/ 6 November 2009

Climate wars looming

A report by military experts says the adverse effects of climate change will result in conflict over scarce resources. Yolandi Groenewald reports.

A changing climate is increasingly becoming a threat to world peace and stability, security and military experts have warned.

As resources such as land, food and water become more scarce because of the impact of climate change, there are bound to be clashes, the experts say. Africa and South Africa are every bit as vulnerable to these conflicts.

An international group of military experts, contracted by the Institute for Environmental Security in The Hague, warned that if the effects of climate change are not dealt with, it ‘will be very costly in the future”. The experts serve on the institute’s military advisory council.

Retired Indian air marshal AK Singh, who chairs the council, warned that: ‘Failure to recognise the conflict and instability implications of climate change and to invest in a range of preventive and adaptive actions will be very costly in terms of destabilising nations, causing human suffering, retarding development and providing the required military response.”

Joseph Singh, the former chief of staff of Guyana’s defence force, said: ‘Based on the fact that we have been involved in disaster relief operations, we know the trauma, the human misery, the damage to infrastructure. That hands-on experience gives us the confidence we have some knowledge and expertise that we can share and work in a collaborated way with decision-makers to anticipate, pre-empt and be involved in contingency planning.”

A retired United States brigadier general cited Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, as an example of the security risk caused by an environmental disaster. He said the US’s ability to respond was severely stressed and if a nation as technologically developed as the US struggled, then the picture is not rosy for poor nations.

The council said the effects of climate change could lead to the migration of millions of people from places such as Bangladesh where the impact of climate change would cause an estimated annual loss to the economy of $1-billion of gross domestic product by 2010 and $5-billion by 2070.

Water scarcity will have a severe impact on human access to fresh water, food production, fisheries and wildlife, river transport, hydropower and sanitation according to the report.

The report highlighted the risk posed by the melting Himalayan glaciers that will dry up the constant fresh supply of water to Asian countries, leading to water shortages in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of China.

Water could trigger security issues in Africa and South Africa. Many security analysts believe that the war in Darfur is partly driven by the demand for limited resources, especially water.

South African water expert Anthony Turnton has said that service delivery protests and the xenophobic violence can be linked to issues such as access to water and other environmental resources. Several environmental studies have shown that the effects of climate change are taking their toll on the African continent.

An increasing occurrence of drought is threatening food security and the displacement of people. This will result in people flooding into areas where they believe they will find the resources to allow them to survive. In turn this could create tension between the immigrants and the existing population as they clash over water, food and jobs.

Intelligence agencies worldwide are dedicating resources to investigating the security risk that climate change represents. The council said the best way to handle the approaching conflicts is to prevent unchecked climate change by committing to an all inclusive climate treaty in Copenhagen at the end of the year that is aimed at keeping global warming below two degrees.

The Central Intelligence Agency has appointed a team to study the consequences of human migration caused by climate change, increasing drought, rising sea levels and pressure on environmental resources.

The Pentagon is drawing up a report on the role of the military and how to handle security risks in an environmentally compromised world.