The Heat Is Online

Climate Changes Are Displacing Populations

Climate change influences demographic shifts

Financial Times, Nov. 23, 2011

The conflict in Darfur has been described as the world's first climate change war.

According to the United Nations, one of the main causes of the region’s devastating conflict was an ecological crisis caused, in part, by changes in the local climate.

Rainfall in the Darfur region of Sudan is about 30 per cent lower today than it was 40 years ago, and the Sahara desert is advancing south at more than a mile a year.

This changing climate led to tensions between herders and farmers as pasture disappeared and water holes evaporated, a problem exacerbated by a huge increase in the number of cattle in the region, which overgrazed the fragile soils.

Since 1973, Darfur’s population has also grown almost six-fold, to about 7.5m people. And while many of these people moved from rural parts to the cities, others drifted southward to areas with higher rainfall, creating tensions with existing communities.

Such is the environmental degradation in Darfur that it is impossible for many of those uprooted by the conflict to return home. The UN has estimated that 200,000-300,000 people have been killed in the conflict and at least 2.7m displaced.

“Sudan’s tragedy is not just the tragedy of one country in Africa,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environmental Programme. “It is a window to a wider world underlining how issues such as uncontrolled depletion of natural resources such as soils and forests, allied to impacts such as climate change can destabilise communities.”

Elsewhere in east Africa, Somalians have fled drought – and lawlessness – in their own country, leading to tensions across the border in Kenya. “[Famine in Somalia] will have an increasingly devastating effect – not just in Somalia, but on the other countries in the region,” said Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN.

Jeffrey Mazo, research fellow for environmental security and science policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says, “Recent events offer a textbook example of the role of climate change as a threat multiplier. Demographic pressures are going to be at least as important – if not more important – than climate change, but it is the interaction between the two that is really worrying.”

Elsewhere, residents of La Paz in Bolivia are seeing their water supplies disappear before their eyes as glaciers recede, while supplies in other cities in the Andes region, including Bogotá in Colombia, Quito in Ecuador and Lima in Peru are also at risk.

For some of the world’s smaller island states, such as the Maldives and Seychelles, the situation is even more dire. They are at great risk of projected sea-level rises.

In south-east Asia, too “projected sea level rise could flood the residence of millions of people living in the low-lying areas of Asia, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and China”, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Maplecroft, the risk consultancy, says climate change will interact in particularly chaotic fashion with the rapid growth of megacities.
Of the 20 fastest growing cities in the world, eight are at “extreme risk” from climate change, including Kolkata, Manila, Kabul and Karachi, the group says. A further 11 are at “high risk” and just one – Cairo – is at “medium risk”.

All 20 cities, Maplecroft points out, are in countries that have “little capacity to adapt to the changes predicted by climate change, making the populations of these cities more vulnerable”.

But in a globalised economy, it is not just the poor residents of megacities that are affected.

Cities such as Manila, Jakarta and Kolkata are “vital centres of economic growth in key emerging markets”, Charlie Beldon, Maplecroft’s principal environmental analyst, points out. “But heatwaves, flooding, water shortages and increasingly severe and frequent storm events may well increase as climate changes takes hold.

“This could have far-reaching consequences, not only for local populations, but on business, national economies and the balance sheets of investors around the world, particularly as the economic importance of these nations is set to dramatically increase.”

The recent flooding in Thailand is estimated to have cost the country more than $6.5bn.

But it also had a knock-on effect on the production of hard drives, of which Thailand is the world’s second-largest producer. “Businesses with global supply chains and investors would do well to learn from this experience,” Mr Beldon says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.