Climate change drives global political and religious strife

| August 12, 2019

When we get our news from the media we generally get the results of long term problems. My wife drove to Australia from England and found the people of Iran and Iraq to be friendly, happy and, generally, healthy. Nowadays Europeans would not be welcome. Why? I suggest it is due to climate change and the use it is being put to by political and religious bigots. Let’s look at some of the countries involved.

China and the South China Seas

Exacerbating the growing water crisis in Asia is the overuse of groundwater, leading to falling water tables in India and China. China contains 20% of global population but only 7% of available fresh water. Changing climate patterns are causing droughts and increasing desertification, with freshwater reserves falling 13% between 2000 and 2009.

24,000 villages in north and west China have been abandoned due to desertification in the last 50 years, and the advancing Gobi Desert is now only 150 miles from Beijing. In rural areas, 300 million people have no access to safe drinking water, and 54% of the main rivers contain water unfit for human consumption.

Four-fifths of China’s grain harvest comes from irrigated land, most of it drawing on surface water, principally the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which are fed from the Tibetan Plateau. The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast.

Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well-drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable. A World Bank report on China’s water situation foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

Pakistan

Pakistan offers an example of a country where the social and political landscape and susceptibility to climate harm are a potentially unstable mix. Increasing instability in Pakistan would contribute to the risk of instability in India and even China, which are key economic partners for Australia.

Pakistan is a pivot state between Central and South Asia. Salafist Islamist non-state actors play a significant role in conflict in Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood and within the country. Armed opposition groups target energy infrastructure. The military and intelligence have a powerful say in politics.

The Pakistani state has a direct interest in wars in neighbouring Afghanistan and in disputed Kashmir, and it is nuclear armed. Climate change has contributed to recent record-breaking drought events. On 30 May 2017, the thermometer in Turbat, Balochistan hit 54°C, the hottest reliably measured temperature ever recorded in Asia.

In 2010, devastating floods affected one-fifth of the land area and 20 million people, destroyed 1.7 million homes, and damaged 5.4 million acres of arable land. The damage was made worse by a shift in the distribution of monsoonal rainfall to areas of the country with poorer flood mitigation measures. Increases in the frequency and intensity of drought and flooding are consistent with climate change projections.

Pakistan will face severe water scarcity by 2025 and is “one of the most water-stressed countries in the world”, driven by changing snow melt from the Himalayan/Karakoram ranges, more variable monsoons, increases in population, inefficient drainage practices, a shift in agriculture towards more water-intensive export cropping, and competing demands for water by the agriculture and power generation sectors.

Pakistan’s agricultural sector relies heavily on irrigation. 80% of agricultural land is irrigated (not rain-fed), the highest proportion in the world. Agriculture employs 45% of workers. Cotton, textiles and clothing make up half of Pakistan’s exports. In quantitative terms, cubic yards of surface water available per person fell from 6,880 in 1951 to 1,358 in 2010. By 2025 it is projected to decrease to 1,046 cubic yards.

The Indus river system is the core of Pakistan’s water system and most flow comes from Karakoram glaciers in its headwaters. There is evidence that glacial changes may be reducing river flows. The Karakoram glaciers have stable or ncreasing areas and possibly mass – with reduced melt flows – and are behaving differently from rapidly retreating eastern Himalaya glaciers.

Competition for water between the agricultural and power sectors is already intense and is likely to increase. Decreased flows in the Indus, and decisions to allocate water to irrigation instead of power generation, have been in part responsible for ongoing electrical blackouts. Power shortfalls in summer are up to half of demand, with power outages of up to 18–20 hours driving protests and increasing civil unrest.

In one episode in 2012 rioters “burned trains, damaged banks and gas stations, looted shops, blocked roads, and, in some instances, targeted homes of members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies”. The blackouts are “a contentious political issue with the potential to inflame Pakistan–India relations. The Pakistani foreign minister blamed the decreased flows on illegal water withdrawals upstream by India”, although the commissioner of the Indus River System Authority in Pakistan attributed them to climate change.

Asia and the Pacific

Whilst drought is a long-term climate change challenge in Asia, in some cases too much water is an immediate problem. More intense monsoons driven by warmer sea-surface temperatures are an increasing threat to the region, a phenomenon hitting China’s coastal region and the Philippines. Witness the destructive force of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

As the sea level rises, storm surges will become more invasive, more destructive, costlier, and deadlier. Densely populated areas, including many large cities along coasts or major waterways are particularly vulnerable to monsoon and storm surge flooding.

Asia has 15 of the world’s 20 largest urban areas – including Tokyo, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Dhaka – and most are on the coast or alongside low-lying deltas and so are vulnerable to inundation.

