Dire warnings

Climate change can have serious geo-political fallouts

Cleo Paskal London

Even conservative estimates of the impact of climate change make disturbing reading.

Recent scientific forecasts put sea level rises at around 1 metre by the end of the century. Studies by New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute show that a rise of that magnitude will put up to 19 per cent of Mumbai underwater and affect about 40 per cent of the population of Chennai. Goa could lose up to five per cent of its total area, and Gujarat and West Bengal would lose the most land. Coastal areas that are not flooded might suffer from saltwater infiltrating precious freshwater aquifers, erosion, and damage to infrastructure.

Both increased floods and increased droughts are expected, as the rainy season dumps more water (up to 30 per cent more in central India. The Krishna, Ganga and especially the Godavari river basins will all see increases in extreme rainfall) but that water just creates floods and is not there when needed in the dry season.

The Bay of Bengal will get more cyclones, especially in the post-monsoon season, and the winds will be faster and stronger. Crops will have to be rethought, water saving techniques developed and flood controls and sewage systems redesigned.

Temperatures are expected to rise up to 40C in parts of India by the end of the century, increasing the transmission window for diseases like malaria. Both wheat and rice production is expected to fall. And importing will be expensive, because the whole planet will be in the same situation.

The infrastructure will also take a big hit, with roads, railways and ports all vulnerable. Temperature increases can weaken building material. Sea level rises and increased rainfall can cause flooding and waterlogging, resulting in structural damage, erosion, and increase risk of collapse.

All this will result in an added burden to the power supply as a/c, pumps, irrigation systems and construction crews fight to maintain the status quo. Disputes between states, already snarling at each other over power and water sharing, will only get worse as water supplies become even more erratic and power, especially hydro, becomes unreliable. Internal migration will increase. Farmers, already suffering terribly, will be hit even harder. Deforestation and unsuitable land use is already making an atrocious situation unsustainable and increasing risks of flooding, landslides and erosion.

There are some small efforts to try to mitigate these existing and impending environmental, human and economic disasters, but the geopolitical implications are being all but ignored.

For examples, the UN estimates that 15 per cent to 20 per cent of coastal Bangladesh will flood by the end of the century. That will push millions more desperate refugees up against an already tense Indian border.

And the entire Himalayan region is ripe for conflict over geopolitical power, water and hydropower supplies. Water from the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau keeps alive about half the world's population. Much of that water comes from glaciers, but they are melting at an alarming rate. The Chinese Academy of Science estimates that 7 per cent of their glaciers are melting annually and that by 2050, as much as 64 per cent could be completely gone.

The immediate impact is flooding. The Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Studies and the UNEP have shown that around 50 lakes in Nepal, Bhutan and China have formed as a result of melting glaciers. They are very unstable and are liable to burst their banks and flash flood. The melting is also disrupting hydro projects. The flip side is that once the melt is done, those same regions (and the ones that are downstream) will suffer drought.

In geopolitical terms, this has tremendous implications. In the Chinese classic text The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes that there are five factors that must be considered before any military action: politics, the weather, the terrain, the leadership and discipline (including supply lines). In the border regions, climate change will directly alter three of those factors.

The weather will become erratic and extreme, the terrain will alter dramatically and supply lines will be affected by changes in terrain (for example, roads built on permafrost will melt and become boggy sludge, rivers will move and flood, and erosion could undermine previously passable areas).

But that does not mean the region should be abandoned. For example, the Siachen glacier is now considered a distant 'wasteland'. Well, in a world where fresh water might soon become more valuable than oil, the soldiers are currently standing on what is potentially a very valuable asset. If they were on a frozen lake of crude, the situation might be a bit clearer to decision makers.

Any analysis of Siachen should include hydrological and climate studies to see where that glacier melt is flowing, if it can be diverted and what the terrain is likely to be like in 10 or 20 years. Supply lines on both sides (and in China) will change dramatically as the ice and permafrost melts.

In fact, the entire region should have climate forecasting done to be able to accurately predict what movement will be possible in the very near future. China is already very aware of its coming water crisis, and there is no question that they are already starting to think along these lines and are very keen to try to ensure they have as much access to water supplies as possible.

Climate change is a violent attack on an already shaky status quo. Everyone will be hit. The United States' disorganised and shambolic reaction to the disaster caused by hurricane Katrina shows how even predicted climate events can bring even the mightiest to their knees. But the situation can be mitigated and become less costly (in human and fiscal terms) by advanced planning. Climate scientists should become a part of any future planning. For example, any new infrastructure investments should be "climate change proofed", efforts to harvest rainwater (like the projects started in Delhi) should become more widespread, and agricultural research should take climate change research into account. From a military point of view, aside from climate-sensitive terrain surveys, a re-evaluation of training and equipment should be done with the new realities in mind (i.e. it is likely that the military will become involved in an increasing number of climate-related emergencies and that their future operating environment will often be soggy).

But equally important, as climate change is a global event, the climate situation in neighbouring regions should be closely monitored so that nasty surprises are kept to a minimum.

(Cleo Paskal's book Global Warring, on climate change and geopolitics, will be released in Canada in spring 2007. She is a columnist with the Toronto Star and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs).