Building regional cooperation

Can people across the Himalayan region mobilise to build a common, collaborative response to the impacts of climate change? Isabel Hilton interviews Mohan Munasinghe, vice chairman of the IPCC.

Mohan Munasinghe is a Sri Lankan physicist and the vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He is also chairman of the Munasinghe Institute for Development and director-general of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. On August 31, Munasinghe will speak at “Kathmandu to Copenhagen 2009”, a conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, that focuses on the vulnerabilities of South Asian countries to climate change and aims to catalyse a common Himalayan response. Isabel Hilton, editor of chinadialogue, spoke to him before the conference.

Isabel Hilton (IH): Since the
Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published, a number of scientists have warned that the situation is worse than it appeared in that assessment. Is that your view?

Mohan Munasinghe (MM): There was a conference in Copenhagen in March in which I was part of a small group who updated the IPCC Fourth Assessment, based on 2005 data. We brought four years of new data and, as you say, the climate processes are further advanced and substantially worse.

IH: Himalayan glacier melt is predicted to impact food security, cause catastrophic events, cross-border conflict over water and forced migration, all in countries that are relatively poor and whose peoples are not best equipped to adapt. In some of these countries the political panorama is not encouraging. What can be done, and who should do it, to prepare for the adverse impacts?

MM: The Himalayan issue is very underrated and not getting the attention it deserves. When one thinks of poor people who are being impacted by climate change, one thinks of Africa and so on, but I think South Asia, and particularly the watersheds that are fed from the Himalayas, are equally vulnerable.

As to who should be doing something about it, the global community, especially the Annex I countries, have a major responsibility, because in addition to mitigation there is an important obligation to help the poorest. This is an issue of social justice and equity and I think the Annex I countries should pay special attention to the Himalayan region in launching their adaptation programmes.

IH: But this is a region fraught with political tensions. Why is cooperation important, how can we foster it and what would you hope to see it achieve?

MM: You have identified one of the weak points: the question of governance in many countries. But this is not just a question of government. Governance is an issue for civil society and to a certain extent business. To the extent that, for example, the Maoists [in Nepal] have a lot of grassroots mobilisation capability, I think they should sit up and do something, because they are the people who are going to be affected.

IH: How is it possible to build cooperation under these circumstances?

MM: I have been involved in conflict management in many places, most of them on resource issues – land, water and so on. Almost invariably, if you sit down and analyse technically, you can come up with a cooperative solution in which everybody benefits, a win-win outcome, whereas a conflict or non-cooperative outcome usual destroys much of the resource. This I think is a very important aspect here, which is that climate change will affect water and the watersheds, upstream and downstream, land and water quality. Cooperation is very important.

Outside the question of natural resources, things like economic and trade cooperation can also be developed and can be complementary. The bottom line is that if the problems are to be resolved in this region with so many trans-boundary resources, starting with the rivers, cooperation is extremely important.

But of course, in practical terms, the problem that you have identified correctly is that trust is lacking, certainly at a government level and perhaps at individual level. So I think one should start here. I think SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] is a bad example, because it is one of the regional organisations which have lagged behind simply because of mistrust.

So my approach would be very drastic: to start bilaterally. Two countries can work out water sharing agreements or an exchange of energy on a purely pragmatic basis. They don’t even have to like each other – just to see a mutual profit. Then you can expand that to sub-regional arrangements, involving perhaps three SAARC countries and eventually you would get the whole of the SAARC region, working together as ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] does. If this pragmatic approach starts with the resources, trade and the economics, I am sure that eventually agreement could be reached on climate measures as well.

IH: Some of the current difficulties of cooperation are to do with the state of knowledge and the sharing of data and scientific information.

MM: The sharing of information is also a question of mutual trust. If you look at other watershed or riparian questions, the US-Mexico agreement on the Rio Grande, or some of the European agreements – the Rhine Valley for instance, you find that countries which have not seen eye-to-eye on many issues have managed to work things out. The point is that if the technical people agree on a win-win outcome, you get some agreement – even if it is a partial agreement that both sides can agree to. In data sharing, where for example you have to reveal the minimum amount of water you need, you expose your vulnerability; if you are doing an agreement on, say, energy sharing, you have to give out information on your petroleum supplies and so on. I don’t think that these are state secrets; a lot of these figures are well known, so sharing information is not going to be such a big handicap.

IH: So that shouldn’t inhibit cooperation?

MM: I don’t think so. Countries are very concerned about revealing their vulnerabilities, but these things are very well known. As a technical person, I find that a great deal of information is already available. So the more important point is that once you have a sharing agreement and you adapt your development path to the assumption that a given amount of resources – a certain water or energy flow is going to be available – you become vulnerable to the possibility that the other party might renege on you. For that you have to have a firm agreement and an agreed framework of a win-win outcome, so that if you try to damage the other person, you damage yourself – you cut off your nose to spite your face.

IH: But in practical terms, looking at a river for instance, it seems as though the upstream party has the power. What is in it for the upstream party?

MM: Not necessarily. One of the most extreme examples is the Nile, where Egypt (a downstream party) has the lion’s share, and the upstream countries are unhappy and say they need more of it. What they have to work out is that the status quo cannot go on, because if there is a less than fair allocation of a resource, those other countries may resort to other means to redress it. Even if you are downstream, there are ways that you could retaliate.