Low-lying nations – such as Bangladesh, and island countries such as the Maldives and Kiribati – face existential threats in the near term from sea level rise and devastating storm flooding. Projected sea-level rise will put other critical regions at risk, including key rice growing areas, Asia’s primary food staple.

The Philippines

Key factors for identifying where large-scale violence, regime change, or state breakdown may occur include semi-democratic regimes which are corrupt, favour special groups and lack “diffuse” legitimacy and support. Their climate and disaster responses are under-resourced, poorly managed, and lack compassion, which well-organized pre-existing opposition parties within the system or mass movements or insurgencies capable of leading or increasing anti-regime violence can exploit.

From this perspective, the Philippines may become a climate and conflict hotspot. Its politics are fiercely contested – often on the streets – and the current president is authoritarian, unpredictable and violent. There is a decades-old, re-energised insurgency in the south with some leadership allegiance to ISIS, bolstered by a flow of militants from Indonesia and those returning from the Middle East.

Climate warming impacts include more extreme flooding, prolonged and intensified droughts, more powerful typhoons, and intense storm surges and the Philippines can suffer from them all.

It was ranked as the fifth most affected nation by climate-related disasters between 1994 and 2013, and its capital, Manila is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to inundation from rising sea levels. It was rated as the second-most-at-risk city to climate change in the world, in the “extreme” category, in 2013. Manila can expect more power shortages, disease and interruptions to water supply with more warming in the future.

Oceans to the east of the Philippines are the most rapidly warming surface waters anywhere in the world, driving cyclones such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which was the most powerful tropical cyclone to make landfall in recorded history.

Over the past 37 years, typhoons that strike East and Southeast Asia have intensified by 12–15%, with the proportion of storms of categories 4 and 5 having doubled or even tripled. In 2009, during tropical storm Ondoy, a month’s worth of rain fell on Manila and 25 provinces in a few hours. Nearly 80% of Manila was flooded, 246 people died and hundreds of thousands had to be evacuated.

Climate change and human activities have also taken a heavy toll on coral reef ecosystems, on which millions of Filipinos depend for food and income. 75% of the nation’s mangrove area has already been lost, as has 30–50% of the country’s seagrass beds over the last 50 years.

Climate change will have a modestly negative effect on rice, sugarcane, and banana yields, and a large negative effect on maize. Climate change will increase prices of agricultural food and this will disproportionately affect poor people. The country’s food production system is therefore highly vulnerable and one in four Filipinos live below the poverty line.

Mali

The crises in Mali in 2012–2014 were shaped by an intersection of three trends: desertification and food insecurity exacerbated by climate change; an ongoing rebellion by Arab Tuareg nomadic herdsmen in northern Mali; and weak government institutions that could not address the marginalization of the Tuareg and their increasing clashes with non-Arab Muslim ethnic sedentary agriculturalist tribes in the southern and central areas of the country.

Overwhelmed by these challenges, the fragile government was overthrown by a coup in March 2012 but the Malian political system was unable to maintain influence in northern Mali. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups moved in and took control.

The Sahel

The Malian conflict fits a pattern of other such conflicts in Africa’s Sahel region, including Darfur, South Sudan, Niger, and Nigeria. Climate change – particularly drought and desertification – have impacted the region for hundreds of years; yet the region’s environmental stressors have now become a threat multiplier across Sub-Saharan Africa.

They have contributed to conflict dynamics in countries that have never enjoyed popular internal sovereignty in the post-colonial era or robust institutions to settle conflicts over vital resources.

Add to this the involvement of transnational militias such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Janjaweed in Darfur, and these conflicts become more complex, transforming resource competition into ethno-political conflict.

Nigeria

There is a basic causal mechanism that links climate change with violence in Nigeria. A US report concludes that in Nigeria poor responses to climatic shifts created shortages of resources such as land and water, which were followed by negative secondary impacts, such as more sickness, hunger, and joblessness, while the inadequate government response provoked unrest.

Many Boko Haram foot soldiers were people displaced by severe drought and food shortages in neighboring Niger and Chad. Some 200,000 farmers and herdsman had lost their livelihoods and, facing starvation, crossed the border into Nigeria. The inadequacy of the government’s climate adaptation programs led to exposure of the vast population of farmers in northern Nigeria to harsh environmental effects, consequently generating conflict.

The rapid rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq from March to May 2014. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have played havoc with Iraq’s agriculture, and the Shi’ite-dominated government largely failed to address the burgeoning challenges of dwindling water supplies and waning agriculture.

ISIS moved quickly to exploit these failures, for instance by using dams as a weapon of war, and filling the vacuum left by the incapacity of the central government to feed its own population and deliver basic goods and services.

If the world is to overcome the threats posed by terrorism, conflict and poverty, then it must address the causes of climate change whose effects are already creating a fertile breeding ground for discontent.

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