There are grim warnings that the next flash point involving China might not be where expected. It could affect millions and have dire consequences for Australia.
China’s next war might not start in the South China Sea or be triggered by disputes between superpowers over the status of Taiwan.
It may have nothing to do with disputed lands or international influence. Rather, it could be something much more mundane but vital nonetheless.
A high-altitude crash could explode from water, or the increasing lack of it due to climate change.
And it could create a series of “failed states,” warns a report on future climate conflicts.
While Australia may be far from the action, a senior former military leader has said the country could be drawn into conflict as millions flee Asia in search of safe haven elsewhere.
“History shows that when people are starving, when they don’t have water, they are desperate and they will do desperate things,” former Australian Defense Forces (ADF) chief retired Admiral Chris Barrie told news.com. au.
‘Third pole’ the new flash point
Admiral Barrie is now an executive member of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG), a body that includes former senior members of the ADF and the Department of Defense.
In a report released last month, the ASLCG said that instability caused by climate change could pose significant problems for Australia, both militarily, diplomatically and economically.
One of the scariest scenarios is that up to a billion people could be displaced, some of them heading to Australia.
The group’s research has looked at a possible conflict high in the Himalayas between India and China over access to water.
That flash point would focus on the vast Hindu Kush regions of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, often referred to as the “third pole” because of its vast ice sheets.
Here the glaciers are the starting point of some of the most important rivers in the region. Waterways such as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers that flow into China; the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers towards India, as well as the Irrawaddy towards Myanmar and the Mekong which flows into the sea in Vietnam.
China is particularly dependent on glaciers, which are also known as the Great Himalayan Basin.
20% of the world’s population is in China, but it only has 6% of its drinking water.
And the water that China has is usually very far from where a large part of its population lives.
Dams already dot the high mountains to capture the water and use it to generate electricity.
None of this should lead to conflict if there is enough water for everyone. But it is feared that climate change has changed all that.
Glacier breaks a bad omen
In February, a large part of a glacier broke and released a torrent of water in India’s Uttarakhand state, killing nine and severely damaging two hydroelectric plants.
It’s hard to say definitively whether the break was due to climate change, but rising temperatures may be a key cause of glacier changes, such as breakage and melting.
A 2019 report stated that the Himalayan ice sheet has shrunk significantly, taking its water reserves with it.
The Himalayan glaciers were retreating “very evenly and accelerating their retreat,” Joerg Schaefer, a climate scientist at Columbia University, told the US. ABC News.
The “only culprit” he said was warming temperatures, he added.
“It is a very disturbing finding because it means that if you are not asking what will happen to the glacier tomorrow, but what will happen to the glacier in 10 or 15 years, you will follow the temperature curve, which is getting warmer and warmer.”
There may be less water, but as Asia’s population grows, there will be even more thirst for people to quench.
China has a water ace card
A big problem for India is that the source of many of its great rivers is actually in China. Which means that Beijing is the first to do so.
Distrust is already high between the two nuclear-armed neighbors with frequent skirmishes across the difficult delimitation of the Himalayan border. Water is another element that is added to the mix.
For years there have been concerns in India and Bangladesh that China may try to divert flows that would otherwise end up in the Brahmaputra and other rivers. Teh Brahmaputra waters much of the northeast of the subcontinent.
Beijing is also said to be working on cloud seeding programs that could cause the rains to drift further north in India.
All of this has happened as India has seen its rains become more erratic.
Admiral Barrie compared it to an international and much more dangerous version of the ongoing dispute between Murray and Darling, where South Australia complains that Queensland and New South Wales have taken more than their fair share of water upriver. .
“Now we know that China is trying to steal everyone else’s water.
“And as with South Australia, it is the country at the end of the river that is potentially going to be ruined.”
Admiral Barrie said it created a “challenge” for India.
“You can predict how a conflict (might occur). If the Chinese took all the water from the third pole, India would have to do something about it.
“They would be forced to do it, otherwise a lot of people won’t be able to get the water they need to live.”
‘Failed states’ as the water dries up
The ASLGC has said that Pakistan could become a “failed state” as much of the water needed to power its homes and industries and nurture its fields comes from the northern mountains.
A slowdown in flows to the Indus, either because of less water overall or because water is being diverted by other nations, could be devastating for Pakistan.
The river is the backbone of the country, providing drinking water to its populated but rain-starved south.
Like India and China, Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
Bangladesh to the west could also find itself in dire straits, Admiral Barrie said.
“Bangladesh will be greatly affected by rising sea levels as well as lack of water and food.
“And Bangladesh cannot solve these climate security problems on its own. The tide will eventually wash over them just like it will on the Pacific islands. “
How Australia could be affected
All of this has implications for Australia because a good chunk of the country’s 160 million residents may be looking for another place to live.
“Australia has the lowest population density on the planet. If food is scarce (in Bangladesh) you would not go to India because it has exactly the same problem.
“Also, India has already built barriers to prevent them from entering, so that is another source of friction.
“So Australia could be an attractive place to go.”
Admiral Barrie said millions of people from the Indian subcontinent could only end up on the move due to the impacts and conflicts of climate change.
“That is the consequence if glaciers disappear due to global warming. The third pole is very serious.
“The decision to come to Australia will not be made here, it will be made there.
“And that worries me, this is a global problem. That is why we need to help find answers that do not lead to this result, “said Admiral Barrie.
“Because if it really happened, we should be able to say that we did the best we could.”