This not-so-positive prediction will focus on Indian and Pakistani geopolitics as it relates to climate change between the years of 2040 and 2050. As you read on, you’ll see two rival states struggle with violent domestic instability as climate change robs their ability to feed their rapidly growing populations. You’ll see two rivals try desperately to hold on to power by fanning the flame of public anger against each other, setting the stage for all-out nuclear war. In the end, you’ll see unexpected alliances form to intervene against a nuclear holocaust, while also encouraging nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.
But before we begin, let’s be clear on a few things. This snapshot—this geopolitical future of India and Pakistan—wasn’t pulled out of thin air. Everything you’re about to read is based off the work of publicly available government forecasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as information from a series of private and government-affiliated think tanks, and the work of journalists, including Gywnne Dyer, a leading writer in this field. Links to most of the sources used are listed at the end.
On top of that, this snapshot is also based on the following assumptions:
Worldwide government investments to sizably limit or reverse climate change will remain moderate to non-existent.
No attempt at planetary geoengineering is undertaken.
The sun’s solar activity does not fall below its current state, thereby reducing global temperatures.
No significant breakthroughs are invented in fusion energy, and no large-scale investments are made globally into national desalination and vertical farming infrastructure.
By 2040, climate change will have progressed to a stage where greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million.
You read our intro to climate change and the not-so-nice effects it‘ll have on our drinking water, agriculture, coastal cities, and plant and animal species if no action is taken against it.
With these assumptions in mind, please read the following forecast with an open mind.
Nowhere on Earth is the threat of all-out nuclear war more possible than between India and Pakistan. The cause: water, or rather, the lack thereof.
Much of Central Asia gets its water from the Asian rivers flowing from the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. These include the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers. Over the coming decades, climate change will gradually pick away at the ancient glaciers sitting atop these mountain ranges. At first, the rising heat will cause decades of severe summer flooding as the glaciers and snowpack melt into the rivers, swelling onto the surrounding countries.
But when the day comes (late in the 2040s) when the Himalayas are totally stripped of their glaciers, the six rivers mentioned above will collapse into a shadow of their former selves. The amount of water that civilizations across the Asia have depended on for millennia will shrink drastically. Ultimately, these rivers are central to the stability of all modern countries in the region. Their collapse will escalate a series of tensions that have boiled for decades.
Roots of conflict
The shrinking rivers won’t hurt India too much, as most of its crops are rain fed. Pakistan, on the other hand, has the world’s largest network of irrigated land, making agriculture possible in a land that would otherwise be a desert. Three-quarters of its food is grown with water pulled from the Indus River system, particularly from the glacier-fed Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab rivers. A loss of water flow from this river system would be a disaster, especially since the Pakistani population is expected to grow from 188 million in 2015 to 254 million by 2040.
Since the Partition in 1947, five of the six rivers that feed the Indus river system (that Pakistan depends on) are in Indian-controlled territory. Many of the rivers also have their headwaters in the state of Kashmir, a perennially contested territory. With Pakistan’s supply of water primarily controlled by its largest rival, confrontation will be unavoidable.
The decline in water availability may make agriculture in Pakistan next to impossible. Meanwhile, India will feel a similar crunch as its population grows from 1.2 billion today to almost 1.6 billion by 2040.
A study by the Indian think tank Integrated Research and Action for Development found that a rise of two degrees Celsius in global average temperature would cut Indian food production by 25 percent. Climate change would make the summer monsoons (that so many farmers depend on) more infrequent, while also impairing the growth of most modern Indian crops since many won’t grow well at warmer temperatures.
For example, studies run by the University of Reading on two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, lowland Indica and upland Japonica, found that both were highly vulnerable to higher temperatures. If temperatures exceeded 35 degrees during their flowering stage, the plants become sterile, offering little, if any, grains. Many tropical and Asian countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone and any further warming could mean disaster.
Other factors likely to come into play include the current trend of India’s fast-growing middle class adopting the Western expectation of abundant food. When you consider that today, India just barely grows enough to feed its population and that by the 2040s, international grain markets may not be able to cover domestic harvest shortfalls; the ingredients for widespread domestic unrest will start to fester.
