Combating Climate Change: A SAARC Perspective

Written by Owais Hasan Khan & Anwesha Pal*


SAARC has taken numerous initiatives for environment protection and climate change. However, successes of these initiatives are severely contested for being rhetorical and inconsequential. This paper attempts to make an analysis of SAARC initiatives on environmental protection in general and climate in change in particular. And examine how far they have been successful in achieve their target.

Keywords: Environment, Climate, SAARC, Development, Convention.



Climate change is one of the most critical issues faced by humankind. It is the matter which impacts humanity as a whole and it could only be addressed through collective efforts. All international initiatives on climate change reiterate the same ideology. Foundational principles of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992 states

The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity…”[1] 

On the same conceptual framework, regional association of South Asia i.e. South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has taken numerous initiatives for addressing the climate change issues. From the very inception, SAARC as an organization has exhibited deep concern for environmental issues, with a special focus on climate change.  One of the principal reasons for SAARC’s proactive approach in protecting the environment can be attributed to the vulnerable ecological profile prevalent in the South Asian region.[2] South Asia Environment Outlook, 2009 prepared by UNEP in collaboration with SAARC and DA (Development Alternatives) highlights the South Asian susceptibility to climate change in following terms:-

“South Asia occupies about 5 per cent of the world’s land mass, but is home to about 20 per cent of the world’s population. This is expected to rise to about 25 per cent by 2025. Three-quarters of South Asia’s population lives in rural areas, with one-third living in extreme poverty (on less than a dollar a day). Their well-being is further compromised by indoor air pollution, which is a severe health hazard. The report highlights that South Asia is very vulnerable to climate change. Impacts of climate change have been observed in the form of glacier retreat in the Himalayan region, where approximately 15,000 glaciers will likely shrink from the present total area of 500,000 km to 100,000 km by 2035. These glaciers form a unique reservoir, which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which, in turn, are the lifeline of millions of people in South Asian countries.”[3]

However, unfortunately this fragile ecology of South Asia has not been so well preserved and has been suffering from constant deterioration.[4]  Such deterioration has been the result of both natural and man-made causes. One of the examples to highlight the same is that of land degradation, which is one of the formidable challenges of the South Asian agriculture-based economy, and is a consequence of natural causes like high rainfall and steep mountain ranges. In addition to the aforementioned, man-made causes like deforestation, excessive use of fertilizers, improper river basin management and so on, has contributed to the land degradation.[5]

Conscious of these peculiar and vulnerable situations, SAARC at successive summits reiterated and buttressed the cause of environmental protection; along with the need for further strengthening instrumentalities through which regional cooperation can be achieved for preserving and protecting the eco-system of the region from challenges posed by climate change.

In pursuance of these aforesaid aims, since 1987[6], SAARC has undertaken numerous measures ranging from establishing norms for environmental protection to taking concrete steps in the form of SAARC action plans.[7] However, the success of these measures and action plans have been severely contested and criticized for being merely rhetorical and inconsequential.  Political mistrust and lack of economic and political integration are few of the reasons for the repetitive underperformance of SAARC as an institution for regional cooperation. As has been quoted in a news article:-

“The SAARC members signed agreements on environment and services. It is important that the provisions under yet another declaration do not become inconsequential, as has happened through the history of SAARC.”[8]

However, despite the criticism against SAARC’s policies for preservation and protection of environment its contribution cannot be downright undermined.


SAARC Initiatives on Environmental Protection and Climate Change:

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was established by seven south Asian nations[9] with the intention of securing all-round cooperation involving various areas of concern. One of the areas to which SAARC has given enormous importance is the environment and the threat which has been posed by climatic change, world around.[10]

The first step in the area of environmental protection was taken by SAARC in the Third SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu during the 2nd till the 4th of November 1987. One of the major areas of focus in this summit was the initiation of regional study which was eventually a basis of SAARC action plans. With this intention the Summit established the “Regional Study on the Causes and Consequences of Natural Disasters and the Protection and Preservation of the Environment”[11] which submitted its report in 1991. A similar kind of regional study was also initiated during the Fourth SAARC Summit[12] titled “Greenhouse Effect and its Impact on the Region”[13] which submitted it recommendations in 1992.

For the purposes of implementing these recommendations made by the regional studies, a Technical Committee was established in the same year with the mandate of identifying measures for immediate actions.

Parallel to the regional studies, since 1992, SAARC Environment Ministers have also been periodically deliberating for taking concrete actions towards environmental protection.  One of the major successes in this regard has been the adoption of SAARC Environment Action Plan during the Third meeting of SAARC Environment Ministers on October, 1997 at Malé. The purpose of the action plan has been to set out the parameters and modalities for regional cooperation for environmental protection.[14] Consequential to the adoption of the environment plan, SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (SCZMC) was established in Malé in 2004 and SAARC Forestry Centre was established in Thimphu in 2007.

One of the most prominent steps taken by SAARC in respect of climate change is SAARC Action plan on Climate Change[15] adopted in SAARC Ministerial Meeting on Climate Change on 3rd July, 2008 at Dhaka. The action plan purported to achieve the following three fold objectives:-

  1. To identify and create opportunities for activities achievable through regional cooperation and south-south support in terms of technology and knowledge transfer.
  2. To provide impetus for regional level action plan on climate change through national level activities.
  • To support the global negotiation process of the UNFCCC such as the Bali Action Plan, through a common understanding or elaboration of the various negotiating issues to effectively reflect the concerns of SAARC Member States. [16]

This SAARC action plan has identified seven thematic areas of cooperation on which planned actions are to be undertaken. These include adaptation to climate change, climate change mitigation, technology transfer, finance & investment, education & awareness, management of impacts & risks due to climate change, and capacity building for international negotiation. The action plan envisaged that implementation responsibility shall be primarily on the national governments of the SAARC member States and it shall be done in cooperation with other SAARC member nations.

It requires the member states to undertake activities to promote advocacy programs and mass awareness on climate change; cooperation in capacity building including the  development of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects and Designated National Authorities (DNA) and on incentives for removal of Green House Gases (GHG) by sinks, and exchange of information of best practices, sharing of the results of research and development for mitigating the effects of climate change and undertaking adaptation measures, and for enhancing south-south cooperation on technology development and transfer, as per established SAARC norms; and to initiate and implement programs and measures as per SAARC practice for adaptation for dealing with the onslaught of climate change to protect the lives and livelihood of the people.

The entire SAARC had been envisaged on the idea of cooperation at various levels between the member nations. The ideological underpinning of the action plan of climate change happens to be that of the south-south cooperation. As opposed to the much debated North-South Divide on the globe that deals with the political, economic and social divide, the South-South Cooperation is more positive that deliberates on the idea that developing countries work together to find solutions to common development challenges. This is especially true for the South Asian countries that are linked by similarities in their development contexts and challenges, and therefore have been increasingly active in sharing knowledge, exchanging technologies, and forming common agenda and collective actions. [17]

The present action plan harps at the very idea of harmonization of the proposed plans with the national strategy and infrastructure of the member States at the national level for an effective implementation.

The reasons behind the adaptation mechanisms have been based on the philosophy that the environmental contexts and situations are not similar throughout the entire South Asian region, which is why customized approaches to the various climatic conditions existing in various regions throughout the terrain is important keeping in mind the realities of such geographical areas and the mandates that could be reasonably achieved keeping them in mind. To have a sound transfer of technology and to encourage meaningful research and development, sufficient resources are required which can be calculated by assessing the barriers to technology development for adaptation and mitigation options.[18] The SAARC aspires for full cooperation with regards to the access to resources for carrying out technology development programs. A similar trend is visible in the mandate in the Article 4(5) that talks about the commitments in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that talks about the developed country Parties and other developed Parties helping other Parties, particularly developing country Parties, to promote, facilitate and finance, as appropriate, the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies and know-how thereby enabling them to implement the provisions of the Convention. In this process, the developed country Parties shall support the development and enhancement of endogenous capacities and technologies of developing country Parties.[19] Other Parties and organizations in a position to do so may also assist in facilitating the transfer of such technologies. This can be interpreted as a North-South cooperation among other things.


