A nuclear war between South Asian rivals India and Pakistan would trigger a global famine that would immediately kill 2 billion people around the world and spell the “end of human civilization,” according to a study by an anti-nuclear group. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) also warned that even a limited nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would destroy crop yields, damage the atmosphere and throw global food markets into chaos. China, the world’s most populous country, would face a catastrophic food shortage that would lead to enormous social convulsions.
“A billion people dead in the developing world is obviously a catastrophe unparalleled in human history,” said Ira Helfand, co-president of PSR and the study's lead author. “But then if you add to that the possibility of another 1.3 billion people in China being at risk, we are entering something that is clearly the end of civilization.” Helfand explained that China’s destruction would be caused by longstanding tensions between its neighbors, India and Pakistan, two enemies that have already fought three wars since 1947. Moreover, given the apocalyptic power of contemporary nuclear weapons – which are far more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 – the impact of an India-Pakistan war would be felt across the globe.
“With a large war between the United States and Russia, we are talking about the possible, not certain, but possible, extinction of the human race,” Helfand said, according to Agence France Presse. “In this kind of war, biologically there are going to be people surviving somewhere on the planet, but the chaos that would result from this [South Asian nuclear war] will dwarf anything we've ever seen.”
Specifically, the study noted, a nuclear war in South Asia would release black carbon aerosol particles that would cut U.S. corn and soybean production by 10 percent over a decade. Those particles would also reduce Chinese rice production by an average of 21 percent over a four-year period and by another 10 percent over the subsequent six years. Even more devastating, China’s wheat crop would drop by 50 percent in just the first year after the hypothetical Indo-Pak nuclear war.
CNN reported that there are at least 17,000 nuclear warheads (other reports suggest that there are perhaps as many as 20,000) around the world, which present a far greater threat than the current obsession with Iran’s nascent atomic program. Most of these warheads are currently owned by the United States and Russia, while India and Pakistan are believed to have “only” about 100 warheads each.
But given the state of endless enmity between India and Pakistan, they are more likely to launch a nuclear war than the superpowers who possess far more and far deadlier nuclear weapons. Helfand told CNN that in an India-Pakistan nuclear war scenario, more than 20 million people would be dead within one week from the explosions, firestorms and immediate effects of radiation. “But the global consequences would be far worse,” he said.
Indeed, the firestorms produced by this imaginary South Asian war “would loft 5 million tons of soot high into the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and dropping temperatures across the planet. This climate disruption would cause a sharp, worldwide decline in food production.” The subsequent global famine would place the lives of 870 million people in the developing world at immediate risk of starvation.
On the brighter side, Helfand indicated, a movement to ban atomic weapons is gathering storm. Helfand called for the removal of all nuclear weapons as the only way to avoid Armageddon. “This is a disaster so massive in scale that really no preparation is possible. We must prevent this,” he said.
In May of last year, 17 nations issued a joint statement warning of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and advocated for their elimination. By the fall of 2013, 125 nations attached themselves to the statement. “The international community should continue to take practical steps to prevent additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Helfand said. “But this effort to prevent proliferation must be matched by real progress to eliminate the far greater danger posed by the vast arsenals that already exist. Simply put, the only way to eliminate the threat of nuclear war or risk of an accidental launch or mishap is to eliminate nuclear weapons.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.