By Siddharth Ravishankar, former intern for Stimson’s South Asia program:
In September, monsoon rains engulfed India and Pakistan, causing floods that killed hundreds and washed away thousands of homes. During this humanitarian crisis, the governments of India and Pakistan did not cooperate on disaster relief. It remains possible, however, for both countries to become partners during humanitarian crises, paving the way for long-lasting, durable patterns of cooperation.
There are precedents for cooperation after natural disasters. The Pakistani military provided significant aid to India after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, facilitating the first conversation between the two nations since a military coup in Pakistan two years prior. This thaw led to the Agra Summit five months later. In 2005 a powerful earthquake struck both India and Pakistan, also prompting cooperative relief efforts. Indian fixed-wing aircraft flew relief supplies and equipment to Pakistan, and New Delhi channeled $25 million through a United Nations fundraising program in order to support Pakistani relief efforts.
India has been strongly disinclined to accept international aid after natural disasters. In the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran announced, “In terms of not accepting foreign assistance, we feel we have all the resources to cope… Our response to this disaster was very prompt and effective.” New Delhi dispersed resources to Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia while grappling with a humanitarian crisis at home. Eventually New Delhi accepted aid from several countries, but only after significant resistance.
India has not accepted relief aid in subsequent natural disasters. While India provided aid to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, India refused to take up Pakistan’s offers of reciprocal assistance. New Delhi will help others – as was the case after the massive flooding in New Orleans in 2005 and earthquakes in China in 2008 – but it doesn’t seek outside help once disaster strikes.
Pakistan is willing and eager to accept assistance after natural disasters, but has difficulty accepting help from India. Accepting Indian help for flood relief, for example, is problematic when many in Pakistan blame India for the flooding by manipulating water flows during the monsoon season.
Security considerations make acceptance of disaster relief especially hard in Kashmir. The presence of the Indian and Pakistani armies across the Kashmir divide facilitates the efforts of first-responders, but also exacerbates security concerns and squeezes out civilian efforts. In a notable example during the 2005 earthquake, Pakistan eschewed Indian helicopter relief sorties, insisting that their own pilots fly Indian rotary wing aircraft. New Delhi refused these conditions. Both countries have also had difficulty conducting their own aerial rescue operations close to the Line of Control due to security concerns.
Despite these self-imposed constraints, India and Pakistan could still build a collaborative relationship on disaster relief. Flooding will increase in frequency and in magnitude due to changing climate conditions. India could construct flood-forecasting stations — no such station exists in Kashmir. The Hindu Kush-Himalaya Hydrological Cycle Observation System, a South Asian monitoring regime, barely incorporates Pakistan into its network. India has the opportunity to take the lead in building these facilities and inviting Pakistan to take part. India could also employ space-based monitoring systems to provide information to Pakistan to provide early warning of flooding and to help with disaster relief.
Information sharing, however limited, could improve the efficiency of relief efforts. More cooperation on regulating water flows during flooding could help dampen tensions over the distribution of Indus River water for agricultural and industrial use. These efforts could help improve humanitarian assistance in Kashmir and wherever flood waters pose threats.
Cooperative disaster relief efforts could help thaw India-Pakistan relations. The two nations have a common interest in minimizing human suffering, economic damage, and reducing tension in the region. With wise leadership, India and Pakistan might still develop protocols for disaster relief, laying the groundwork for progress in other area.
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