To ensure and review the implementation of SAARC action plan on climate change, Sixteenth SAARC summit adopted the Thimphu Statement on Climate Change, 2010. The Thimphu statement further outlines the immediate actions which are required at national and regional level to advance the cause of environmental protection against the perils of climate change.  It also established the Inter-governmental Expert Group on Climate Change (IGEGCC) which works on the objective of monitoring, reviewing and facilitating the recommendations made under different SAARC initiatives.

The Thimphu statement which is also known as the ‘Thimphu Silver Jubilee Declaration-Towards a Green and Happy South Asia’’ emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on high-carbon technologies for economic growth.[20]


SAARC Initiatives on Climate Change: An Appraisal

SAARC initiatives on climate change have severely been criticised as being just rhetorical and having a negligible contribution in combating climate change. The prominent reason for SAARC’s underperformance is its weak organisational structure which is further marred by political distrust and hostility amongst the member nations.

SAARC Charter[21] under Article X excludes bilateral and contentious issues, which have been deeply criticised in the words of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister[22]

 “In our wisdom we said that bilateral disputes should not be discussed before the SAARC forum. But when conflict confronts us do we turn a blind eye? Could we not evolve a new mechanism where at every meeting at Foreign Minister’s level we have informal close door meetings where we could air our views candidly? This will provide an opportunity to discuss issues and problems between and among us. SAARC must not end up as a deaf, dumb and blind association. If we brush issues under the carpet because they are unpalatable, we will be taking the first step in crippling SAARC.”

The organization is weak and structurally and politically unsuited to its ambitious role.[23] It has been alleged at numerous occasions that SAARC is just ‘a magnificent paper tiger’[24] which has failed to achieve its objectives in all three accounts which were those of promoting peace, development and economic cooperation.  It remained confined to holding summits from time to time and to pledges made by the leaders of South Asian countries to develop the region into a potential economic market.[25] If the trade data alone are analyzed it will show that inter-SAARC trade is less than 5% of the region’s total gross domestic product.[26]

Strategic imbalances, alleged hegemonic role of India over other South Asian member nations, protracted border confrontation between India – Pakistan and political mistrust amongst the members are few of the reasons which have hindered the development of SAARC as a regional, political and economic union.

These impediments also have their adversarial impact on environmental protection initiatives of SAARC. Despite the numerous SAARC declarations on environmental protection and climate change, which are signed by the representatives of member nations, attitudes towards climate change varies within SAARC.[27] The United Nation’s (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its report released in April 2014[28] emphasized the need for concerted efforts to tackle the threat posed by climate change.  And predicted a gloomy future for South Asia where climate change may lead to regional armed conflicts amongst the member nations in areas like river water sharing.[29]

In this regard R.K Pachauri, Chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change observed, “The world has all kinds of drivers of stress and drivers of conflict. With the climate change, these are likely to get accentuated further.” [30]

The lack of cooperation amongst SAARC nations regarding climate change is evident from recent floods in Punjab, Pakistan and Jammu & Kashmir, during September 2014.  Although SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change[31] obliges the member nations to share data on climate change but there is still no system in place for exchange of real-time hydrological data between the two countries.[32]

Similar obligation also arises from World Meteorological Organization (WMO), of which Indian and Pakistan are members.[33] International data exchange policy [Resolution 20 (EC-XLVI)] of WMO mandates member nations to “provide on a free and unrestricted basis, essential data and products which are necessary for the provision of services in support of the protection of life and property and the well-being of all nations”.