If somebody builds a dam across the river, there could be trade or other kinds of actions you could take. That’s up to the technical people who are working it out to benefit both sides. I agree with you that the upstream parties generally have control of the water, but even then, there can be incentives for them to give more. If you look at any agreement you will see that the upstream parties tend to have greater influence, unless the downstream party is a bigger, more powerful country. If India is downstream from Nepal, I think the Nepalis would be very careful with what they did in terms of damming the rivers. They might dam the rivers and use some of the water, but the power that is generated from the dam might be given to India at a cheaper rate. There are all kinds of deals in circulation.

IH: What role do you see for the peoples of the region? Are they passive victims, or can they be incorporated into adaptation strategies? How can their interests be defended when they are threatened by political and economic elites?

MM: This is a major point because I have a feeling that with climate change, as with other important problems, unless the poor help themselves nobody else will. I think the rich will continue to consume and their efforts to mitigate and to help the poor will be less than what are required. There will be efforts, but not enough. I think the poor have to be empowered to help themselves, and I think that this is such a tough situation that they will. It could result in some instability, because shortage of water and shortage of food are major trigger points. We can talk about climate change 100 years from now, but shortage of water is in the next five to 10 years and food security problems are much more immediate. I don’t know what one could do to bring about the empowerment, but it will have to happen. Otherwise governments will not move, because governments tend to be dominated by elites who are less directly affected.

This is a new situation in which the victims have to start helping themselves. In most cases of starvation the victims are dependent on others to help them. But in this case, if the poor want an adaptation strategy, they cannot depend on the political elites either outside their country or within their country, in my view.

IH: What means do they have to gain this empowerment?

MM: I think that information is going to be a very important factor. Most of the poor historically have adjusted to climatic and other changing conditions, but the climate-change phenomenon will move the boundaries of, for instance, drought or floods outside their normal experience, so that the traditional knowledge they have – their biggest repository of information – will be less effective. A person in a village might say, “I remember we had this kind of drought in my grandfather’s time.” But the droughts we will have will be three times as severe. That’s why we need information.

I think we have to start with the next generation. We have to make them much more computer literate. If two youths in the village know a little bit more, everyone can do better. The traditional way of doing things will have to change or people will not have the kinds of information that is part of empowerment. It will help them adapt at the local level and if they are able to manage local land and water resources, that’s a major part of development.

But then how are they to influence the bigger, higher-level decisions that are taken at the centre – the dam building or building power lines? That is going to be harder. I see the kind of folk, populist movements that are emerging becoming much more influential. The Maoists in Nepal come to mind. They seem to be very ideological, but you may have populist movements that are more pragmatic and which are saying: “Look, we want to bring benefits to the local people.”

I think the governance structures and the electoral processes will also have to change. We are seeing, for example in Sri Lanka, that there is a lot of grassroots feeling. Local people get very annoyed that a garbage dump has been established in their neighbourhood and they protest. Or a local forest has been chopped down by somebody far away who wants to make a profit. Of course, climate change is a much bigger phenomenon. It has a local manifestation, but it is a global phenomenon and I think that the scientific community has an obligation to translate the scientific information that we have on a global scale to a regional and a local level. We are developing the models to do that – so that, for example, a person in a particular village can say, “Look, I live by the sea. The storms are going to increase, and in 10 years I will have to move my dwelling. I won’t be able to fish from this place and the sea level is going to be five centimetres higher. What are you going to do about it?” But at the moment they don’t know.

IH: So they need to be informed?

MM: Absolutely. It can happen in one of two ways. The orderly way is to provide this information ahead of time. It might happen that we don’t, and catastrophe happens. There is a huge drought and millions die, or a huge storm and many people are killed – and that can lead to major unrest. In that sense, the elites will realise that in order to protect their own interests, they have to do things in a more orderly way.

IH: The climate predictions for this region are stark. What is the optimistic scenario, if there is one?

MM: There is no optimistic scenario in terms of impact. Impacts are either going to be bad or worse. But the optimistic scenario is what we just discussed – that if the threat is sufficient to mobilise people and build a common sense of purpose to work cooperatively, then the benefits of that cooperation will be much greater because they will accrue not only in the climate domain, but in a lot of other spheres of economic activity. So sometimes a single threat can be a trigger to bring people together, and maybe we can use that to bring about a complete paradigm shift – which is what I am arguing for.

We have to incorporate climate change into sustainable development strategy because it is not the only game in town. Maybe we can use climate change as an example to bring about change in a range of other productive ways, such as water and energy use to make development more sustainable across a whole spectrum of activity. We need to take care of climate change in the process of sustainable development, instead of doing it in an ad hoc way. There are many good examples of integrating climate change into sustainable development, which I write about it in my most recent book. In the process of making development more sustainable, climate should be used as an organising framework because the pressure is so sharp that it will make people behave more cooperatively. What we hope we will are see in Copenhagen and beyond is that we could get some kind of global agreement on climate. If we tried to get a global agreement on water or energy we wouldn’t. Climate change might play a positive role in that.

Mohan Munasinghe is vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

Homepage image by Curt Carnemark / World Bank