Climate Change and the New Frontiers of Insurgency: A Case Study of Early 2000s Balochistan

Balochistan, a sparsely populated semi-arid province of Pakistan, has experienced uprisings of nationalist and insurgency groups since the British gained control of the region. Known primarily for its gas and oil resources, this underdeveloped province is key to new bilateral economic development efforts between China and Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is dependent on Balochistan both because of the province’s own resources and also because of Balochistan’s unique capacity to coordinate strategic economic Chinese interests in the region. These economic interests provide a backdrop to the recent wave of violence, which began in 2005 and escalated in 2006, when a Pakistani military operation killed Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. Most analyses of the Baloch insurgency have focused on cultural factors, such as the development of a Baloch identity or the Baloch tribal system. This reflects a common approach to analyzing insurgency movements and other non-state actors—a focus on factors that fit into pre-established Orientalist tropes concerning the region. However, such analysis ignores key factors that should be considered when trying to understand the recent iteration of the Baloch insurgency—namely, energy and water resource distribution and the impact of climate change.

Analysis of the region has historically framed the Baloch insurgency as driven by the development of a unique Baloch identity, in which the Sardari tribal system practiced in the region is portrayed as incompatible with the larger Pakistani state. These arguments are historically derived— after all, Baloch identity has existed prior to the development of the modern state of Pakistan, even prior to the British colonization of the region. Furthermore, the contemporary Baloch nationalist movement developed in conjunction with the development of Indian and Pakistani statehood in 1956:  the Baloch National Party formed when the region was annexed by Pakistan. Arguments therefore often view Baloch national sentiment as historically inextricable from its relationship with the modern Pakistani state.

The Sardari tribal system of Balochistan is presented in mainstream analysis of the insurgency as a social structure necessarily opposed to the necessary economic development in the region because of its incompatibility with modern state governance. Developed in the 17th century under the Baloch-specific Khanate Confederacy, the Sardari tribal system and its history consistently features in discussions of contemporary Balochistan because of its unique interactions with both British imperial systems and post-Partition Pakistani government. The common narrative is that the Sardari tribal system is a system by which the Sardars formed an administrative middleman class between the leader, the Raj, and locals, which was exploited by the British government. The Sardar system survived the Pakistani independence movement, but when specific Sardars sought political power within the new government of Pakistan, Zulfir Ali Bhutto dissolved the official capacities of the system. Much discussion of the Baloch insurgency posits that the Baloch tribal system stifled the development of a Baloch middle class, as many other regions in Pakistan with more traditional systems did succeed in developing a middle class. As a result of this stifled development, resentment towards the Pakistani government has been fostered. Within this narrative, the Sardari tribal system fosters inequality and a few leaders are able to take advantage of the tribes and the ‘ancient’ Baloch identity to develop insurgency movements to gain leverage with the Pakistani government, which was lost when Bhutto dissolved the Baloch assembly.

This narrative is accepted and perpetuated by the Pakistani government, which uses it to delegitimize the insurgency by framing it as ‘tribal’ in origin. In doing so, the Pakistani government echoes traditional Orientalist rhetoric, establishing Pakistan as an actor striving to ‘fix’ Balochistan despite the efforts of these ‘backwards’ tribal men. In a 2005 press conference, Pakistani President Musharraf claimed “There are two or three tribal chiefs and feudal lords behind what is going on in Balochistan… ” Musharraf’s trick here is twofold: he delegitimizes the movement both by framing it as driven not by genuine concerns about the national government, but rather by the personal interests of several Sardar chiefs, and reframes the movement’s scope as being much smaller than it actually is. He does this by referencing only “two or three tribal chiefs,” purposefully obfuscating how many people these ‘chiefs’ represent. This narrative has also been accepted by Pakistan’s Western allies, which is perhaps unsurprising given that both Pakistan and the Western nations with which it allies itself rely on narratives of ‘backward tribes’ to justify their respective military programs in the region. If the established narrative states that the Balochistanian social structure  allows for several Sardars to politically hijack Baloch for their own selfish purposes, Pakistan could proceed with impunity in the region—as it did in the extrajudicial killing of Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.

Closer interrogation of primary sources from Balochistan, however, demonstrates that that this narrative is not necessarily supported by fact. For example, the Pakistani government’s argument that (male) Sardars and their tribesmen are to blame for the region’s instability is not empirically supported by the demographics of those involved in resistance against the Pakistani military in the region. For example, many Baloch women began going on hunger strikes in 2006 in protest of the extrajudicial detainments, even though it was “against traditions for the land for women to leave their home,”according to the Pakistani government narrative. Such political activism on the part of women represented a complete fracture of Baloch patriarchal social structures, and the women involved were fully aware of this fact—their involvement, their existence as politically active members of Baloch society opposes the narratives of ‘backward tribesmen’ that Musharraf tried to perpetuate.

