India’s Maritime Challenges - Security Dimensions of Climate Change (Part 1)

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 3 Jul - Aug 2017
Page No.: 
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The article examines how climate change issues will impact HADR as also weaponization
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM **, VSM, IN (Retd)
Friday, July 21, 2017

In any meaningful discussion relating to maritime security, it is critical to bear in mind that the word ‘maritime’ connotes much more than merely the Navy-Coast Guard amalgam, and that the word ‘security’ connotes a condition far more holistic than is denoted by merely ‘military’ security.

Traditionally, security used to be thought of only in terms of the defence of territory within a state system whose defining characteristic was an incessant competition for military superiority with other nation-states, all lying within a classic state of anarchy, largely devoid of superior or governing authority.  While military maritime security does, of course, continue to enjoy primacy, the world — including India — has swung around to a far more holistic approach and new terms such as ‘Non-Traditional Security’ and ‘Human Security’, largely drawn from the 1994 Report of the UNDP, have made their way into the contemporary maritime-securitylexicon and lodged themselves within our collective security-consciousness.  Maritime security is now firmly established within a new construct that incorporates military, political, economic, societal, and environmental dimensions, and, like many responsible nations, India recognises the many linkages between them.  As a result, ‘maritime security’ is increasingly being described as freedom from threats arising in, from or through the sea.  Consequently, challenges to human-security, such as religious extremism; international terrorism; piracy and other forms of maritime crime such as drug and arms smuggling; human trafficking; and demographic shifts — especially those caused by environmentally-driven migration, which often generate secondary migration-drivers such as energy, food and water shortages; all now figure prominently as threats that are inseparable from military ones.  Perhaps most ominous of all is the rise of the malevolent non-state actor — typified by terrorist groups with growing maritime capabilities, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, etc.

Despite the scepticism that has, in recent times, been emanating from the apex levels of the current US administration, if one were to seek a common thread that runs through all these threats to holistic security, one would inevitably arrive at a single but ubiquitous factor — climate change.And yet, the abundance of scientifically proven evidence notwithstanding, President Donald Trump has made his feelings — that climate change is a hoax — known to the world in no uncertain terms.  On 01 June 2017, President Trump announced that he would be pulling the USA out of the Paris Agreement. It is unclear whether the USA could leave before 2020, but the intent has been as clear as it is disturbing, since the following three statements of fact serve to highlight the centrality and pervasiveness of climate change as a determinant of holistic security (or the lack of it):

• Over the past 10,000 years or so in which human civilisation emerged, the Earth’s climate has been unusually stable. Global temperatures and sea levels have hardly varied.  We have taken advantage of this stability to grow crops, build cities and develop a global economy.  This period is now ending.

• Human activities are trapping heat, adding energy to the Earth’s system equal to the energy of four nuclear bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every second!

• Small changes in global temperature produce large changes in the global climate. If the global temperature were 5C cooler, we would be in an ice age last experienced some 10,000 years ago. 5C warmer, and we would be in a climate of heat last experienced by the planet over 10 million years ago, long before the beginning of human existence

It is an incontrovertible fact that adding energy to the Earth system will warm it up, raising temperatures, melting ice, and raising sea levels. What is not known is how fast or how far the climate will warm. Consequently, the multitude of associated changes that will take place cannot be accurately predicted. That said, global scientific consensus does exist on five ‘climate certainties’ that are in abundant evidence:

• Enhanced emission of Green House Gases.

• Higher surface, tropospheric, and ocean temperatures.

• More precipitation — and drought — extremes.

• Melting of mountain glaciers, Arctic sea ice, and ice sheets.

• Rising sea levels.

This article represents the first in a series that will explore the various impacts of these climate certainties upon maritime security.

GHG Emissions

The first of themis an overarching one, for it directly contributes to the remaining four. The graph at Figure 1 shows that between the period from the year 2000 to 2010, GHG emissions were the highest in human history and, by 2010, had already reached 49 Gigatonnes of CO2 Equivalent per Year (GtCO2eq /yr)

As long as CO2 emissions continue (even if they do not accelerate any further), the build-up will continue. Rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations mean rising temperatures.  As per the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred in this current century and 2011-2015 was the hottest five-year period on record.  2016 was even hotter, with a global average temperature of 1.2° C above the long-term average.

