You are here

Geophysical Threats and ENMOD

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 16, 2008

    The term “environment” has come to be used in security discourse at three levels. At the first level is the issue of the degradation of the natural resource base, exhaustion of renewable resources and the upsetting of ecosystems by human action, all of which are contributing to environmental degradation and global climate change. The second level is the link between environment and war. Preparations for war and the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction have caused the maximum damage to the environment. And the third level pertains to the issue of the environment itself being used as a geophysical weapon of war.

    Environmental warfare is prohibited under the ENMOD – The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other use of Environmental Modification Techniques, which entered into force in 1978. Article 1 of the Convention stipulates that State Parties would not engage in military or any other hostile use of environment modification techniques having widespread, long lasting or severe effects as a means of destruction, damage or injury. ENMOD has 48 signatures and 72 deposits, thus making a total of 120 member states that adhere to the Convention. India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are all members of ENMOD; Bhutan, Myanmar, Maldives and Nepal are not.

    Though prohibited by ENMOD, geophysical techniques like busting of dams or glacial lakes as water bombs, triggering landslides or tsunamis, earthquakes, flash floods and manipulating weather as a weapon continue to draw the attention and concern of security planners and analysts. Fears are being fanned by the frequent and intense natural disasters that have been striking countries around the world in recent years. Frequent glacial lake outflow events in the Himalayas, the fear of dams being used as water bombs and diverting rivers to cause drought, are some of the most talked about events in this regard.

    The closest “threat” that is perceived in India is the use of water bombs on the Parechu River (a tributary of Satluj River which originates in Tibet) – the demolition of natural lakes that are formed, causing flash floods downstream. Another threat is the possible diversion of the Brahmaputra before it enters India. In spite of Chinese assurances given at the official, demi-official and non-official levels, security analysts continue to fear a northward Chinese diversion of the Brahmaputra at the massive Namche Barwa feature, where the Tsangpo (called Siang when it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh) takes a U-bend and drops in elevation rapidly. Articles in mainstream security journals in India keep featuring this threat as a routine. Some reports and articles even go to the extent of mentioning that peaceful nuclear explosions may be used for this purpose, further raising fears about downstream contamination. At the same time, China’s use of rockets to scatter rain clouds (to ensure perfect weather during the Olympics) as well as its programme of cloud seeding to induce artificial rain are seen as containing the potential of being transformed into geophysical weapons at some point in future.

    Mistrust on perceived manipulation of rivers and dams to cause drought or floods has not been removed so far by talks and diplomacy with Pakistan either. Before the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) came into being, it was usual for Pakistan to hype anti-India fear psychosis by referring to India’s control of the headwaters of the rivers that flow into Pakistani territory. The IWT apportioned the rivers between the two countries. Yet, the fear psychosis continues, since it is wrongly perceived by some in Pakistan that India can divert rivers at will. Scientific research has shown that the flow of the western rivers such as Indus, Jhelum or Chenab cannot be “switched off”. Even during the negotiations for the IWT, it was well known that only the Chenab can be diverted through a tunnel at Maru, but which has not yet been constructed. Unfortunately some analysts still refer to this possibility. While Indian analysts advocate this as a tool of coercive diplomacy, their Pakistani counterparts harp on this to keep the flame of suspicions alive. Even the IWT’s provision that India could have limited use of the western rivers has contributed to suspicion and mistrust. Pakistanis fear that they would be drowned if India were to tinker with the Baglihar dam on the Chenab, without realizing that the first impact of such a measure will be within India itself in Jammu and Kashmir well before the river enters Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

    Although ENMOD and the Geneva conventions have adequate provisions forbidding the use of the environment (which includes water of rivers) as a weapon, in reality its understanding is vague. For countries to build up mutual confidence there is a need to deliberate on these issues rather than merely harp about military deployment and troop exercises. One thing is, however, clear. The upper riparian country enjoys a natural advantage and this physical reality cannot be wished away. This places the onus upon it to assuage the fears of downstream countries.

    Greater diplomatic efforts are needed to remove such mistrust. These have to be supported by scientific evidence on the adverse impact that climate change may have in the near future. Transparent and collaborative research is one way of removing distrust between countries. Fresh diplomatic initiatives are needed to highlight the new, changed and recurring security concerns and address the issue of ENMOD with specific reference to the use of water and weather as weapons of war.