Addressing Environmental Conflicts and Climate Crisis: Insights from the World Social Forum

Transboundary transport of air pollutants poses a risk to South Asia. These pollutants pose a long-term danger to humans and the environment
Addressing Environmental Conflicts and Climate Crisis: Insights from the World Social Forum

South Asia faces three environmental challenges that have the potential to cause conflict between countries—inter-state river water sharing, transboundary transport of air pollution that may cause adverse impacts across borders, and the climate crisis.

South Asian nations cannot meet environmental challenges except by cooperating, which has been elusive. How can the South Asian people, the risk bearers of environmental degradation, prevail on their governments to cooperate?

About 50 persons from different South Asian countries discussed issues about their role in tackling potential environmental conflicts and the impacts of the climate crisis in South Asia and made concrete recommendations to make a beginning in tackling these issues. This meeting was held on 17 February 2024 in the World Social Forum (WSF) conclave in Kathmandu. This meeting was organized by the South Asia People’s Friendship Association and was co-sponsored by the Centre for Peace and Secular Studies


Conflicts over inter-state river water sharing are common, e.g., Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Jordan, Indus, and Teesta. Conflicts occur as the ecological boundaries of the water basins and administrative boundaries do not coincide. Conflicts go through three phases. In the first phase, there is sufficient water for people on both sides of the border. In the second phase when water demand rises and disputes arise, to avoid conflict an adjudicator or arbiter makes an award to each country, e.g., as in the Indus water treaty. In the third phase water demand increases further and the countries disregard previous awards/agreements and militarise the conflict. This has happened over the Jordan River waters. There is a high risk of serious conflict arising over the water sharing of the Indus and other trans-national rivers such as the Teesta, Kosi, and Brahmaputra.

Transboundary transport of air pollutants (oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, ozone and particulate matter) poses a risk to South Asia. These pollutants pose a long-term danger to humans and the environment, e.g., soil corrosion, crop yield loss, acidification of water bodies leading to loss of aquatic ecology and fish, forest diebacks, corrosion of old structures such as monuments, and increase in respiratory illnesses.


South Asia is one of two regions that will be hardest hit by global warming. It has a quarter of the world’s population but has emitted only 3.6% of the world’s cumulative emissions (1750 to date). Sea rise will submerge the Maldives and 20% of Bangladesh’s land mass by 2100. By then,  100 million Bangladeshis and all 500 thousand Maldivians will become climate refugees. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka will face severe water stress within 2-3 decades. The Himalayan region will experience glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), as happened in Sikkim recently. India will be affected by extreme weather events (very high temperature and rainfall events causing severe heat stress and floods), sea rise, GLOFs, risk to food and water security, etc.

Environmental justice requires the Global North to acknowledge responsibility for emitting 70% of the cumulative emissions and agree to share equitably the benefits and risks that the use of fossil fuels has caused.

Climate crisis impacts have the potential to cause conflicts between neighbouring nations. If upper riparian countries have heavy rainfall in catchment areas and open the dam floodgates to relieve pressure, lower riparian countries may be flooded and blame the upper riparian countries for the floods.


The following recommendations were made to reduce environmental conflicts and engender greater cooperation to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis in South Asia.

  • Alternative development models that may decrease potential environmental conflict should be discussed. Such discussions should be done both by experts and by the public. It should be ensured that upstream polluting industries should strictly follow environmental regulations.

  • Do’s and Don’ts to avoid environmental conflicts should be devised for development pathways.

  • The formation of a South Asian Union would help reduce the potential environmental conflicts and engender greater cooperation among South Asian nations to tackle the climate crisis.

  • Youth should be mobilized to engender greater cooperation between South Asian nations.

  • A list of points should be prepared for the people of South Asia to lobby with their respective governments to reduce environmental conflicts and increase cooperation in tackling the climate crisis. 

  • A method for monitoring potential environmental conflicts and cooperation on environmental programmes should be devised. 

  • Climate and peace should be the theme of this effort.

  • Sharing of natural resources by South Asian nations should be done equitably.

  • A brief document explaining the need for cooperation between South Asian nations to minimize potential environmental conflicts and tackle the climate crisis should be published and distributed widely in South Asia.

  • The need to create a basic organization for South Asians to cooperate on environmental issues, including its funding, should be discussed in the next meeting. Funding should be minimal and should be free of all influences, including that of governments and funding agencies.

  • Four resolutions, copied below, were circulated in this meeting, but were not discussed or voted upon for lack of time.



