A nuclear conflagration between India and Pakistan would devastate global food supplies and could trigger unprecedented global food shortages and starvation for over a decade, a 19-member international research team said in a study on Monday.
“Even a limited war would have devastating indirect implications worldwide. It would exceed the largest famine in documented history. We’re not saying a nuclear conflict is around the corner. But it is important to understand what could happen,” said Jonas Jägermeyr a post-doctoral scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies who led the study.
The paper was co-authored by a total of 19 scientists from five countries, including three others from Goddard, which is affiliated with Columbia University’s Earth Institute: Michael Puma, Alison Heslin and Cynthia Rosenzweig. Jägermeyr also has affiliations with the University of Chicago and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
As per secondary research by the EurAsian Times, much attention has been focused recently on North Korea’s nuclear program and the potential for Iran or other countries to start up their own arsenals, many experts have long regarded Pakistan and India as the most dangerous players, because of their history of near-continuous conflict over territory and other issues.
India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974 and when Pakistan followed in 1998, the stakes increased. The two countries have already had four full-scale conventional wars, in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999, along with many substantial skirmishes in between.
As the EurAsian Times reported earlier, in November 2019, Pakistan’s Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed warned India of area-specific nuclear attacks with tactical atomic bombs. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had said that rising tensions between the nuclear-armed countries could endanger the world.
Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh had said that India may change its ‘no-first-use policy’ in future depending on the circumstances. In such volatile situations, it’s not hard for one to predict a nuclear war scenario.
Imagine this, as geopolitical tensions rise between India and Pakistan over the contested region of Kashmir, a terrorist attacks a site in India, and as an immediate response, India sends its tanks rolling across the border with Pakistan. As a show of force against India, Pakistan decides to detonate several small nuclear bombs.
The next day, India sets off its own atomic explosions and within days, the nations begin bombing dozens of military targets and then hundreds of cities. Tens of millions of people die in the blasts.
That horrifying scenario is just the beginning. Smoke from the incinerated cities rises high into the atmosphere, wrapping the planet in a blanket of soot that blocks the Sun’s rays. The planet plunges into a deep chill. For years, crops wither from California to China. Famine sets in around the globe.
The Little Boy bomb attack by the US alone killed around 100,000 Japanese—between 30 to 40 per cent of Hiroshima’s population—and destroyed 69 per cent of the buildings in the city.
But Pakistan and India host some of the most populous and densely populated cities on the planet, with population densities of Calcutta, Karachi and Mumbai at or exceeding 65,000 people per square mile. Thus, even low-yield bombs could cause tremendous casualties.
Secondary research by the EurAsian Times estimates that the immediate effects of the bombs—the fireball, over-pressure wave, radiation burns etc.—would kill twenty million people. An earlier study estimated a hundred 15-kiloton nuclear detonations could kill twenty-six million in India and eighteen million in Pakistan—and concluded that escalating to using 100-kiloton warheads, which have greater blast radius and overpressure waves that can shatter hardened structures, would multiply death tolls four-fold.
Moreover, these projected body counts omit the secondary effects of nuclear blasts. Many survivors of the initial explosion would suffer slow, lingering deaths due to radiation exposure. The collapse of healthcare, transport, sanitation, water and economic infrastructure would also claim many more lives. A nuclear blast could also trigger a deadly firestorm. For instance, a firestorm caused by the U.S. napalm bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed more people than the Fat Man bomb killed in Nagasaki.
Now consider likely population movements in event of a nuclear war between India-Pakistan, which together total over 1.5 billion people. Nuclear bombings—or their even their mere potential—would likely cause many city-dwellers to flee to the countryside to lower their odds of being caught in a nuclear strike. Wealthier citizens, numbering in tens of millions, would use their resources to flee abroad.
Should bombs begin to pound, poorer citizens many begin flowing over to Afghanistan and Iran for Pakistan, and Nepal and Bangladesh for India. These poor states would struggle to supports tens of millions of refugees. China also borders India and Pakistan—but historically Beijing has not welcomed refugees.
But that is not all, the recent study based on computer simulations has suggested that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan could lead to 20 to 50 per cent losses of staple food crops above 30-degree latitude or 11 per cent globally for five years after the conflict.
The simulations predict that if India and Pakistan each set off 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs, firestorms would spew around five million tonnes of soot (black smoke) into the stratosphere that would be carried by winds across the world, absorb sunlight and lower average global temperatures by 1.8 degrees Celsius for at least five years.
The temperature drop would lead to an average of 11 per cent fall in the production of maize, wheat, soybeans and rice, the four major staple cereals, the researchers said in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Their calculations suggest that by the fifth year, maize and wheat availability would decrease by around 13 per cent globally and by more than 20 per cent in 71 countries with a total population of around 1.3 billion.
The study, which relied on computer simulations of the impact of firestorms on crop production, has indicated that crops in the northern temperate regions — in Canada, China, Europe, Russia and the US — would be the hardest hit.
However, because many of these countries produce surpluses that get exported to the low-income countries, the scientists predict, the production falls in the northern countries would impact the low-income countries.
The scientists predict that the northern nations would impose export bans to protect their own populations. Some of the countries to be hardest hit would be Bangladesh, Honduras, Niger, Rwanda and Somalia.
India-based analysts view the study as a fresh attempt to amplify concerns about nuclear weapons in South Asia, although the researchers themselves have pointed out that of the estimated 14,000 nuclear warheads believed to exist globally, 95 per cent belong to the US and Russia while India and Pakistan are thought to have about 150 each.