the causes that lead to internal strife that have adverse effects for security and stability of the region.
There would be additional beneficial spin-offs that would inevitably follow in the wake of the holistic program suggested above. The incentives of trade, whether intra-state, inter-state, or border trade, would increase dramatically, while ancillary supportive infra-structure would be developed; rivers that are otherwise stagnating or literally dying would be rejuvenated, and open up supporting avenues for human activities without risk of environmental degradation.
Additionally, people-to-people contacts would be exponentially spurred, promoting better understanding and overall be conducive to peace, stability and cooperative development.
Tariq Karim was Ambassador of Bangladesh to the US, South Africa and Iran, and currently teaches as adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland, George Washington University and Virginia International University.