Wars, earthquakes and tsunamis : the repercussions of Climate Change


International discourse on climate change has largely been focused on carbon emissions, increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and ways to collectively face the challenges through climate treaties. But the danger to peace and security between and within nations as an indirect consequence of climate change is only beginning to be addressed. When the Darfur conflict in Sudan, one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, was explained as the first climate change conflict by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2007, it triggered global debates on the link between climate change and war.

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According to a report on Darfur by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), though the conflict began due to insurgency against the government for supressing the non-Arab population, changes in the ecology of the region primarily contributed to it. Land degradation and advancement of desert region in northern Darfur pushed nomadic pastoralists towards the south for better pastures. However, declining water resources, drought and uncertain crop harvests were already having their effects on sedentary farmers in the south, who were shifting to animal husbandry. Human and livestock population grew over the years while the quality of pastures and agricultural land declined. Hence, communities started clashing over diminishing resources, and the conflicts were aggravated by long years of ethnic discord and marginalisation, uneven development and discontent with the ruling elite.

A recent study by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany found that the coincidence rate between climate associated natural calamities and violent conflicts was nine percent globally. They also found that in culturally fragmented countries, 23 percent of conflicts coincide with climate disasters. Another research published by academics from various universities across the United States examines the link between temperature rise and civil war in Africa. Based on an analysis of past conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa and corresponding temperatures during those time periods, the study found that there was significant increase in incidences of conflict during warmer years. This, the researchers say, is because the region is heavily dependent on agriculture for their income and productivity decline due to temperature shifts affect economic welfare, which is the most constant factor associated with conflict.

Even the Syrian civil war is said to have ecological drivers. In the years leading up to the war, the fertile crescent in the Middle east, which includes the countries of Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, suffered from a severe drought exacerbated by global warming. This combined with overexploitation of groundwater as a result of poor environmental policies and inadequate irrigation facilities resulted in a prolonged agricultural slump in Syria, leading to mass rural to urban migration. Consequently, illegal colonies lacking necessary infrastructure cropped up in peri-urban regions, occupied by the poorer classes. These areas were largely ignored by the Syrian government and hence unrest amongst the masses developed against unemployment, corruption and inequality. Once again, drought is only one of the catalysts - the brutal conflict started as a result of a host of social, economic and political factors, and the violent suppression of peaceful protests by the Assad government.

Closer home, India and Bangladesh also run the risk of climate change induced conflict with each other. The permeable border between the two countries has been a source of tension for decades, with migrants from Bangladesh and the citizens of Assam struggling against each other for land and other resources. The 1983 Nellie massacre in the Indian state, which caused the deaths of more than 1,800 people, a majority of whom were Bangladeshi Muslims, was a result of this animosity that continues even today. Additionally, an increase in incidences of flooding in Bangladesh, contributed by the rise in sea levels will lead to inevitable mass population displacement. Decline in land productivity and lack of economic opportunities may push a majority of these immigrants towards India, intensifying the existing discord and communal friction.

Essentially, human induced climate change can cause forced migration and economic vulnerability. Forced migration and economic vulnerability increase risk of conflict, especially in ethnically divided countries. Conflict and war intensify human resettlement and environmental degradation. And the cycle continues. The effect of war on climate change has been observed in the Siachen glacier, the highest conflict zone in the world, between India and Pakistan. Military presence in the region since 1984 has taken a heavy toll on the environment due to infrastructure construction to facilitate the movement and inhabitation of troops. Army cantonments, bunkers, base-camps, ammunition stores and kerosene pipelines are set up by cutting and melting ice using chemicals. Such activities have aided the retreat of the glacial cover and temperature rise triggering avalanches and floods, furthering the impact of global warming.

Historically, humans have always competed over territory and resources. But as their availability steadily declines, territorial wars can emerge out of a desperate need for resources from an ever shrinking base. Critics of this argument say that attributing wars to climate change takes the blame and responsibility off people and governments. But it is important to understand that climate change is not the sole cause of such conflicts. Economic disparities, political failures and existing social prejudices, elements that can become more pronounced during natural disasters, play a major role in inflaming disputes. Humans remain responsible for how they respond to these changes and to each other in vulnerable conditions.

Earthquakes, tsunamis and erupting volcanoes

While the implications of climate change to national security continue to be discussed, scientists warn of another danger from increased natural disasters. According to Sujib Kar, a geographer and teacher at Vidyasagar College, Kolkata, global warming heightens the probability of earthquakes. His research observes that temperature rise is increasing the volume of sea water which can cause imbalances in tectonic plates. Additionally, he notes that as winters have grown longer (albeit milder) over the past five years due to changing climate, land in the Northern Hemisphere has released more heat compared to water bodies. The resultant variation in temperature between the earth’s crust and mantle makes the plates “more active and cause powerful divergence or subduction which is the main cause of such sudden quakes.”

Even slight changes in pressure on particularly vulnerable faults can set off an earthquake, volcanic eruption or a tsunami. Professor Bill McGuire from the University College London, who recently authored the book Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes, explains the link between retreating ice sheets and such natural disasters. When the earth emerged from the ice age, the heavy pressure exerted by the ice on the earth’s crust suddenly disappeared causing it [the crust] to ‘bounce back’ resulting in massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. We are still experiencing the effects of the end of the ice age 20,000 years ago and McGuire says that if man-made climate change leads to further reduction in ice cover (like that over Greenland), it will further escalate the problem.

The Himalayan region is a sensitive zone that sits on a mine of earthquake prone faults, which are triggered either by a collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates or when two parts of the earth’s crust move sideways against each other. However, there has been a surge in earthquakes in the area in recent years which researchers attribute to climate change. According to a report by the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, the Himalayas have lost between 300 to 600 gigatonnes of glacial ice in the past four decades, indicating a greater risk of earthquakes. Similarly, a study published in the Nature Geoscience Journal suggests that eastern and north-eastern India, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar are situated above an active subduction zone that can cause a massive earthquake, possibly a 9 on the Richter scale.

It is important to take into account that research on these effects of climate change is still limited. However, available data proves a valid connection that can’t be ignored. Indeed, natural disasters are unavoidable – they are a result of the earth’s processes. But when we are aware of the fact that human activities can exacerbate the risk of calamities, it makes no sense to standby to let them hit on an unsustainable scale and then scramble to ensure disaster relief. Not only is it important to further study the possible repercussions in this respect, it is also necessary to plan carefully when building in seismic zones.

Climate change remains to be a controversial subject but while we continue our debates, its manifestations, be it wars or natural catastrophes, become more pronounced. Therefore, it is imperative that we take definitive steps towards diminishing its volatile political, social and environmental reverberations around the world.


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