Figure 2 shows global CO2 emissions since 1980 (solid black) and country pledges under the Paris Agreement (dashed) compared to a high emissions scenario (orange) and a scenario compatible with limiting warming to 2° C above pre-industrial levels (blue).

With that as the backdrop, it is now appropriate to dilate upon just how each of the remaining four of these climate certainties impacts maritime security.

[NOTE:NDC = Nationally Determined Contributions]

Higher Surface, Tropospheric, and Ocean Temperatures

Figure 3 depicts the rise in global mean surface temperature since the year 1880 and highlights the sharp spike in 2016.

Human beings and agricultural crops have a very limited tolerance for heat. If surface temperatures continue to rise as indicated in the foregoing figures, people in several countries of West Asia — and some in South Asia as well (Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan) will begin to experience intolerable levels of heat stress. The resulting water shortages are likely to produce protracted and frequent droughts, causing crops already under heat stress themselves to undergo more extensive withering, and food-security to plummetas a consequence of large-scale crop failure. Crop failure is defined as the reduction in crop yield to a level that there is no marketable surplus or the nutritional needs of the community cannot be met.  All this will inevitably exacerbate existing geopolitical fault lines and create heightened socio-political unrest and upheavals, and, most important from the security standpoint, generate waves of heat-induced human migration.  More immediately, it will promote violent actions by an increasing number of malevolent non-State actors and terrorist organisations.

For instance, although it cannot be said that climate change created the ISIS, its rise in 2011 was certainly facilitated by the preceding four years of drought in Syria— one of the worst and widest droughts in that country’s history.  The resultant enhancement of heat-and-water stress reached intolerable proportions and sent hundreds of thousands of Syrians into extreme poverty and food insecurity and generated a huge exodus from the rural areas of Syria towards Damascus.  The government of President Assad was in no position to handle this pressure and the actions ordered to be taken by Assad’s security forces were repressive and draconian in the extreme, greatly exacerbating an already explosive situation.  Socio-political unrest flared sharply and the result was the rise of the Daesh/Islamic State (IS).               

Water-stress also leads to the breakdown of local authority and its replacement by whosoever controls this increasingly scarce resource. The ‘weaponisation’ of water can take the form of using it as a source of funding by taxing it, as the IS did in Raqqa. It may also be used more directly.  In 2015, the IS closed the gates of the Ramadi dam in order to more easily attack the regime’s forces located farther downstream.  In other instances, ISIS did not cut the water supply, but used water to flood land in order to expel people from their homes.

Of greater concern to security is that ongoing climate analyses and climate-model simulations uniformly indicate that a drought of the severity and duration of this Syrian drought has, as a direct consequence of human interference in the climate system, now become more than twice as likely.

Heat and water stress may not be a direct cause for the rise of terrorist groups, but they certainly accelerate their birth as well as their mutation. For instance, the food and water shortages and near-economic collapse in Chad, resulting from the drought conditions caused by climate change, made worse by incoherent and ineffective policies by weak governments, have provided a ripe recruiting ground for the Boko Haram terrorist group operating out of Nigeria.  Recruitment has risen in direct correlation with the increase in the extent of the drought-ravaged region around Lake Chad (located just east of Nigeria) as shown in Figure 4. 

These very same conditions, resulting from heat-and-water stress engendered by climate-change, have similarly facilitated the rise of the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia. The mutation of such groups and their entry into the maritime domain may be clearly seen in the latest piracy incident off Somalia on 13 March 2017 — the first major one in the past couple of years — in which Somali pirates, having merged seamlessly with al-Shabaab,hijacked an Emirati oil tanker, the Aris 13.  It is cold comfort to realise that the dire warnings over the past few years by this author that these maritime crimes were extremely likely to morph into terrorism — until recently dismissed as Cassandran prophecies — have translated into reality. Cooperation between Somalia’s al-Shabab fighters and pirate gangs is increasingly clear and obvious, especially as al-Shabaab becomes more desperate for funding and, like the Somali pirate lords of the last decade, realises that piracy is a lucrative source of large sums of easy money.  Things are likely to get far worse, for in January of 2016, the world was a mute witness to the frightening spectacle of the ‘Al Shabaab’ being actively and openly wooed, within Somalia, by two far more deadly terrorist organisations, namely, the ‘al Qaeda’ and the ‘Islamic State’! 