Furthermore, attempts to frame the Sardari tribal system as as stifling the economic possibilities of the region, thus rendering it incompatible with larger Pakistani political system, do not withstand closer scrutiny. As the insurgency in Balochistan grew in 2006, the deputy speaker of the Balochistan Assembly directly responded to Musharraf, saying “Contrary to Musharraf’s claims, this is not just a problem of the three sardars.” If the narrative the Pakistani government was perpetuating was accurate, these politicians—who represent the tiny moderate middle class of Balochistan—should have supported the Pakistani government. Instead, the Chief Minister of the Balochistan Assembly directly critiqued how Pakistan was handling Balochistan’s financial problems. Previously splintered opposition parties even united to pass a resolution demanding share of royalty from a gas pipeline project that would pass through Balochistan. These actions demonstrated how resource distribution and economic interest in the energy regimes developed in Balochistan are more valuable driver of the insurgency for analysis than the Sardari tribal system.

The commodification of natural resources has been identified as a driver of conflict in regions comparable to Balochistan, and the juxtaposition of Balochistan’s mineral and oil rich regions with Pakistan’s extractive policies warrant further analysis within this framework. One of the most explicit examples of the role of resource extraction in deepening economic inequality between Balochistan and Pakistan can be found in the natural gas industry. Although Balochistan reserves contribute to supplying 38% of the country’s gas, only 6 percent of Balochistan’s residents are given access to gas, which is supplied by private actors. This unequal relationship has been exacerbated by Chinese companies’ growing economic interests in the region over the last two decades— in a 2002 deal, Chinese companies involved in the Saindak Copper-Gold project received 80% of the profit, the Pakistani government received 18%, and the local Baloch government received just 2%. Most of the sparse infrastructure developed in Balochistan after the end of British colonialism in the region was developed exclusively for the extraction of natural resources, demonstrating how the exploitation of Baloch resources created systemic inequality throughout the region. The rhetoric of leaders in the insurgency demonstrate a keen awareness of this resource inequality. While Baloch tribal leader Bugti had taken a break from active politics in 1992, he resurfaced in 2005 after Bugti tribesmen attacked several gas installations, demonstrating how the resource extraction systems, and their sabotage, were of strategic interest to the insurgency as well.

Tensions over water access also plays out on a local level. After all, Balochistan is semi-arid and one of most climate-sensitive regions in Pakistan. Groundwater, on which agriculture in the region is hugely dependent, is barely regulated— an extensive study of groundwater in the region showed that even in the 1990s, there were no formal rules used to control the groundwater distribution in the region, with little to no regard given to ensuring sustainable usage of groundwater.The groundwater has been put under further pressure by new methods of water extraction introduced in the region, such as electric and diesel tubewells, instead of the karazes, ancient irrigation systems centered around a communal well. As these new forms of technology have predominantly been exploited by the richer farmers, the . analysis of the shifting of water extraction systems has brought further sociopolitical issues to light. Many villages in Balochistan have been built around shared karez wells, and the introduction of privatized tubewells has privatized water in ways rural Baloch people had not previously considered and had an adverse impact on village politics.

For the local Baloch people, the rapidly depleting water table was not the only issue in the early 2000s, as Balochistan had suffered a meteorological drought from 1998 to 2005. This extensive 7 year drought notably and unsurprisingly preceded the most recent iteration of the Baloch insurgency. Partially due to attempts to transition from the traditional karez water system to tubewell irrigation, the drought dislocated entire agricultural communities to major cities.

This dislocation of peoples is vital to how water distribution issues have driven the Baloch insurgency in recent years.   The dislocation of Baloch people to major cities is correlated with the fractured insurgency movements that have erupted in cities such as Quetta, Karachi and Lahore in the aftermath of Nawab Bugti’s death. Furthermore, some studies attempting to track the forced disappearances of Balochs via the Pakistani military or extrajudicial forces (a method that has been broadly employed in crippling the insurgency since 2005) found that with the exception of Dera Bugti (Nawab Akbar Bugti’s hometown), most of the disappearances, or forced abductions, have occurred in major hubs such as Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, Karachi, and the Gwadar port. These are all major destinations for the internally displaced people from the 1998-2005 drought, and clearly critical hubs of dissent according to Pakistani military, lending further credence to the correlation between water scarcity-driven dislocation and the insurgency movement.

As climate change accelerates issues of water accessibility in Balochistan, it has become more and more crucial to understand how water inaccessibility is linked to the Baloch insurgency both in the development of a comprehensive plan to bring about a resolution to the Baloch-Pakistan conflict, and also as a motivator for major reform in Pakistani policy concerning the water resources available in Balochistan. A comprehensive study of meteorological droughts indicates that drought durations have been increasing throughout Pakistan, especially Balochistan. Furthermore, the agricultural sector of the Baloch economy, which is the sector with the least external interference from either the Pakistani government or Chinese companies, is expected to be the “main and direct victim” of the weather changes that will occur in Balochistan as a result of climate change.

This is a positive feedback loop, as the gas and oil industries in the region are directly contributing to the climate change as well as using up large quantities of Baloch’s water. As recently as March 2016, the Baloch governor has indicated that Balochistan’s water crisis is growing, as evidenced by growing numbers of people migrating to Quetta , and personally admitted that the introduction of tubewells in the region had exacerbated the crisis. This is an issue that continues to accelerate in Balochistan, and will continue to contribute to the environmental conditions that further deplete water supplies unless paid the attention it warrants. A balanced view of political conditions with a special focus on environment is thus crucial to approach an analysis of the region.