There is a correlation between material development per capita energy consumption and CO2 emissions. The  Global North and South, with 16% and 84% of the global population in 2023, respectively, consumed 69% and 31%, of all fossil fuels used since the Industrial Revolution began. With the head start that the Global North has had in using fossil fuels, their average per capita GDP in 2018 was US$ 44,787,  ten-fold greater than that of the Global South (US$ 4,971) and twenty times that of South Asia (US$ 1,903). The per capita cumulative emissions of the Global North and South are 1,200 and 85 t/person, respectively (India’s per capita cumulative emissions are 35 t/person).

The Global South is in a Catch-22 situation. If it burns more fossil fuels to “develop materially,” it will contribute significantly to warming that will increase the risk of crossing the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-2oC temperature rise redlines. Warming will impact the more vulnerable Global South significantly more than it will impact the Global North. If the Global South controls its emissions to avoid crossing these redlines, it will remain permanently under-developed in comparison to the Global North.

There is no visible alternative energy source replacement for fossil fuels that currently contribute ~80% of the world’s commercial energy. Even if the entire remaining carbon space is given to developing countries, they cannot achieve the material standards of developed countries.

The energy used by nature to make fossil fuels is of an order of magnitude 5 times more than that expended by humans to prospect, extract, transport and refine them. No nation, organization or human has the moral right to claim ownership of fossil fuel energy.

We call on all South Asian nations to declare a climate emergency and implement the following measures to move towards a sustainable, equitable and peaceful society:

  • Sustainability: Developed nations must pledge to become net carbon negative in consumption emissions by 2030-35 to create space for developing nations to fully decarbonise by 2040-50. Decarbonisation must focus primarily on: a) Mitigation focussed on the reduction of consumption levels in the Global North, and supply-side management, leaving >90% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground;  b)  Sequestration focussed on Nature Based Solutions that centre climate and social justice. In addition, decarbonization strategies must eschew failed, untested, hypothetical market-based solutions and techno-fixes. Through these means, gross global consumption should be reduced to sustainable levels, the measure for which should be a quantifiable justice-centric sustainability index.

  • Environmental justice: a) Responsibility for loss & damage: Nations/regions should take responsibility for climate change impacts attributable to them—displacement, property loss, etc—in proportion to their cumulative emissions (emissions from 1750-to date); Developed countries should deliver promised climate finance in time; b) Sharing benefits and risks equally: All people of the world should share equally the wealth created by GHG emissions as well as the risks caused by them. Humans have no property rights over fossil fuels as it is nature that made them.

  • Equity: The ratio of the maximum income consumption for all people in the world should be ≤5

  • Decentralization, democratic, transparent governance: Governance should be decentralized and democratic; all governance information should be in the public domain.

  • Environmental restitution: Degraded land, water, air, and to the extent possible, biodiversity should be restituted.

  • Natural resource sharing: To engender global peace, people should share natural resources cooperatively and equitably as usufruct rights (and not ownership rights).


Greenhouse gases (GHGs) have caused an observed average global warming of 1.1oC above pre-industrial temperatures. South Asia will be severely affected by climate change. It has a quarter of the world's population but has released only 3.6% of the global cumulative emissions. The primary risks to South Asia are:

Sea level rise: By 2100, about 20-25% of Bangladesh’s land mass and almost all of the Maldives will be lost to sea level rise, creating well over 100 million Bangladeshi and 500 thousand Maldivian climate refugees. 

Water stress: Snow and glacier melt contribute a significantly higher amount to the total discharge in the Indus (60%) and the Amu Darya (70%). The discharge of these rivers will decrease significantly in a few decades, causing large parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan to become severely water-stressed.

Glacial lake outburst floods: As glaciers melt, the volume of water in glacial lakes below many Himalayan glaciers will increase and burst their moraine dams, causing GLOFs, whose impact will be felt for up to 150 km downstream. Villages, fields and everything else in a GLOF’s path will be washed out.

Extreme weather events: South Asia has experienced extremely hot summer months in the last decade, with temperatures soaring 4-5oC above normal. South Asia also experienced very heavy precipitation in 2022 that killed 3,700 persons in floods that occurred in almost all countries. A third of Pakistan was flooded in July-August 2022, affecting 33 million people, killing more than 1,700 people, affecting 33 million people, putting 5 lakh persons in relief camps and causing a property loss of $40 billion.

