India and Pakistan may bicker, but climate disasters won’t wait

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had a lukewarm response to former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s optimistic message, but climate impacts will not wait for politicians
<p>Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with Nawaz Sharif, who was the Pakistani prime minister in 2015 (Image: Alamy)</p>

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with Nawaz Sharif, who was the Pakistani prime minister in 2015 (Image: Alamy)

Pakistan-India relations are so often described as hostile that it is easy to lose track of the few efforts at political engagement. This has been especially true during the tenure of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Despite being the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has no love for Pakistan, Modi had invited his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif – the then prime minister of Pakistan – to his first inauguration in 2014. That outreach, which lasted almost a year and included an unexpected trip by Modi to attend the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter in 2015, is long over.

Over the last decade, the relationship has hit rock bottom. Therefore, it came as no surprise that no Pakistani official was invited for Modi’s third inauguration. The current Pakistani prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, posted a perfunctory congratulatory tweet to Modi. He was the only leader of a regional country not extended an invitation by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

It was surprising, therefore, that Nawaz Sharif – Shehbaz’s elder brother and leader of the governing party – extended a warm message to Modi on social media.

The response from Modi to Nawaz, however, has dampened any expectations of a thaw. To make matters worse, a mass casualty militant attack occurred this week in Kashmir. In the past, New Delhi has accused Pakistan of supporting militant groups.

Where Sharif spoke about a collective future for South Asia, Modi’s reply focused on India alone. In reply to a message about hope, the Indian prime minister seemed intent to talk about security instead.

Sharif’s position on friendship with India is not new. In a pre-election interview from February 2024, Sharif lamented the loss of good relations with India, saying Pakistan had failed to have a “vibrant foreign policy” and that it could “not afford to live in a reality” where it was isolated from its neighbours.

But Sharif today is hardly in the position to call the shots on foreign policy. Not only because he is not prime minister, but also because his government came into power after a military-controlled election marred by controversy. Some in the country argue that his party does not have the mandate to rule. More importantly, Modi does not seem to be interested in engaging with Pakistan. Despite an electoral shock for the BJP that required an alliance to help it form a government, Modi has retained key cabinet positions for his old guard – an indication that although some things have changed, Modi’s dominance on issues of foreign policy remain the same.

Mistrust between the countries persists: India continues to accuse Pakistan of cross-border terrorism, a subject highlighted by India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar soon after he took oath as union cabinet minister for a second term. Pakistan continues to express solidarity with the people of disputed Kashmir and protests the stripping of the territory’s semi-autonomous status. More recently, The Guardian’s report alleging that the Indian government ordered killings in Pakistan has further complicated matters.

While these longstanding disputes have kept the two countries bickering, a new threat has arisen over the last few decades that impacts both the countries: that of climate change-induced disasters. The two countries may be able to live without talking about Kashmir, terrorism or trade, but ignoring the impacts of climate change on the economy and security of their own populations and the subcontinent at large, will come at severe costs.

Two billion people living in a region reeling from intensifying heat, crippling floods and a burgeoning food and water crisis will be failed by their governments, with the impact felt most by low-income, marginalised and vulnerable communities.

So far, the two countries have only done the bare minimum in coordinating during disasters, despite the fact that similar disasters have cost lives and livelihoods across borders.

Two billion people suffering from severe heat, floods and a growing food and water crisis will be let down, with the most vulnerable bearing the brunt.
Atika Rehman

When floods devastated a third of Pakistan’s provinces in 2022, the same weather system led to floods in India, with landslides and loss of life reported in several states. The heatwave at the end of May 2024 that killed dozens in the Indian state of Bihar also resulted in scores being hospitalised in parts of Pakistan. Both countries say they have little responsibility for high emissions that result in global warming. Both, too, are increasingly vulnerable because of the shift in temperature and weather patterns.

The avenues and impact of climate collaboration are vast. Experts argue that collaboration between both countries can lead to pollution reduction and improvement of air quality to improve the health and wellbeing of both populations. The Indus Waters Treaty urgently needs to be updated to move away from the idea of partitioning water to joint and sustainable management.

A recent interview with a top Himalayan glaciologist revealed that collaboration between Indian and Pakistani scientists is non-existent. “These areas are scientifically interconnected, with upstream activities impacting downstream regions. However, due to the complex political relations in South Asia, access to certain parts of the basin, especially those across national borders, is severely restricted for scientists like me,” said Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, in Awantipora, in India-administered Kashmir.

Water law expert Erum Sattar told Dialogue Earth: “This decade is critical to helping lay the foundations to preserve South Asia’s water resources and its overall climate balance. While there is much history that divides, giving into fear promoting insecurity is self-harming.”

Political economist Uzair Younus said: “The subcontinent has been in the midst of another record-breaking heatwave. This comes on the back of smog being a key public health challenge for years. At the very least India and Pakistan should coordinate on improving air quality for their citizens and mapping heatwaves, such that lives can be saved across both borders.”

In South Asia, around 21% of the total population is food insecure. Yet, despite having the same staple crops (wheat, rice and maize) and being agricultural economies, India and Pakistan do not share expertise on how changing and erratic weather and heat patterns affect yields. 

As Pakistan battles political and economic instability and India confronts economic disparity and rising costs, their leaders should acknowledge that the devastating impacts of an irreversibly hotter world will not wait for diplomatic engagements.