Military standoff at India-China border increases disaster vulnerability in Ladakh

Confrontations between India and China on the Line of Actual Control this week have left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unspecified number dead/injured on the Chinese side. This is the the most serious confrontation that these nuclear powers have had in decades. As well as having serious implications for conflict and stability in the wider region, there may also be significant disaster risk and vulnerability impacts for the local Ladakhi population.

Air pollution and disaster risk

In the short term, the hostility has catalysed the mobilisation of thousands of troops to the border region and the increase in vehicular traffic will see a significant spike in air pollution levels. Air and road linkages to Ladakh and the remoter border areas are limited and so these vehicles will congest in particular areas, including around Leh town (a key airbase) and along roads leading to the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso (the sites of confrontation). While India has brought in national legislation seeking to limit vehicle emissions, the Indian army has sought exemptions and much of its transportation fleet consists of old, diesel-powered trucks. Even in times of peace, long trails of these trucks can be seen moving goods and troops across the region daily, spewing black exhaust fumes into the air.

Train of military trucks travelling through Ladakh. Source: Jessica Field, 2017.

Heightened levels of air pollution will have significant health implications for the local population (as well as stationed military officers)—such as an increased risk of respiratory diseases and shortened life expectancy. The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR, 2017) recently noted that the elderly, children and poor people are particularly susceptible to pollution health impacts, and these serve to heighten vulnerability to natural hazards.

In terms of impact on flora and fauna, Ladakh has an incredibly sensitive eco-system and increased tourism and militarisation have had a negative impact on biodiversity and environmental resilience. Blaise Humbert-Droz (2017) has written about how, even in times of peace, military activities around lake areas such as Pangong Tso have added pressure on the wetland ecosystem—increasing air and water pollution, degrading wetland areas and disrupting the migration and breeding patterns of birds and other wildlife. In this current moment of hostility, this pressure will be significantly increased.

Environmental degradation beyond the standoff

Moreover, though diplomatic relations have been ongoing, and most experts doubt that this confrontation will lead to all-out war—these environmental and disaster impacts will not dissipate when the “standoff” is resolved. Both sides are developing extensive road and other military infrastructure around the border areas in order to enable the more rapid mobilisation of troops, and also to assert control over the disputed territory. This will likely result in future confrontations, perhaps more regular than before—the most recent confrontation before today’s issue was just a few years ago in 2017.

But even if confrontations remain infrequent, the geopolitically motivated expansion of road and military infrastructure will have environmental degradation implications over the medium and longer term. Areas will be cleared for road expansion, which will then see increased military and tourist traffic across the year. Significant numbers of migrant workers are already being drafted in to speed up construction—and these can be some of the most vulnerable individuals to disasters as a result of their precarious employment and living conditions in hazard-exposed areas (many of those killed and missing in the 2010 Leh cloudburst were migrant workers). In somewhat of a vicious circle, the increased footfall of soldiers, tourists and migrant labourers then results in expanded hospitality and market infrastructure servicing their needs—further heightening risks of congestion and pollution.

Disaster governance

In terms of disaster risk, I have written elsewhere about how Ladakh’s conflict border location and the expansive presence of the military in the region has reinforced a reactive, relief-orientated disaster management approach (one dependent on military resources and support), rather than one focused on disaster risk reduction and mitigation. This current confrontation only serves to cement the strategic importance (and expansive presence) of the military in the region—potentially further reinforcing local dependence on army resources in disaster scenarios. This does not have to be the case, but requires proactive, disaster-focused consultation between the Ladakh administration, civil society, military leadership, and the central government in Delhi about how to collaboratively pool resources and expertise on reducing risk and mitigating the impact of hazards. I have not yet seen this happen (nor does it happen elsewhere in India, with the exception perhaps of Odisha – see Walch, 2018), and confrontations like this current border standoff continue to keep security considerations at the top of the agenda for Delhi.

Longer term disaster vulnerability

Thinking longer term, the Indian Army are one of the key employers in the region and their presence has had a growth impact on the economy through the expansion of the goods and service industry. While this market provides an income to many households across Ladakh, military movements and the general security situation have had varying impacts on tourism in Ladakh—which is the region’s economic mainstay. Permits are required for domestic travellers and foreigners to visit some of the more sensitive parts of the border region, such as Pangong Lake—which is also one of Ladakh’s biggest attractions.

This current confrontation, some of which is centred around Pangong Lake, could dissuade tourists from visiting Ladakh—or the affected border area could be entirely off limits until it is resolved. This could potentially have devastating impacts on the tourist economy. The season is short anyway (June-August), and last year saw a significant reduction in tourist numbers as a result of conflict in Kashmir, the national elections and the collapse of an airline—Ladakhi vendors would be looking to make up that shortfall this year. That said, at the present moment it looks more like COVID-19 travel restrictions will impact tourism this year more than the security situation, provided that hostilities don’t escalate.

Of course what is needed first and foremost is a de-escalation of tensions and a reduction of troop presence and military infrastructure on both sides. While India and China appear to be negotiating through diplomatic channels to end the hostility, neither side appear to be considering scaling back their infrastructure expansions near to the borders—as a result, the confrontation might end, but the environmental impacts from an increased military presence will continue. To mitigate the latter—and I can speak more for the Indian side as I do not know about China—the central government and military need to proactively engage with the environmental implications of their expansion. Much has been praised about the positive impacts of new road infrastructure for the tourist industry in Ladakh, but there appears to be little consideration of the environment.

If India is not going to reduce road expansion and military presence in Ladakh, the government should seek to lead the way (globally!) in incorporating environmental protection and disaster risk reduction (DRR) principles into its military infrastructure development. There is a wealth of environmental and DRR expertise in Ladakh that can be drawn on for this, particularly among civil society—SECMOLLEDeG and the Leh Nutrition Partnership, for example. But at the moment, collaboration and accountability is largely lacking.

Road out of Leh Ladakh, built and maintained by the Border Roads Organisation. Slogan: “BRO at your service. Pride of the Nation. Hope you enjoyed the ride”. Source: Jessica Field, 2017.

Note: This blog was prompted by a discussion I had with Aastha Uprety, who wrote this excellent piece: “What superpower conflicts mean for indigenous peoples“.

Jessica Field (Originally published on 17 June 2020 on previous blog site).


Field, J., & Kelman, I. (2018). The impact on disaster governance of the intersection of environmental hazards, border conflict and disaster responses in Ladakh, India. International journal of disaster risk reduction31, 650-658.

Humbert-Dros, B. (2017). Impacts of Tourism and Military Presence on Wetlands and Their Avifauna in the Himalayas. In H. H. T. Prins and T. Namgail (eds), Bird Migration Across the Himalayas: Wetland Functioning amidst Mountains and Glaciers, pp. 342-358

UNDRR (2019), Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, Switzerland, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

Walch, C. (2019). Adaptive governance in the developing world: disaster risk reduction in the State of Odisha, India. Climate and Development11(3), 238-252.

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