Why good governance is key for countries facing climate disruption

I have a weakness for Top Gear, the car-cum-adventure show on the BBC. The original trio of hosts have since moved on to another show, after their tedious jibes and racism eventually proved to be too much for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Jeremy Clarkson, the more famous of the three, has long been a climate crisis sceptic. In a November special for their new show, the trio went down the Mekong in southeast Asia, and struggled with an often dry river system.

In the episode, Clarkson said: “The irony is not lost on me. A man who hosted a car programme for 30 years limited to seven miles an hour by global warming.”

This is the problem with simple narratives. Climate change, or the global heating that drives it, do not cause events. Climate is a threat multiplier, so it exacerbates events such as floods, droughts and wildfires.

It has a cruel way of exposing existing failures, which is why good governance is so important in countries preparing for a changing climate.

One of the main reasons the Mekong was so dry is dams are being built in China. The upper Mekong, which is mostly in China, gets its water from rainfall and snowmelt from the Chinese-occupied Tibetan plateau. Work done by American researchers, and published this week, says the 11 dams on that part of the Mekong were holding back water.

For the research — Monitoring the Quality of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions — they used satellite images, which led them to conclude that there was enough water in the upper Mekong, but it wasn’t getting downstream. This combined with a drought guaranteed a water shortage in countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Climate change means wild variations in rainfall. It means countries run out of water. People die.

But it is far more dangerous when it plays into existing problems and power dynamics. South Africa has long pumped pollutants into the rivers that are shared with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Mozambique. Those countries have little power to force accountability. In 1998 South Africa invaded Lesotho, ostensibly to quell a military coup, but allegedly to secure its interests there — the crucial Katse Dam.

On the Zambezi, more dams are planned for hydroelectric power schemes. On the Nile, a dam built by Ethiopia threatens the water that supplies the Egyptian economy. This has sparked tension.

More droughts and floods, driven by climate change, will expose competing political pressures.

This will be what sparks so many of the wars of the future.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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