Chinese and Indian competition on their shared Himalayan border is more likely to create a slow-moving environmental catastrophe than a quick military or nuclear disaster.
The Himalayan plateau plays a crucial role in Asia. It generates the monsoonal rains and seasonal ice-melts that feed rivers and deliver nutrients to South, Southeast and East Asia. Almost half the world’s population and 20% of its economy depend on these rivers, and they are already threatened by climate change. China and India’s competition for their headwaters increases this threat.
Until the mid-20th century, the Himalaya’s high altitude prevented its large-scale development and conserved its environment. But after the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China were created in the late 1940s, these two new states began competing for high ground in the western and eastern Himalayas. They fought a war over their unresolved border in 1962, and have scuffled ever since. The most recent clash was in 2017, when China built a road into Doklam, an area claimed by Bhutan and protected by India.
Tensions rose again last week when China unveiled a new mine in Lhunze, near the de facto border with India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, east of Bhutan. The mine sits on a deposit of gold, silver and other precious metals worth up to US$60 billion.
Most analysis of the Sino-Indian border dispute has focused on the potential for another war between these two nuclear-armed neighbours. The environmental impacts of their continued entrenchment are rarely mentioned, despite the fact that they are significant and growing.
All of this development along the border is built on the world’s third-largest ice-pack or in biodiversity hotspots. The region was militarised during the 1962 war, and has since been inundated by troops, roads, airports, barracks and hospitals. These have caused deforestation, landslides, and – if a study on troop movements on other glaciers is any guide – possibly even glacial retreat.
The buildup of troops on the border has displaced local ethnic groups, and they have been encouraged to give up their land to make way for intensive farming. Animal habitats have decreased and clashes with tigers and snow leopards have increased. Population transfers and agricultural intensification have even heightened the risk that antibiotic-resistant superbugs and other toxic pollutants will seep into the world’s most diffused watershed.
During the past 20 years, first China and then India have increased this degradation by building large-scale mines and hydroelectric dams in this sensitive region. These projects have not been profitable or environmentally sound, but they have solidified state control by entrenching populations, upgrading transport networks, and integrating these fringes into national economies. The tightening of state control along the border has been further complicated by calls from the Tibetans and other ethnic groups for greater autonomy.
Many of the projects have been developed within the transnational Brahmaputra River basin. This river’s headwaters are in China, but most of its catchment is in Arunachal Pradesh, which is controlled by India but claimed by China. It then flows through Assam and Bangladesh, where it joins the Ganges River. Some 630 million people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra River catchment.
China and India’s geopolitical resources rush threatens the safety of this entire river system. The new Lhunze mine’s position among the Brahmaputra’s headwaters is so precarious that its owner, Hua Yu Mining, was only allowed to mine there under strict environmental conditions. To its credit, Hua Yu has agreed to be a “green” miner, limiting emissions, water use and minimising “grassland disturbance”. But even if the company does not inadvertently leak acid and arsenic into the environment like other mines in Tibet, the mine is still liable to be damaged by the region’s frequent earthquakes. Any toxic leak from Lhunze will flow straight into the Brahmaputra and then into the lower Ganges.
On its side of the border, India has concentrated on dams rather than mines. Between 2000 and 2016, the Arunachal Pradesh government approved the construction of 153 dams, before realising that it had overextended itself.
So far only one dam is complete, and all the other projects have stalled. One of these stalled dams is on the Subansiri River, the same river from which the Lhunze mine draws water. India is racing to build these dams without community consultation or environmental studies because it sees itself as competing with China for the region’s water. China has already built four dams in the upper Brahmaputra River basin.
Indian strategists argue that they can stop China building more dams by building hydroelectric projects whose need for water will be recognised under international law. Given China’s dismissal of previous rulings by the International Court of Justice, and its recent refusal to share water-flow data with India after the Doklam incident (data that India needs to plan flood controls), this strategy seems unlikely to succeed.
Even if it does, it is hard to see how building large hydropower projects in an earthquake-probne region will ultimately help India. It won’t stop China developing the borderland, and it could cause more problems than it solves.