We wish to express our deep sympathy and support for the heat wave and flood victims of all South Asia countries, and in particular for the very large number of flood victims of Pakistan.

We believe that the inter-governmental COP meetings have not done enough to mitigate the climate crisis. We also believe that no government or country can tackle the climate crisis impacts on their own.

We strongly urge that the governments of all South Asian countries to declare a climate emergency and adopt the following measures:

  • Set up a joint cooperative planning and action mechanism for tackling the mitigative and adaptive aspects of the climate crisis through existing South Asian multilateral organizations such as the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP) or the Malé Declaration, or set up a South Asian multilateral organization dedicated to tackling the climate crisis.

  • Facilitate South Asian civil society organizations and people to set up information exchange mechanisms on climate crisis and cooperative mechanisms to tackle its impacts.


Human activity generates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as removes CO2 in human-managed removal systems. A material balance of human-generated carbon sources and human-managed carbon sinks, including managed forests and croplands, indicates that carbon emissions far exceed removals. This excess is the driving force for global warming that has led to the climate crisis.

If emissions from human metabolism were to be separated from croplands and forests, and treated as a separate source, the sink potential of forests and croplands would increase further.

A system of taxing carbon emissions and using it to increase carbon removals through nature-based solutions will help decarbonize South Asian countries at a faster rate and in an environmentally friendly way that is also social and climate justice-centric.

We request the governments of South Asian countries to take the following measures:

  • Levy a carbon tax on luxury emissions: Categorize emissions into sustenance and luxury emissions which may be based on an acceptable definition of sustenance and luxury consumption of goods and services, and levy a telescopic carbon tax on luxury emissions. Human metabolism for all citizens, regardless of their economic status, may be treated as being part of sustenance emissions. Other sustenance emissions include emissions from products and services that are considered to be part of the sustenance basket, and that include universal social security, health and basic education coverage.

  • Distribution of carbon tax: The carbon tax should be used to pay for programmes and people who are directly involved with activities that do carbon removals through nature-based solutions and that are social and climate justice-centric. People who may be paid include farmers, farm labourers, and forest dwellers dependent on minor forest produce, and activities that could be funded include managing and improving forests. Carbon removals from different crops may be given different weights to avoid a shift from food crops to cash crops. Carbon removal weighting can also be used to avoid undesirable land use conversion.


The energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, from non-renewable to renewable materials, and technology shifts will entail significant shifts in the structure and nature of work and division of labour in different sectors of the South Asian economy. A clear picture of how these transitions will impact jobs and the nature of work is still to emerge. There is apprehension that there may be widespread disruption in gainful employment during these transitions.

With the increase in the use of energy and chemicals in the last few decades, there is a perceptible degradation of the environment and a decrease in air and water quality, degradation of land and loss of biodiversity.

Air pollution-related excess deaths in India alone are estimated to be 1.6 million per annum. Air pollution causes extensive injury to other sensitive receptors, e.g., crops, water bodies, forests, and monuments. Air pollution-related loss of wheat, paddy, sugarcane, maize, cotton, and soya yields is estimated at INR 1,000 Billion in 2019. 

Climate change will reduce the amount of usable water and acidification processes will alter the pattern of water availability. Together, both will compromise the water security of many regions of South Asia. This is likely to trigger mass migration from water-stressed areas and water conflicts. Increased water pollution will cause higher incidence and prevalence of waterborne diseases.

Large tracts of the drylands are degraded and are at risk of desertification due to poor soil conservation practices in agriculture.

Human activity has decreased biodiversity in South Asia. Agriculture, logging, residential and commercial development, the introduction of alien species and pollution are the major reasons for biodiversity loss.

Given this double whammy of loss of gainful employment and jobs, we request the governments of South Asia to adopt the following measures:

  • Just transition: Ensure that the energy materials and technology transitions happen in such that employment potential in South Asian countries does not reduce, and the quality of work does not degrade. A Right to Work Act should be enacted. Governments should be responsible for retraining workers for new jobs which should be labour intensive. Technology shifts towards low-energy systems, e.g., optimal use of biomass energy, and renewable materials should be preferred.

  • Environmental restitution and green jobs: Degraded land, water, air, and to the extent possible, biodiversity should be restituted to their pre-industrial period quality. This has immense potential to create a large number of green jobs. Schemes such as MNREGA in India, that already exist, should be used effectively to create green jobs for restituting the environment. A good environment is an integral part of the Right to Life that should be guaranteed constitutionally by all South Asian countries.

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