Rethinking European Borders as Alpine Ice Melts

Italy and Switzerland are planning to redraw their shared alpine border, as global warming is melting the glaciers that originally guided the line. Although peaceful, the move raises fears of future conflicts over shifting borders and resources.

Glaciers and ice fields around the world are melting as temperatures rise, with Europe's high mountains particularly hard hit.

The original proposal to move the Swiss-Italian border comes from Franco Narducci, a member of Italy's centre-left opposition party.

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The Italian parliament must approve a new law before the change can happen, whereas Switzerland does not need to go through this process. The final border will be agreed by a commission of experts from Switzerland's Federal Office of Topography and Italy's Military Geographic Institute.

"I think it's fantastic that these two countries are talking about adjusting their borders," says Mark Zeitoun of the University of East Anglia, UK, an expert on international resource management and conflict. "Elsewhere in the world you see a much more nationalistic attitude."

Border wars

The proposal would move the border by up to 100 metres in several regions, including the area surrounding the famous Matterhorn mountain, which will remain straddling the border.

Border communities would be unaffected by the border changes, as the area in question is more than 4000 metres above sea level, and uninhabited. However, other areas of glacial melting and geographic change could prove more contentious.

"Climate change has the potential to lead to large conflicts, particularly where water resources are concerned," says Nick Robson of the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute.

Melting resource

One such flashpoint for future conflict is the disputed region of Kashmir, the bulk of which is divided between India and Pakistan. This mountainous region has been bitterly fought over since partition in 1947.

Pakistan's major rivers, including the Indus, start life as meltwater from glaciers in Indian-controlled parts of the region. As these glaciers melt and recede with the changing climate, they are likely to cause severe flooding, followed by drought when meltwater is no longer sufficient to feed the rivers.

Pakistan this week accused India of withholding water from the Chenab, a river flowing from the Himalayas into both countries.

Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari warned that the water crisis in Pakistan is directly linked to relations with India. "Resolution could prevent an environmental catastrophe in South Asia," he said, "but failure to do so could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism."

James Lee of American University, Washington DC, an expert on the relationship between climate, geography and conflict, agrees. "I think it's a very good bet that the Kashmir glaciers will get caught up in the India/Pakistan dispute."

Zeitoun plays down the potential for more serious problems. "The link between climate change and conflict is pretty tenuous," he says.

States suffering water shortages due to climate change could import food rather than growing their own, reducing international tensions, he says, though the shortages would still cause suffering for subsistence farmers.

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