To keep Asia’s major rivers flowing and relatively non-toxic, both nations need to stop competing and start collaborating. Their leaders understand that neither nation would win a nuclear war. Now they need to realise that no one will benefit from destroying a shared watershed.
Levels of the most dangerous particles, called PM2.5, have once again reached last November’s levels: more than 700 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the city. Experts say that prolonged exposure to this level of pollution is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day.
Just 12 months after the record-breaking pollution that should have been a major wake-up call, Delhi is again plunged into darkness. It is a big embarrassment that authorities were not better prepared for this year’s smog season.
In July, I released a detailed analysis of the factors that cause Delhi’s November smog.
Based on data from India’s Central Pollution Control Board and from NASA, I concluded that Delhi’s record-breaking pollution in November 2016 was largely due to slow wind speeds and prevailing northerly winds, as well as Diwali fireworks, and the widespread practice of burning crop residues. Others, including the Delhi government, reported similar findings.
But this knowledge has not stopped it happening again, much to the frustration of Delhi residents who now face a second consecutive pollution-plagued winter.
Of course, the authorities do not control the wind speed or direction. But they can and should take steps to curb the other crucial factors.
In Haryana and Punjab states to the north of Delhi, farmers routinely burn their croplands after the summer harvest, ridding their fields of stubble, weed and pests and readying them for winter planting.
This agricultural event coincides with Diwali, India’s festival of lights, which features three or four nights of fireworks before and after the festival, in October or early November.
This series of NASA satellite images clearly shows the pollution plume moving across the landscape during the first two weeks of November. Red dots indicate live fires.
These images show that crop burning is still continuing, especially in parts of Punjab. As the graph below shows, crop burning produced significant amounts of pollution from November 2, 2017, after an earlier pollution spike around October 20 due to Diwali.
Other countries have taken measures to limit crop burning. In Australia, the Victorian state government strongly encourages farmers to retain crop stubble residues, although it allows sporadic burning. In some Canadian provinces, stubble burning is allowed by permit only.
There is no such legislation under consideration in India. But without a ban on crop burning, Delhi’s pollution woes are likely to continue.
It is high time that the government responded, before Delhi’s pollution gets even more out of hand. Particles in the PM2.5 size range can travel deep into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath.
Exposure to fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. More than a million deaths in 2015 were attributed to India’s air pollution.
What governments and residents can do
There is a range of short- and long-term options to combat the problem.
Farmers in Haryana and Punjab should be banned from residue crop burning during October and November, and should be given financial compensation for the inconvenience.
Meanwhile, Delhi’s residents should consider driving less, either by carpooling or using public transport. The city’s authorities, meanwhile, could restrict the entry of polluting trucks and heavy-duty goods vehicles, gradually phase out and ultimately ban older vehicles, and increase parking charges or restrict families to a single car.
A reliable 24-hour power supply would help to reduce the reliance on heavily polluting diesel generators in offices and factories. Subsidies for cleaner fuels or electric or hybrid cars would also help.
Authorities also have a duty to keep the public informed of pollution levels, through daily television, radio and social media updates, as well as pamphlets warning of the effects of air quality on health. On the worst days, schools should be closed and children and older people urged to stay indoors.
In the longer terms, a “green belt” could be planted around the city, to help soak up traffic-induced air and noise pollution.
Many of these policies would involve significant upheaval. But Delhi needs action before it is too late. The alternative is to be plunged ever deeper into the murk.
Once again the absurdity of building the world’s biggest new thermal coal mine was put in stark relief on Monday evening via an ABC Four Corners investigation, Digging into Adani.
Where the ABC broke new ground was in exposing the sheer breadth of corruption by this Indian energy conglomerate. And its power too. The TV crew was detained and questioned in an Indian hotel for five hours by police.
It has long been the subject of high controversy that the Australian government, via the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF)that is still contemplating a A$1 billion subsidy for Adani’s rail line, a proposal to freight the coal from the Galilee Basin to Adani’s port at Abbot Point on the Great Barrier Reef.
But more alarming still, and Four Corners touched on this, is that the federal government is also considering using taxpayer money to finance the mine itself, not just the railway.
No investors in sight
As private banks have walked away from the project, the only way Carmichael can get finance is with the government providing guarantees to a private banking syndicate, effectively putting taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in project finance.
The prospect is met with the same incredulity in India as it is here in Australia:
FOUR CORNERS: “Watching on from Delhi, India’s former Environment Minister can’t believe what he is seeing.”
JAIRAM RAMESH: “Ultimately, it’s the sovereign decision of the Australian Government, the federal government and the state government.
FOUR CORNERS: “But public money is involved, and more than public money, natural resources are involved.
JAIRAM RAMESH: “I’m very, very surprised that the Australian government, uh, for whatever reason, uh, has uh, seen it fit, uh, to all along handhold Mr Adani.”
Here we have a project that does not stack up financially, and whose profits – should it make any – are destined for tax haven entities controlled privately by Adani family interests. Yet the Queensland government has shocked local farmers and environmentalists by gifting Adani extremely generous water rights, and royalties concessions to boot.
Why are Australian governments still in support?
The most plausible explanation is simply politics and political donations. There is no real-time disclosure of donations and it is relatively easy to disguise them, as there is no disclosure of the financial accounts of state and federal political parties either. Payments can be routed through opaque foundations, the various state organisations, and other vehicles.
Many Adani observers believe there must be money involved, so strident is the support for so unfeasible a project. The rich track record of Adani bribing officials in India, as detailed by Four Corners, certainly points that way. But there is little evidence of it.
In the absence of proof of any significant financial incentives however, the most compelling explanation is that neither of the major parties is prepared to be “wedged” on jobs, accused of being anti-business or anti-Queensand.
There are votes in Queensland’s north at stake. Furthermore, the fingerprints of Adani’s lobbyists are everywhere.
Adani lobbyist and Bill Shorten’s former chief of staff Cameron Milner helped run the re-election campaign of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. This support, according to The Australian, has been given free of charge:
Mr Milner is volunteering with the ALP while keeping his day job as director and registered lobbyist at Next Level Strategic Services, which counts among its clients Indian miner Adani…
The former ALP state secretary held meetings in April and May with Ms Palaszczuk and her chief of staff David Barbagallo to negotiate a government royalties deal for Adani, after a cabinet factional revolt threatened the state’s largest mining project.
Adani therefore enjoys support and influence on both sides of politics. “Next Level Strategic Services co-director David Moore — an LNP stalwart who was Mr Newman’s chief of staff during his successful 2012 election campaign — is also expected to volunteer with the LNP campaign.”
So it is that Premier Palaszczuk persists with discredited claims that Carmichael will produce 10,000 jobs when Adani itself conceded in a court case two years ago the real jobs number would be but a fraction of that.
If the economics don’t stack up, why is Adani still pursuing the project?
The Adani group totes an enormous debt load, the seaborne thermal coal market is in structural decline as new solar capacity is now cheaper to build than new coal-fired power plants and the the government of India is committed to phasing out coal imports in the next three years.
Why flood the market with 60 million tonnes a year in new supply and further depress the price of one of this country’s key export commodities?
The answer to this question lies in the byzantine structure of the Adani companies themselves. Adani already owns the terminal at Abbot Point and it needs throughput to make it financially viable.
Both the financial structures behind the port and the proposed railway are ultimately controlled in tax havens: the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Singapore. Even if Adani Mining and its related Indian entities upstream, Adani Enterprises and Adani Power, lose money on Carmichael, the Adani family would still benefit.
The port and rail facilities merely “clip the ticket” on the volume of coal which goes through them. The Adani family then still profits from the privately-controlled infrastructure, via tax havens, while shareholders on the Indian share market shoulder the likely losses from the project.
As the man who used to be India’s most powerful energy bureaucrat, E.A.S. Sharma, told the ABC: “My assessment is that by the time the Adani coal leaves the Australian coast the cost of it will be roughly about A$90 per tonne.
“We cannot afford that, it is so expensive.”
More questions than answers remain
This renders the whole project even more bizarre. Why would the government put Australian taxpayers on the hook for a project likely to lose billions of dollars when the only clear beneficiaries are the family of Indian billionaire Gautam Adani and his Caribbean tax havens.
