Economist figures out El Nino link to violence and wars

Failed crops are not the only problem created by drought. A new study ties discontent and violence to El Nino.
A lack of water leads to discontent and can fuel uprisings. Bloomberg News
A lack of water leads to discontent and can fuel uprisings. Bloomberg News

Residents of the GCC countries may believe that air-conditioning and desalinated water protect them from climate change. But their neighbours are not so lucky - especially because several regional conflicts are linked to climatic conditions.

Part of the discontent in the north-eastern part of Syria, including the flashpoint city of Deir Ezzor, is due to a long-running drought, neglected by Damascus. Yemen, in the middle of a chaotic revolution, is running short of water. Taps in Sanaa function no more than one or two days a month. The quintessential failed state, Somalia, is suffering from drought and famine that threatens more than 10 million people. Desertification is driving warfare in Sudan's Darfur region.

Now a paper by Dr Solomon Hsiang, an economist at Princeton University, writing in the journal Nature, has quantified a possible link between conflict and the El Nino climate phenomenon.

El Nino is a climatic pattern which, repeating between every two and seven years, brings warm conditions to the eastern Pacific Ocean. In turn, this induces rain in South America's west, hot dry weather to its east, and both drought and heavy rains in Africa and the Middle East.

Dr Hsiang found that the chance of civil wars doubled in countries experiencing El Nino conditions. El Nino played a role in nearly 30 per cent of civil wars in affected countries. Even when African countries were excluded, the link still held.

The findings are still controversial, since an earlier study found no such link. It is not clear how El Nino conditions cause violence. Possibly, food shortages in droughts lead desperate people to take up weapons, or to migrate into better-off areas hence triggering fighting with the existing inhabitants. There is also experimental evidence that people are more aggressive in hot weather.

This is not to claim that climate inevitably causes wars. Australia, one of the countries most affected by El Nino and which has suffered repeated droughts, has not seen conflict, due to its high level of political and economic development. But as Dr Hsiang says: "If you have social inequality, people are poor, and there are underlying tensions, it seems possible that climate can deliver the knockout punch."

If we accept the El Nino link, then the next step is to wonder about worldwide climate change. El Nino's rapid oscillations may be harder to adapt to than the slow progress of global warming. But the 0.6°C of warming that has already occurred since 1950 - with 2°C, 3°C or more to come - is much more than the tiny changes induced by El Nino.

Like El Nino, global warming can trigger droughts and famines; it also displaces people via desertification, flooding and sea-level rise. Pakistan's floods last year, Iraq's 2008-09 droughts, and the tensions between Egypt and its upstream neighbours over the waters of the Nile, are other examples bordering the Gulf countries where climatic change can coalesce with political instability.

The wealthy GCC, with its small population, should take heed. A refugee crisis in Yemen, flooding over the borders into Saudi Arabia, might overwhelm its capability to cope. Extended conflicts provide havens for terrorists, and for pirates who threaten the Gulf's shipping routes and energy exports. As current tension between Kuwait and Iraq illustrates, some countries may seek to blame internal problems on smaller, richer neighbours.

Although the Gulf countries' emissions of carbon dioxide are less than 3 per cent of the global total, per person they are the biggest polluters on the planet. The solutions are well-known: the elimination of wasteful fossil-fuel subsidies; improved energy efficiency; more use of solar and nuclear power; and carbon capture and storage.

But the slow progress has been hampered by the idea that the GCC's hydrocarbon-dependent economies have more to lose than to gain from action on carbon dioxide emissions. Further evidence of the links between regional instability and climate should shift this calculus.

Less discussed though, is the role that the GCC can play in alleviating regional turmoil. Early-warning systems can alert us to the relatively predictable El Nino events. More research is badly needed into exactly how the link between climatic change and conflict works, and how it can be broken.

The GCC's knowledge of its neighbours, and its economic links with the wider region, are tools for conflict resolution.

And, as the case of Australia shows, economic development is key. GCC aid and, more importantly, investment, can make their neighbours more resilient through drought-resistant agriculture, building dams and desalination plants, vaccination, malaria research, education and retraining for civil war veterans.

As Mark Cane, the co-author of the study, observes, "No one should take this to say that climate is our fate." The GCC's enlightened self-interest lies in ensuring that rising temperatures do not lead to rising violence along its borders.

Robin Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon

Published: August 30, 2011 04:00 AM

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