Border disputes threaten climate science in the Himalayas

Molden recalls how bad blood nearly thwarted a key program involving the sharing of water data. In this case, he said, an international team of scientists had gathered in Nepal at ICIMOD headquarters when a scientist claimed – without evidence – that sharing data would create a threat to national security. Molden said he feared the scientist would push the matter up with politicians, who could have called for an end to the collaborative project. “Fortunately,” he said, “we had enough friends in enough places” that they were able to defuse the tension.

In 2017, Chinese and Indian troops clashed over a strategically important strip of land in the mountain nation of Bhutan. Soon after, China suspended the continued provision of rainfall, water level and flow data, which had helped Indian communities downstream to predict and prepare for flooding.

“A lot of people in this region say that 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 erupted again last May, with clashes of troops along the line of effective control in the northeastern part of Ladakh. In June, 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed in the fighting. Over the following months, India increased tariffs on many products it imports from China on which many of its industries depend – including renewables. This border confrontation continues to this day, posing a threat to the national security of both countries. In this particular case, wildlife management programs may have suffered the biggest scientific blow, but the tension in the region also threatens to disrupt climate science.

China and India have a lot to gain from climate cooperation, says climate policy researcher Robert Mizo of the University of Delhi in India. Both countries face similar challenges, including reducing pollution and saving glaciers, which feed the river systems that serve as vital sources of fresh water for both countries. And China and India often form a united front on climate diplomacy, with similar perspectives on issues such as emissions caps.

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

Even when data is shared freely, geopolitics can encroach on 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, carbon black contributes significantly to the warming of the region. But when she looked at the available studies, she was surprised to find that the bulk of Chinese mapping efforts have taken place near the Indian border or in the middle of the Tibetan plateau where nomadic communities burn yak dung. Meanwhile, there was a dearth of data on Chinese industrial zones where much of the coal is burned.

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

Today, the Ladakh stalemate poses a major threat to Himalayan science, but Molden says he believes governments are serious about “leaving a door open to science”. Last October, with political relations at one of the lowest points in recent history, government officials from India, China and other Himalayan countries signed a joint declaration committing increased cooperation in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

For now, the declaration remains ambitious. Molden recognizes that after the border violence there may be areas where both sides are more cautious about sharing information. “Fortunately, on the science side, there has generally been an open space for this kind of dialogue,” he says, “despite the tension.”

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