In this regard, the special envoy of United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on disaster risk reduction and climate services to Asia, headed by Dr. Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry submitted a proposal to the Pakistani government for improving the present hydrological data exchange system between India and Pakistan to improve flood warning system. [34] [35]

Although SAARC initiatives on environmental protection and climate change could not achieve as it had targeted, it has some remarkable achievements in formulating norms and establishing institutions.

On normative stage, through numerous declarations and policy statements like SAARC Environment Action Plan, 1997; SAARC Action plan on Climate Change, 2008; SAARC ministerial Statement on Cooperation in Environment (Delhi Statement), 2009 and Thimphu Statement on Climate Change, 2010, SAARC has created strong conceptual foundations on which collective actions can be taken by SAARC member-nations in regard to environmental protection and climate.

It has also helped SAARC to espouse a common South Asian position at various international meeting and deliberations on climate change and environmental protection. For instance, a common SAARC position on climate change was presented by Sri Lanka at UN Climate Change Conference, December 2009 (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark.[36] Similarly, a joint statement on climate change was also presented at COP 16 by Bhutan.[37]

Most significant achievement of SAARC regarding climate change has been the establishment of SAARC focal centers.  One of the first Centre to come up under the aegis of SAARC has been SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (SCZMC) which was established in 2004 in the Maldives, with the objective of promoting regional cooperation in planning, management and sustainable development of the coastal zone and preservation of biological diversity of the region. Role of SCZMC is significant because five of the SAARC nations i.e. India, Maldives, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka possess wide coastal zones which are ecologically diverse and sensitive and the life support systems of the region.[38]

In furtherance of Malé Declaration, a SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC) was established in New Delhi in October 2006 with the objective of providing policy advice and facilitating capacity building services including strategic learning, research, training, system development and exchange of information for effective disaster risk reduction and management in South Asia.[39]

Similarly a SAARC Forestry Centre (SFC) was established in Bhutan in 2007 and SAARC Meteorological Research Centre was established in Bangladesh as a form of a concrete step towards bringing about the practical enforcement of the different SAARC declarations, statements and action plans.



At the normative and institutional levels, SAARC has done commendable work by formulating a common SAARC position and action plans regarding environmental protection; and establishing various focal centers throughout the SAARC region to further its objective of a green and happy south Asia.[40] However, taking into account the organizational limitations of the SAARC, the success or the failure of such initiatives depend upon the effective cooperation of its member nations. SAARC initiatives are marred by the political mistrust and differences amongst its member nations.

Now it’s a high time for the SAARC member nation to realize the gravity of the situation and have a united stand against the danger posed by the climate change to their fragile regional ecosystem.  As with other area of cooperation under SAARC, it is not the SAARC which is failing; it is the member nations who are failing the SAARC.

*Assistant Professors, Institute of Law, Nirma University. Present work has been submitted at NUJS, Kolkata for Ph.D course work requirement and published here with Environment Law Journal.

[1] United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992, art. 3.

[2] South Asia Environment Outlook 2009 prepared by United Nation Environment Programme in collaboration with SAARC and DA (Development Alternatives).

[3] South Asia Environment Outlook (2009).

[4] Report State of Environment Report India 2009 by Ministry of Environment & Forest, Government of India;  Report, South Asia Environment Outlook 2009 by UNEP and SAARC Report, Restoring Nature’s Capital: An Action Agenda to Sustain Ecosystem Services by World Resources Institute; Report, United Nation Environmental Programme Annual Report, 2013 by UNEP.

[5] Douglas Southgate, The Causes of Land Degradation along Spontaneously Expanding Agricultural Frontiers in the Third World, 66(1) J. Land Econ. 93-101 (1990).

[6] With Third SAARC Summit (Kathmandu, 2-4 November 1987) which established regional study on causes and consequences of Natural Disasters and protection of environment.

[7] SAARC environmental protection norms and action plans are discussed in detail in a later part of this article.

