[Faseeha Hashmi] On May 8, a territorial dispute erupted between India and Nepal following Delhi’s virtual inauguration of a Himalayan road link through the disputed area of Kapalani. This great natural barrier, which divides the two neighbours, is set to host a geopolitical showdown over the region’s precious natural resources. Rich in culture, and known as the country with the world’s third-largest ice-deposits, Nepal’s pristine environment is the origin of many major Asian rivers. However, the region’s ecosystem is under threat in the face of an increasing amount of human activity, with the Himalayas presently experiencing the brunt of climate change.
In the Imja Glacier in the Himalayas, explorer Alton Byers highlighted the pronounced retreat and collapse of the lower tongue of the glacier and formation of new melt ponds. The contrast between the images from 1956 to 2007 (above) illustrates the severity of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, which has doubled over the last 40 years. The scarcity of water resources has also given rise to competition and conflict between the neighbouring states.
In recent times, the Nepalese have attempted to reassert themselves in their territorial feud with India, publishing a new political map though a constitutional amendment process that formally includes a small stretch of the disputed land. Since then, Nepal has deployed a police force to the region and summoned the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu to hand over a diplomatic note to express their displeasure. What makes this all the more precarious is that the landlocked Nepalese state is also located between two powerful neighbours - India and China - both of whom are vying for control behind closed doors. With every country eager to broaden their control and influence over the region, where does this leave diplomacy?
Disputed territory - where did it all begin?
Historically, despite countless rounds of dialogue, both countries have struggled to come to a resolution over the demarcation of their boundaries. The Nepalese claim certain lands under the 1816 Sugauli Treaty signed between Nepal and then the British India government (then ‘British East India Company), which implied that Limpiyadhura, from where the Kali river first originated, separates the two lands. From this perspective, the Nepalese consider Limpiyadhura within their control and its border as the formal boundary with India.
The territorial dispute has since arisen as a hot-button issue in recent years. This was catalysed by the Nepalese protest against India's inauguration of a Himalayan link road built in a disputed territory located in three-way junction with Tibet and China. Used by pilgrims visiting Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet, the 80-kilometre road holds considerable cultural significance for many local communities. In retaliation, encouraged by pressure from student groups and members of parliament, Nepal’s cabinet, under the leadership of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli decided to publish a brand new map – recognising the northwestern tip of Nepal as encompassing the territories of Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani. Regrettably, this tit-for-tat diplomatic strategy has done much to fuel discord among the people residing in and around the mountainous terrain.
That is not to say that diplomatic relations between the two nations have always been on edge. Customary, a citizen of Nepal entering India by land or air does not require a passport or Visa for entry in India, and vice versa, allowing both nations the socio-economic benefits of employment exchange. However, amidst a global health emergency, travellers have now been greeted with hostility, with the rise of COVID-19 cases in Nepal being blamed on returnees from India.
The competition for influence
Since the 1940s, when both India and China emerged on the world stage as independent nations, the two neighbours have been eager to solidify control over the Himalayas. This can be observed by the 1962 border war, a short and bitter conflict between the rival states that was never been fully resolved. While sandwiched between the two nations, Nepal has grown more closely aligned with China.
A turning point for Sino-Nepalese relations occurred around 2015 when Nepal elected the Communist Party to form a new government, with the apparent ideological alignment enhancing cooperation between the two states. In addition, China’s Belt and Road development plans in Nepal have brought the two states closer economically. There has also been a greater military presence, where the ambitious infrastructure plan has resulted in the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops across the region’s mountain range.
China’s attempt to influence the region appears to be ubiquitous. For instance, China has additional plans for around 100-hydroelectric dams, aimed at generating a similar amount of power compared to that drawn from major rivers in Tibet. It is anticipated that many of the proposed dams will be among the deepest in the world. Regrettably, the resulting commodification of water in the region has contributed to water scarcity in China, leading to increased tensions between neighbouring countries - including armed conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and India and Nepal over the Kali river.
A peaceful way forward requires the use of diplomacy to achieve a stabilisation of the river flow, ensuring that corresponding rivers within each neighboring state continue to flow uninterrupted upstream and downstream. Consequently, the construction of controversial large-scale hydro-power schemes and water-transfer projects around the Himalayan basin has the potential to fuel unwarranted competition in the region. Unless action is taken, this will result in irrevocable environmental damage and the pollution of one of the natural wonders of the world, and the diverse populations who that utilise the Himalayan water resources.
The present state of regional competition over the scarce water resources of the Himalayas represents a socially, culturally, and environmentally unsustainable situation. Ongoing geopolitical tensions have done much to amplify historical grievances, with the added impact of climate change threatening to bring tensions beyond the point of no return. The challenge remains that neighbouring countries in the region must recognise the fundamental human right to water for the region’s inhabitants, and acknowledge their shared responsibility to maintain peace and stability as responsible members of the international community.
Continued ignorance and recklessness to the consequences of competition over water resources, and a reluctance to manage water as a shared resource, will have severe impacts upon the upstream and downstream population of all neighbouring states. The increased rate of melting of glaciers highlights that international cooperation is necessary, not only to mitigate the effects of climate change but also to safeguard regional peace and prosperity. Indeed, the future of the world's most famous mountain range depends on it.
Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, with an interest in community engagement and global politics.