My view is that this project is a white elephant and will not proceed. Given the commitment by our elected leaders however, it may be that some huge holes in the earth may still be dug before it falls apart.
In Kaziranga, a national park in north-eastern India, rangers shoot people to protect rhinos. The park’s aggressive policing is, of course, controversial, but the results are clear: despite rising demand for illegal rhino horn, and plummeting numbers throughout Africa and South-East Asia, rhinos in Kaziranga are flourishing.
Yet Kaziranga, which features in a new BBC investigation, highlights some of the conflicts that characterise contemporary conservation, as the need to protect endangered species comes into contact with the lives and rights of people who live in and around the increasingly threatened national parks. India must balance modernisation and development with protections for the rights of local people – all while ensuring its development is ecologically sustainable.
To understand what’s at stake in Kaziranga, consider these three crucial issues:
1. The militarisation of conservation
The BBC feature shows park rangers who have been given the license to “shoot-on-sight”, a power they have used with deadly effect. In 2015 more than 20 poachers were killed – more than the numbers of rhino poached that year.
The programme accuses the rangers of extra-judicial killings of suspected rhino poachers. This resonates with a wider trend in the use of violence in defence of the world’s protected areas and the growing use of military surveillance technologies to support the efforts of conservation agencies.
In India, the Forest Department, which is responsible for the protection of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, has always been a “uniformed” service. Rangers wear military-style khakis, are allowed to carry arms, and have powers to prosecute offenders. Recently, the government allowed them to use drones as an anti-poaching measure in Kaziranga.
To justify such escalation and its talk of a “war” against poaching, the government cites the growing power and sophistication of the crime syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trade. However, as with all wars, a serious conflict over rhinos risks collateral damage. The worry is that increased militarisation is not conducted within strict legal limits or subject to judicial scrutiny. The BBC alleges that such checks and balances were not in place in Kaziranga.
2. The rights of local and indigenous populations
The BBC story also points to the growing conflict in and around Kaziranga between the interests and rights of local and indigenous people and the need to protect threatened species. Groups including Survival International – which features in the BBC story – claim that well-meaning conservation projects have denied and undermined the rights of indigenous groups around the world. The group calls for these rights to be placed at the heart of modern approaches to conservation – and most enlightened environmentalists now agree. It’s increasingly hard to look at conservation without also considering human rights and social issues.
The context for these struggles in India is the colonial legacy of forest settlement, which reserved forests for the imperial state, but failed to take account of the rights of people who already lived there. This injustice was recognised in 2006, in landmark legislation known colloquially as the Forest Rights Act, which restored both individual and community rights based on evidence of historic access and use.
Yet there remains significant tension between India’s wildlife conservation lobby, which perceives the Forest Rights Act as the death-knell for nature, and groups such as Survival International which argue that it is only by recognising the rights of local people that the country’s wildlife will be protected.
3. Can we keep expanding protected areas?
To protect threatened species across the world, conservationists have called for more and more land to be placed under protection. Renowned biologist EO Wilson, for instance, wants us to set aside “half the planet”.
In an unconstrained world, dedicating half the earth to the protection of the most threatened species and the world’s important habitats might seem like a sensible way to avoid the risks of what people fear might trigger the next great extinction. In reality, there are few places left where such a proposal might practically be implemented.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in rapidly developing India. The country already has a population of 1.3 billion – and it aspires to both develop as a global economic powerhouse and lift its poorest people out of poverty. This development requires land and resources, with little space left for nature.
Plans to double the size of Kaziranga means villagers are being displaced with little due process and there are documented cases of violence and even death. This is a violent “green grab”, where land is usurped for ostensibly progressive environmental objectives, but which results in the dispossession of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.
Kaziranga illustrates the dilemmas of contemporary conservation. If it is to be successful, environmentalism in India must be seen as part of the changing social and economic context, and not set itself up in opposition to these wider trends.
Conservation needs to recognise the need to build bridges, sometimes with its fiercest critics. While Kaziranga is in many ways a remarkable conservation success, its costs are considerable. The forces driving the world to overuse its resources haven’t gone away, and finding sustainable futures for both people and the planet requires coalitions that work together – let’s begin with Kaziranga.