Climate change: Global warming influences demographic shifts

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.

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