Atmospheric Warming and U.S. Strategic Interests in South Asia

by Chand Prasad, Ph.D.

With the exception of the polar regions, the frozen Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges contain more ice than anywhere else on Earth. The glaciers feed ten of the world’s most important river systems, including the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Mekong and Irrawaddy, and directly or indirectly supply billions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes. The Himalayan glaciers have been losing almost half a meter of ice each year since the start of this century— double the amount of melting that occurred between 1975 and 2000.

Climate change is a growing threat to the glaciers found in the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges—if carbon dioxide emissions are not cut rapidly, two thirds of these giant ice fields could disappear.  If global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C, then half the glaciers would be gone by 2100.  Even if the world takes dramatic action and limits warming to 1.5C by the end of the century, 36% of the glaciers will have disappeared.  Over the next few decades, the melting could accelerate due to warming and increased air pollution from a growing population.  The air pollutants come from the Indo-Gangetic Plain, one of the world’s most polluted regions. The dirty air makes the glacier situation worse by depositing black carbon and dust on the ice, hastening the thaw.  As melting continues, the predicted short term impact is increased flooding, but less ice in the glaciers could ultimately lead to drought. The affected area encompasses approximately 3,500km across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

For Afghanistan, springtime snowmelt from the Hindu Kush range is the major source of irrigation water, running through rivers and streams that originate in the mountains. Generally, little rainfall occurs during the main wheat-growing period from April to September, so the timing and duration of the annual snowmelt is a key factor in the volume of irrigation water and the length of time that it is available. Afghanistan is a landlocked country, bordered on the west by Iran, on the south and the east by Pakistan, and on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Afghanistan imports food from a number of these neighboring countries. However, with a shared border of 1,600 kilometers and a long history of trade, Pakistan is the dominant supplier of food to Afghanistan.

The Afghan/Pakistan region is of high interest to the U.S. military and policymakers, which continue to have major commitments in this region.  Afghanistan is strategically positioned between Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.  About 80% of conflicts in Afghanistan are related to resources like land and water, and to food insecurity—an immediate consequence of global warming, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  For instance in Afghanistan’s Helmand area, water has instigated conflict for decades and been central to foreign intervention since the early cold war, when the United States got involved in irrigation projects.  In the coming decades, climate change and growing instability will pose a key threat to U.S. strategic interests, with the possibility of armed conflict spreading from Afghanistan into nuclear-armed Pakistan. 

Chand Prasad’s website:

Further Reading
Climate Change and Agriculture 
Global Warming and Geo-Engineering

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