Pakistan has long rocked itself in a cradle of victimhood, attributing its torments to ploys and conspiracies hatched elsewhere. And so it was perhaps inevitable, after the devastating floods in July, that some in Pakistan blamed the floods on clandestine US and Indian manipulation of monsoon clouds and river flows. It was just as inevitable that we Indians—also habituated to playing the victim, especially in regard to Pakistan—played up our hurt at being blamed for having a role in our neighbour’s national catastrophe. At the geopolitical level, as on the personal one, being offended is a canny way of avoiding more difficult and involving emotions, such as genuine sympathy.

Catastrophe: An aerial view of the flooded Sindh province. Vincent Thian/AP; and (top) a UN helicopter drops relief material at Chandan village in Dadu district. Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP

The ambivalent way in which the Indian citizenry has thus far addressed the human, social and economic catastrophe facing Pakistan is not just a moral muddle. It could redound to the long-term detriment of India if we fail to understand that our historical enemy is also enmeshed beside us, buffeted along with us, by environmental forces that have little respect for national borders.

Looking at images of the inundated plains of Punjab and Sindh over the past weeks, reading stories about the massive human displacements that have followed—the largest on the subcontinent since Partition—I was struck by how proximate this natural calamity actually was. It was unfolding a few score miles away from our borders, yes, but it also felt near because it was familiar: a tragedy larger in scale than our floods in 2008 or the floods across southern India last year, but not an alien one. What distances us is a reflexive enmity.

India’s government did better than its citizenry at taming this impulse. It came forth quickly to offer assistance: first $5 million (around 23 crore) in aid, soon upped to $25 million. This offer, first refused but eventually accepted, provoked criticism in India and Pakistan both. In India, some have rightly pointed out that humanitarian aid to Pakistan often becomes a political tool. In the 2005 earthquake, terrorist-linked organizations distributed aid in order to build support—as they are doing again now, while the Pakistan military has made it a point to stamp its own insignia on aid packages so as to make clear the aid is not coming from the country’s civilian government. But humanitarian aid becomes a political bludgeon in virtually every natural disaster, whether in New Orleans after Katrina or the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. A government that restricts its humanitarian disaster relief to countries that are likely to spend all of it in politically neutral, transparent, accountant-friendly terms is one ready to be of help only during ice-floe emergencies in Sweden.

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Where our government was responsive, I’ve yet to see parallel efforts on the part of civil society to reach out to the millions of ordinary Pakistanis affected by the floods. It is commonplace among our liberal elites to say that when it comes to the people of Pakistan and India, we are all the “same"—that it is merely the self-interested military and political leaderships that feed and profit from hostility between the countries. So the recent disaster might have been thought to be an opportunity to reach over the generals and politicians and directly address the distress of people not unlike ourselves across the border. It still might be that opportunity, but I’m beginning to wonder.

Of course, our sense of sympathy and our willingness to help invariably begins closest to home. Edmund Burke long ago wrote of our love for “the little platoon we belong to in society". But for Burke the little platoon was simply the starting point, “the first principle... of public affections... the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind."

Yet there seems to be a missing link in that chain when it comes to our neighbour, Pakistan. The reasons why are hardly mysterious. Whatever fellow-feeling there might exist towards the people of Pakistan has obviously thinned in the face of terrorist attacks, martial posturing, and a general aggressiveness that Pakistan seems to have made its stock in trade. The memory of the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, and of Pakistan’s role in them, are still fresh and painful, and in many minds override the impulse to assist in a humanitarian crisis. But to say that a general unconcern is understandable is not to concede that it is prudent.

Human sympathy is always a tangle of motives, and one of the motives frequently at work is self-interest. We give because we are in some way better off for having done so. This is very clearly the case for Indians in regard to the current crisis in Pakistan—a case where immediate generosity in distress may help to create an inclination for future cooperation. We’ll need the latter, because the floods there bring into uncomfortable focus a significant danger that India is going to face in coming years—a danger not spoken of with the same intensity as we speak of terrorism, but more connected to it than we usually acknowledge—and sharing with terrorism a lack of respect for borders. I am speaking of the subcontinent’s unravelling ecological crisis, encompassing the distribution of water as well as more general climatic conditions. This crisis is going to provoke mass displacement and unrest as people struggle to find survival habitats.

Concerns: (clockwise from top left) The Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 put Indo-Pak ties back by several decades. Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg; the Indus. AFP; and a family affected by floods in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Morteza Nikoubaz / Reuters

Both terrorism and ecological hazards defy the territorial boundaries of nation states. But they require diametrically opposite modes of approach. Dealing with terror requires a quarantining approach. With large-scale ecological problems, the only plausible approach must be based on cooperation, interconnection and negotiated agreement.