[8] Shravani Prakash & Pallavi Kalita, SAARC must get serious on climate pact , Economic Times, May. 4, 2010,

[9] Presently Member nations to SAARC are eight in number with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka as the founding members.  Afghanistan later joined the association in 2005. Along with members-nations, SAARC also have 9 observers-nations.

[10] There are sixteen areas of cooperation under SAARC which are as follows:-

  1. a) Agricultural and Rural Development.
  2. b) Biotechnology
  3. c) Culture
  4. d) Economic and Trade
  5. e) Education
  6. f) Energy
  7. g) Environment
  8. h) Finance
  9. i) Funding Mechanism
  10. j) Information, Communication and Media
  11. k) People-to-people Contacts
  12. l) Poverty Alleviation
  13. m) Science and Technology
  14. n) Security Aspects
  15. o) Social Development
  16. p)

[11] Regional Study on the Causes and Consequences of Natural Disasters and the Protection and Preservation of the Environment, Saarc,

[12] Held at Islamabad, 20-21 December, 1988.

[13] Regional Study on Greenhouse Effect and Its Impact on the Region, (last visited Oct. 11, 2014).

[14] Area of Cooperation-Environment,, (last visited Oct. 11, 2014)

[15] SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change,, (last visited Oct. 12, 2014)

[16] Id, p. 22

[17] South-South Cooperation, United Nations Development Program (Oct. 13, 2014),

[18] SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008.

[19] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change art. 4(5).

[20] Ashok Tuteja, SAARC Summit Thimphu, April 28-29
Consensus on climate change
, trade The Tribune, Apr. 30, 2010,

[21] Available at,, (last visited Oct. 14, 2014).

[22] Krishan Gopal, Geopolitical Relations and Regional Cooperation: A Study of South Asia 260-261 (1996).

[23] Wang and LEAN, Asia’s Response to Climate Change and Natural Disasters: Implications for an Evolving Regional Architecture (2010).

[24] Promoting Economic Cooperation in South Asia: Beyond SAFTA (Sadiq Ahmed, et al. eds., 2010) where it has been quoted that “an array of literature calls SAARC “ritualistic”, “suffocatingly slow”, “a magnificent paper tiger”, “political white elephant”, “a regional pastime” among other things, to describe SAARC’s inconsequential summits and ineffective declarations.

[25] Mahmood, Tehmina, SAARC and Regional Politics, 53(4) Pakistan Horizon 7-21(2000).

[26] SAARC Group on Statistics. Available at

[27] Supra 23, at 51.

[28] Report was released by R.K Pachauri, the Chairman of UN’s IPCC in Yokohama, Japan in April 2014.

[29] Vishwa Mohan, South Asia needs to unite on climate change, The Times of India, Apr. 2, 2014,

[30] Id .

[31] SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008 under the head priority action plan requires the exchange of information on disaster preparedness and extreme events along with exchange of meteorological date.

[32] Rina Saeed Khan & Kabir Arora, The Climate crisis: An appeal to the governments of Pakistan and India, Dawn, Sept. 22, 2014,

[33] Members of Regional Association II (Asia), World Meteorological Organization,, (last visited 14th October, 2014).

[34] Shahid Husain, Climate change scientist offers to improve flood warning system, The News, Sept. 14, 2014,

[35] Mosley P., Exchange of Hydrological data and products, 74 WMO’S Technical Reports in Hydrology and Water resources.

[36] SAARC Statement on Climate Change at UN Climate Change Conference (COP 15) Copenhagen, Denmark, 7-18 December 2009, available at,, (last visited Oct. 14, 2014)

[37] SAARC Statement on Climate Change at UN Climate Change Conference (COP 16) Cancun, Mexico, 29th November, 2010 to Dec, 2010, available at,, (last visited Oct. 14, 2014).

[38] Objective of SCZMC, available at,, (last visited Oct. 14, 2014).

[39] Objective of SAARC Disaster Management Centre, available at,, (last visited Oct. 14, 2014).

[40] Theme of 16th SAARC Summit at Bhutan on 28–29th April, 2010.