Closer home, in Afghanistan, a country with negligible food security and one that is riven by internecine conflicts,is also acutely vulnerable to climate change. Already, more than half of all local conflicts in Afghanistan are over arable-land and water. Diminishing rainfall and advancing desertification are likely to spark further violent clashes between nomads and pastoralists over access to pastures and water and food.Farther south, Pakistan, too, is extremely vulnerable to heat and water stress.  A 21-year survey conducted in rural Pakistan between 1991 and 2012 has established a strong causal relationship between heat-and-water stress and migration.  As the climate-driven migrant population from Afghanistan pushes south eastwards and Pakistan — whose population is, in any case, burgeoning and putting pressure on already stretched resources of arable land, food and water —begins to witness a south-easterly migration of its own population, the strain upon India will increase to the point where water agreements such as the Indus Water Treaty could become a cause for serious conflict.

Within the maritime domain, rising surface temperatures have the direct effect of increasing the frequency, severity, and path-unpredictability of cyclones.  Future projections based on high-resolution dynamical models consistently indicate that GHG-induced surface warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to decidedly shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2 to 11% by 2100. These modelling studies typically project substantial increases in the frequency of the most intense cyclones, and increases of the order of 20% in the precipitation rate within 100 km of the storm centre.  In addition, these deleterious consequences are accompanied by a number of secondary and tertiary adverse effects. 

In a country like India, the Armed Forces are the principal first-responders to any disaster — and sometimes the only ones! Within a maritime domain that is being increasingly violently roiled by climate-change-induced cyclones and floods, the already high operational strain upon the Navy and the Coast Guard will increase manifold.  Further, the more the mitigation mechanisms that are brought into play, the more will be the financial outlay needed and the greater will be strain on defence and naval budgets. As the predominant regional maritime power, India is driven, as much by humanitarianism as by enlightened self-interest, to ensure the safety, security and stability of the littoral States located in the maritime region of its immediate interest.  As such, cyclone damage and the disruption caused by the consequential flooding in countries such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, etc., will call for mitigating measures from the Indian Navy.  Once again, the operational stretch resulting from enhanced involvement in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations will be enormous.  The huge effort put-in by the Navy, in end-May and early-June of this very year, to help Sri Lanka deal with the devastating effects of flooding is an indicative case-in-point.

South Asia will be among the regions hardest hit by climate change. Higher temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, as well as floods in the region’s complex river systems will complicate existing development and poverty reduction initiatives.

Coupled with high population density levels, these climate shifts have the potential to create complex environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges. The impact of the increased frequency cyclones and more intense storm activity, as also the extensive attendant flooding will be particularly severe upon Bangladesh and upon India’s east coast.  The consequences of climate change will radically alter living conditions and seriously undermine livelihoods.  The increase in frequency of such extreme events and deteriorating conditions are likely to force many to leave their homes temporarily or even permanently and become, in and of themselves, drivers for climate-induced human migration.  Where will these migrants from Bangladesh go?  Into India, of course, but where in India?  Probably along the east coast and into the ‘Red Corridor’ — already an enormous gash where the writ of New Delhi runs far more weakly than one would wish.  The security implications need little elaboration, but nevertheless demand much contingency-planning at not just the strategic level, but the operational and tactical ones, too.

President Donald Trump’s views notwithstanding, any residual uncertainty surrounding the specific implications of climate change and migration on security and stability is no longer an excuse for inaction. A 2009 Report of the UN Secretary General has outlined a number of second-order effects of unsuccessful adaptation in the form of uncoordinated coping or survival strategies of local populations, including involuntary migration, competition with other communities or groups over scarce resources, and, an overburdening of local or national governance capacities.  Since the rising trend of these effects of surface warming have been extensively modelled and are increasingly being proven by actual events, it behoves the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard to devote serious attention to the multifarious implications of this increased operational stretch and decreased budgetary support.  Individual calls for action need to be expeditiously translated into institutional and structured organisational responses that will draw-up a series of contingency-based coping plans and methodologies.

In continuing the process of identifying the security impacts of climate change, the next part of this series will concentrate upon the effects of a far more vigorous hydrological cycle, with its resultant effects of precipitation extremes.