Six Climate Conflict Hotspots that Could Impact Everyone

A few days ago, Moyers & Company’s John Light interviewed Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, about role of climate change played in sparking Syria’s unrelenting civil war. But while Syria is currently the highest profile climate conflict, it’s not the only one.

As climate change, urbanization, water and energy shortages grow more acute, there are a number of places around the globe where climate instability and water shortages threaten to spark conflict that will have global geopolitical and economic implications. Here are 6 of them.

1. Syria 

Experts have been warning that water shortages would lead to conflict in Syria for years. As Katie Horner wrote for the State of the Planet in 2010, the national water supply of Syria fell drastically between 2002 and 2008, mostly as a result of decades-long policies of water mismanagement and agricultural inefficiency. This trend was sharply exacerbated from 2006 to 2011 by what Femia called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent.” By as early as 2010 nearly 800,000 people had left rural Syria due to water shortages.

syriafire

Post by Freedom House via Flickr.

All of this was in place before the outbreak of violence during the Arab Spring, and it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t have an impact. But the potential for conflict extends beyond Syria’s borders as well, as may Syrians blame their water woes on Turkey for building a huge network of dams on the Euphrades without consulting its downstream neighbors.

What does all this have to do with climate change? Femia points to an October 2011 study by NOAA that suggested that the recent prolonged drought of the Eastern Mediterranean was linked to climate change.

2. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s water situation is little better than it’s neighbor to the northwest. For many decades Saudi Arabia used its oil wealth and the easy availability of energy to do the unthinkable and grow wheat in the desert by pumping a deep underground fossil aquifer for irrigation. That plan faltered a few years ago when the aquifer ran dry. Saudi Arabia will likely be 100 percent dependent on wheat imports by 2016; it’s already one of the world’s top five rice importers. The likelihood of climate change-related extreme events can only make the nation’s water risks worse.

To date, Saudi Arabia has been less affected than many other Arab nations by the sweeping changes of the Arab Spring that began in 2010. But it remains to be seen how long this nation can maintain political stability in light of growing environmental and resource challenges. All of this matters to the world for obvious reasons. Given Saudi Arabia’s role as oil producer of last resort, climate- and water-related political unrest could wreak havoc on the global economy.

3. Africa

As their ability to grow crops is threatened by depletion and drought, relatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia and China are increasingly looking elsewhere for food security–particularly Africa. According to Oxfam international, Asian and Middle Eastern countries have bought up nearly 560 million acres of land from African nations in recent years, much to the consternation of human rights groups, who fear that native Africans are been driven off their land in a kind of climate-induced neo-colonialism. Needless to say, this dynamic is a recipe for conflict.

Farming for Development: Mechanized Farming in Tanzania

There are risks that large-scale farming may harm Africa’s fragile environment. Photograph: UN / B. Wolff

4. China-India

Both China and India face serious water crises on their own, with hungry populations, thirsty crops and falling water tables. Furthermore, the energy needed to pump and move water is usually provided by power plants that require huge amounts of water to function.

If that weren’t bad enough, the fact that China controls the largest source of transboundary river  flows creates the potential for conflict with its neighbor to the south. Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, and author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground, points out that no country in history has built more dams than China, and China now has more dams than the rest of the world combined. A growing number of these dams divert water from rivers that flow into neighboring countries, including India, says Chellaney.

As their decades-long reliance on fossil groundwater for irrigation comes to an end, both China and India will be forced to rely more on annual rainfall to grow food — just as that rainfall is itself becoming more variable.

Faced with the prospect of feeding their people, it’s not hard to imagine simmering tensions erupting on the China-India border.

5. Central Asia 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, coherent water management in Central Asia collapsed, especially along the Syr Darya river basin. The Syr Darya crosses parts of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan before emptying into the Aral Sea.

syr daria

Syr Daria river floodplain. Image by NASA.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Peace, Thomas Bernauer and Tobias Siegfried described the history of water conflict on this river, explaining how Stalin and Khrushchev damned the river in the mid-1950s to develop massive irrigated agriculture for cotton and wheat on the low-lying steppes in the downstream reaches of the river. This policy ultimately led to the drying out of the Aral Sea.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan lost access to cheap fossil fuels it was using to for power and saw it’s electrical production plunge dramatically–more than 75 percent in a decade. To compensate, Kyrgyzstan changed its Toktogul reservoir from irrigation to hydro-electric power production; today 90 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s power is hydro-electric.

Unfortunately, the needs of hydro-electric power upstream are at odds with irrigation demand downstream. Kyrgyzstan now stores water from spring to autumn and releases it to produce energy in winter, when demand is highest. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, on the other hand, need water during the growing season from April to September. To date, international agreements have failed to solve this problem.

Bernauer and Siegfried’s models suggest that climate change could make this tension worse, as peak runnoff time shifts from early summer to late winter/early spring, making less water directly available at the time when more than 90 percent of irrigation occurs.

Surprisingly, Bernauer and Siegfried remain optimistic that there is time to solve transboundry conflicts before they erupt into full-blown war. The very fact that no armed conflict has broken out in spite of highly dysfunctional water management and simmering tensions is good sign, they say.

6. Central United States

At first glance, the United States would seem like an unlikely location for climate conflict. I mention it here not because we should expect war in Iowa, but because what happens here profoundly affects the rest of the world.

As of this writing, the Midwest is once again caught in the dry vise of drought, which comes on the heels of an exceptionally wet May and June. The combination of these shifts is impacting both corn and soybean yields, and recently caused the USDA to cut it’s crop forecasts the third straight month.

What does this have to do with the rest of the world? Because lower yields in America’s breadbasket affects global food prices, and high global food prices almost inevitably create conflict  in the developing world. In fact, based on historical data, the New England Complex Systems Institute has shown that above a certain threshold, high food prices are almost certain to cause riots. The Arab Spring itself was sparked initially by protests against the rising cost of food.

In other words, it’s all connected.

3 thoughts on “Six Climate Conflict Hotspots that Could Impact Everyone

  1. Excellent Analysis! Very easy overlooked by some, where water scarcity is not Yet a visible issue!

  2. YES to number 6! The other locations you mention are all valid points of conflict. My family hosted an exchange student from Kyrgyzstan when I was in high school, Based on what he told me, I would add deforestation to the list of Central Asia’s problems.
    But again, YES to number 6. I grew up in Oklahoma, and fully expect that as the planet warms, periods like the droughts of the 1930s and 1950s will become much more common. The whole area may become semi-arid land not suitable for settled agriculture outside of large river basins. It will probably look much like central Asia, but without the mountains. And that has huge implications for the survival of the world’s 2 billion poorest citizens (not to mention the US’ poorest citizens).

    • Ben,

      Very interesting. Of course deforestation is a huge problem. We have to learn to manage our forests (which we can do) if we want a shot at surviving.

      Regarding the Midwest, I should have added research by Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University:

      http://www.columbia.edu/~ws2162/

      It is very alarming, to say the least.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Lakis

Leave a Reply