The recognition of interconnectivity in so many important domains—global markets and their global crises, security and information media—has made it in many respects the natural lens through which we now view our relationship to the world.

Yet when it comes to our neighbours, those to whom we are most closely physically conjoined, we seem to quite forget this—in favour of a simplified, one-eyed view of what our security consists in, and of how we can hope to safeguard it.

We have come to see our security in terms of defending physical borders, amassing hardware that can insulate us against enemies. On the other hand, we’ve tended to see our economic development in terms of global networks and flows of goods and services, through software that can connect us to the wider globe. In each case, we somehow hope to be able to discount the local dysfunctionalities of our region. We imagine we can escape the fact that we live in a part of the world devoid of any working institutions that can coordinate and integrate choices and that can collectively confront predicaments faced by states and governments—institutions able to sustain any degree of trust between neighbouring states. In fact, in their absence, we remain subject to the tyranny of geography—in several respects.

First, given the inability of Pakistan’s state to exercise sovereign control over its territory—an inability that will persist—we are going to remain vulnerable to terrorist infiltration and attacks across borders. We should not expect any foolproof defence against threats emanating from our immediate west: We shall have to settle at best for trying to manage risks. We are going to have to find a modus vivendi, one that enables us to deal with such attacks without exciting ourselves into precipitate action (which, given Pakistan’s policy of determined irresponsibility over its nuclear arsenal, could leave us prey to dire consequences). India and Indians will be bled, perhaps not by a thousand cuts as the generals in Pakistan would like to see, but certainly by more attacks. We shall therefore have to take measures to prevent where we can, and to absorb where we must.

A strategy of prevention requires us to invest in technologies of surveillance and to develop intelligence capacities—these must have priority over other major defence buys. But in matters of security, prevention is hardly a foolproof strategy. The unforeseen will happen.

Second, precisely in order to shore up our security, we’ll also need to think about Pakistan and other neighbours in terms other than of bordered threats.

There are a whole series of environmental and ecological threats that don’t respect boundaries and cannot usefully be thought through in terms of the enemy/ally binary: matters to do with climate change and toxic emissions, water management, as well as crucial matters of public health. Such issues, increasingly pressing, cannot be conceived of either in terms of victory or defeat, or in terms of containment beyond our borders. They are Dangers Without Borders. Floods, epidemics, and toxic air pollution do not stop at boundary checkpoints, nor do the internal social upheavals caused by floods or epidemics confine themselves to prescribed territories. They spill over in expected and unexpected ways, and their effects can proliferate long after the actual event.

If there is one issue that literally criss-crosses our divided subcontinent, it is water: both in terms of the river systems that flow over and across national boundaries, and the rain clouds that blow across. Yet all across the subcontinent, water has become a source of nativist suspicion and distrust.

Within India, we are most familiar with disputes between regional states (Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, for instance) and disputes between citizens and the state (the Narmada dam and many others). But with our neighbours too, water now is a regular point of dispute. Before the floods, ironically Pakistan had taken to complaining that India was stealing the Indus waters from it, not allowing enough to flow through to a country feeling the effects of water scarcity. Indeed, leaders of groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have alleged Indian water thievery as yet another reason to press their attacks against India. India and Bangladesh have regularly squabbled over the waters of the Ganga, while in India there is now a panicked recognition that the Chinese have set in place major dam works that may drastically affect the flow and course through India of the Brahmaputra.

On the issue of river rights, India stands, as in so many matters of its international relations, in an in-between position. On the one hand, it needs to be able to dam and make use of river waters that flow into Pakistan; on the other hand, it needs more transparency and restraint on what China is doing to the Brahmaputra.

It’s in fact a river—the Indus itself—that has been the subject of the most successful cooperation between India and Pakistan. It is true that the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 is limited as a model for future cooperation. After all, it was essentially a once-and-for-all division of water rights, and not a mechanism whose operation required active cooperation between two governments; and it was always essentially a defensive, negative agreement, prohibiting certain actions rather than enabling and encouraging India and Pakistan to actively work together. Yet, we should see it as a useful example, while recognizing that we’re going to have to find ways to invent new, more positive, kinds of agreements. A first step in trying to move towards such cooperation might be to offer, in a situation of real human need, a more expansive hand of assistance. There’s no guarantee it will be taken as intended—but hadn’t we better try?

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to him at