(Side note: This unrest will deeply weaken the central government, opening the door for regional and state coalitions to seize control and demand even more autonomy over their respective territories.)
All that said, whatever food shortage issues India is expected to face, Pakistan will fare much worse. With their farming water sourced from drying rivers, the Pakistani agriculture sector won’t be able to produce enough food to meet demand. In short order, food prices will spike, public anger will explode, and Pakistan’s ruling party will find an easy scapegoat by diverting said anger toward India—after all, their rivers pass through India first and India diverts a sizeable percentage for their own farming needs.
Politics of war
As the water and food issue starts to destabilize both India and Pakistan from within, the governments of both countries will try to direct public anger against the other. Countries around the world will see this coming a mile away and world leaders will make extraordinary efforts to intervene for peace for a simple reason: an all-out war between a desperate India and a flailing Pakistan would escalate into a nuclear war with no winners.
Regardless of who strikes first, both countries will have more than enough nuclear firepower to flatten each other’s major population centers. Such a war would last less than 48 hours, or until both side’s nuclear inventories are spent. Within less than 12 hours, half a billion people would vaporize under nuclear blasts, with another 100-200 million dying soon after from radiation exposure and a lack of resources. Power and electrical devices across much of both countries would be permanently disabled from the electromagnetic blasts of those few nuclear warheads intercepted by each side’s laser- and missile-based ballistic defences. Finally, much of the nuclear fallout (the radioactive material blasted into the upper atmosphere) will settle and cause large scale health emergencies over surrounding countries like Iran and Afghanistan to the west and Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and China to the east.
The scenario above will be unacceptable to the big world players, who by the 2040s will be the US, China, and Russia. They will all intervene, offering military, energy, and food aid. Pakistan, being the most desperate, will exploit this situation for as much resource aid as possible, while India will demand the same. Russia will likely step up with food imports. China will offer renewable and Thorium energy infrastructure. And the US will deploy its navy and air force, providing military guarantees to both sides and ensuring no nuclear ballistic missile crosses the Indian-Pakistani border.
However, this support won’t come without strings. Wanting to permanently defuse the situation, these powers will demand both sides give up their nuclear arms in exchange for continued aid. Unfortunately, this won’t fly with Pakistan. Its nuclear arms will act as a guarantee for internal stability through the food, energy, and military aid they will generate. Without them, Pakistan has no chance in a future conventional war with India and no bargaining chip for continued aid from the outside world.
This stalemate won’t go unnoticed by surrounding Arab states, who will each actively work to acquire nuclear arms of their own to secure similar aid deals from global powers. This escalation will make the Middle East more unstable, and will likely force Israel to escalate its own nuclear and military programs.
In this future world, there won’t be any easy solutions.
Floods and refugees
Wars aside, we should also note the wide-scale impact weather events will have on the region. India’s coastal cities will be battered by increasingly violent typhoons, displacing millions of impoverished citizens out of their homes. Meanwhile, Bangladesh will be the worst hit. The southern third of its country, where 60 million currently live, sits at or below sea level; as sea levels rise, that entire region is at risk of disappearing under the sea. This will put India in a difficult spot, as it has to weigh its humanitarian responsibilities against its very real security needs of preventing millions of Bangladeshi refugees from flooding across its border.
For Bangladesh, the livelihoods and lives lost will be immense, and none of it will be their fault. Ultimately, this loss of their country’s most populated region will be the fault of China and the West, thanks to their leadership in climate pollution.
Reasons for hope
What you just read is a prediction, not a fact. Also, it’s a prediction written in 2015. A lot can and will happen between now and the 2040s to address the effects of climate change, much of which will be outlined in the series conclusion. Most important, the predictions outlined above are largely preventable using today’s technology and today’s generation.
To learn more about how climate change may affect other regions of the world or to learn about what can be done to slow, and eventually reverse, climate change, read our series on climate change via the links below:
WWIII Climate Wars series links
WWIII CLIMATE WARS: NARRATIVES
Southeast Asia, Drowning in your Past: WWIII Climate Wars P9
South America, Revolution: WWIII Climate Wars P11