Saturday, January 02, 2010

Thinking back: Climate change and conflict through the ages

The past three months I've been so busy writing for (and winning) the European Journalism Centre's TH!NK ABOUT IT #2: Climate Change blogging competition that stories I'd usually post here at Ecowar asap have lingered in my various link collections. But here's an excerpt of two of these.

A history of water wars

A very long list of conflicts over natural resources have been on my to-do list for some time. November 2009, however, the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security made available a very neat looking database on Water and Conflict online. Currently it lists 203 conflicts over water. My "top 10" so to speak:


  • Around 3000 BC: "Ancient Sumerian legend recounts the deeds of the deity Ea, who punished humanity for its sins by inflicting the Earth with a six-day storm. The Sumerian myth parallels the Biblical account of Noah and the deluge, although some details differ." Sorry, couldn't help it.

  • Around 2500 BC: "Lagash-Umma Border Dispute: the dispute over the “Gu’edena” (edge of paradise) region begins. Urlama, King of Lagash from 2450 to 2400 BC, diverts water from this region to boundary canals, drying up boundary ditches to deprive Umma of water. His son Il cuts off the water supply to Girsu, a city in Umma (present-day Iraq)." Here, water supply is used as a military tool. There are plenty of examples from the Fertile Crescent BC.

  • 605 - 562 BC: "Nebuchadnezzar builds immense walls around Babylon, using the Euphrates and canals as defensive moats surrounding the inner castle." OK so the guy they named a "ship" after in The Matrix trilogy invented the moat.

  • 1748: "Ferry house on Brooklyn shore of East River burns down. New Yorkers accuse Brooklynites of having set the fire as revenge for unfair East River water rights." Original terrorism from the USA. The US and Canada provides many examples of civilians sabotaging dams and reservoirs to the list and at least one murder.

  • 1870s to 1881: "Recurrent friction and eventual violent conflict over water rights in the vicinity of Tularosa, New Mexico (USA) involving villagers, ranchers, and farmers."

  • WWII: "Hydroelectric dams routinely bombed as strategic targets" and at least eight other specific incidents mentioned.

  • 1947 onwards: Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in disputes over the Ganges and Indus.

  • 1951-1953: "Jordan makes public its plans to irrigate the Jordan Valley by tapping the Yarmouk River. Israel responds by commencing drainage of the Huleh swamps located in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria; border skirmishes ensue between Israel and Syria. [...] Israel begins construction of its National Water Carrier to transfer water from the north of the Sea of Galilee out of the Jordan basin to the Negev Desert for irrigation. Syrian military actions along the border and international disapproval lead Israel to move its intake to the Sea of Galilee." This was just the beginning - several more examples on the list.

  • 1963-1964: "Creation of boundaries in 1948 leaves Somali nomads under Ethiopian rule. Border skirmishes occur over disputed territory in Ogaden desert where critical water and oil resources are located; cease-fire is negotiated only after several hundred are killed."

  • 1978-1984: "Demonstrations in Juba, Sudan in 1978 opposing the construction of the Jonglei Canal lead to the deaths of two students. Construction of the Jonglei Canal in the Sudan is forcibly suspended in 1984 following a series of attacks on the construction site."

  • 1982: "177 civilians killed in Rio Negro [Guatemala] over opposition to Chixoy hydroelectric dam."




From history to forecast

I've also been thinking about writing a summary of the history of climate change and conflict for both Ecowar and TH!NK (although it'd probably be better suited for a bigger project). But when someone else does just that and does a good job, all I do is link. Such is the first link here: A brief history of climate change and conflict by James R. Lee. Most of its examples are also discussed in detail in Jared Diamond's Collapse. One isn't: The extinction of Neanderthals which seems to have been caused by a combination of cooling climate and Sapiens' expansion northward.

First, the article re-emphasizes the fact that climate change causing conflict isn't a simple cause and effect relationship. It cannot be said often enough: Both sociology (which would be the social science to predict and explain conflict) and ecology (the natural science accounting climatic impacts) are complex areas of understanding. Looking at mainly the impacts of the medieval warm period and the Little Ice Age on such civilizations as the Mayans, the Vikings and the Anasazi principles and trends are boldly extracted. These I'll further simplify (re-hashed quotes) for conciseness.

Historical case studies suggest three paths from climate change to conflict:

  • Sustained trends: conflict has the potential to emerge after a sustained period of divergent climate patterns

  • Intervening variables: climate change alone won't cause conflict but, along with other factors, will contribute to and shape it

  • The need for conflict triggers: an assassination, extreme natural event, or random act of group violence--is usually required to ignite violent conflict



Current climate change conflicts are crudely lumped in two categories:

  • Hot areas: Between smaller groups (tribes, cities) fighting in desperation for access to resources mainly made scarce by changes in precipitation and increased evaporation ("water wars")

  • Cold areas: Between states seeking the opportunity to exploit resources made available by warming temperatures



These principles are suggested as guidelines for preparing for the wars and fights of the future.

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