Few in South Asia aware of consequences of a nuclear strike
There is a strange truth about some of the worst catastrophes in the world: Until they are at our doorstep, they are difficult to imagine. This, it seems, is true of nuclear catastrophe. Most Pakistanis alive today have no recollection of a time before the bomb existed and was in Pakistan’s possession, and yet, despite this, few seem to have any idea of the impact of the use of nuclear weapons. Worse still is the situation on the other side of the border — a fact brought into uncomfortable focus in the midst of last week’s escalating tensions. Ever since the Pulwama attack on Feb. 14, Indian television anchors have been sounding the war cry, with the particularly rabid Arnab Goswami going so far as to demand a “final strike” against Pakistan, even after the latter released the captured Indian pilot as promised on Friday.
The truth is that many on either side of the border, the proponents of war in particular, have little idea about what exactly a final strike would mean and the consequences it would have on the ordinary people not just of South Asia, but rather the whole world. It is, as I mentioned, a case of the general inability to imagine a catastrophe so terrible that it is outside the scope of the many catastrophes dotted throughout world history. Where exact historical examples from history fail, however, science can help. In the years since activists have been working on nuclear non-proliferation, scientists have been able to point out just how terrifying and destructive nuclear cataclysm would be. It may begin in South Asia, but it would likely end life as we know it all over the world.
It is shocking that in South Asia, where so many are so proud of their nuclear weapons, little public education is devoted to giving the populations that would be most affected by the actual use of nuclear bombs a true idea of what would happen in such a situation.
If the nuclear missile is directed at the largest population centers in each the two countries — that is Mumbai and Karachi, both of which are within range — then 1.5 million people would likely be dead with the initial impact alone. They would likely be burnt to death before they even realized what was happening. Like the carcasses of Pompeii in Italy, preserved for all those years under layers of volcanic ash, people would die in the midst of what they were doing, whether eating, sleeping, walking or talking.
Double that number would be injured. As one got further and further away from the fallout zone, the chances of life would be greater, but the quality of that life would be grim. Nearly everyone in the subcontinent would suffer the effects of the radiation, some in the form of immediate burns and others from cancers developed because of it — and many would face both. Women that were already pregnant would give birth to deformed children, while those even hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the fallout zone would no longer be able to bear children.
The impact of the blast would also not be limited to the immediate impact and fallout zones, or even many hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Even if a nuclear bomb exploded in South Asia, the nuclear ash would spread throughout the continent, carried by air currents. Along with the ash, the radiation would stretch into the Middle East and beyond. The effects of the explosion would get all the way to North America in a mere two weeks.
As for the longer term effects, it would not take long for the ash to rise up into the atmosphere, where it would block out the sun’s rays. This would likely span the entire globe and its effects would make the survival of the humans that remained even harder. Without the sun, farming would be difficult and, without agriculture or livestock, the planet’s food supply would begin to dwindle, causing famine among those left behind. That starving, disease-ridden population, many unable to bear children and others having children with serious birth defects, would be left to endure life in what scientists have termed the nuclear winter.
It is shocking that in South Asia, where so many are so proud of their nuclear weapons, little public education is devoted to giving the populations that would be most affected by the actual use of nuclear bombs a true idea of what would happen in such a situation. As a result, many — particularly on the Indian side, which has of late been arguing for an escalation with Pakistan regardless of the consequences — have little idea what they are talking about. Threats and counter-threats are made and a swirl of bloodthirsty, warmongering allegations take hold of the region and of everyone’s senses.
This is a tragic situation, not least because it increases the likelihood that, as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned, there could be a “miscalculation.” That miscalculation, he neglected to say, could create disaster not just for India and Pakistan, but for the rest of the world too. There may be many threats and allegations between nuclear-armed neighbors, but the world, and particularly South Asians, must understand that there will likely only be one nuclear winter. The winter that is never followed by spring is not winter, but the end of all seasons.
— Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.