Climate change is widely recognized as a “threat multiplier.” From the United Nations to the G7 to the US Department of Defense, there is emerging consensus that climate change poses risks to both human and natural security through a variety of complex and interrelated channels. The extent of those risks, and how they connect to armed conflict, however, remain widely debated.
The specter of water wars has long loomed large in political and popular imaginations. With the end of the Cold War, fresh concerns emerged that future wars would be fought not over ideology but over natural resources. The alliteratively appealing phrase of “water wars” began rolling off the tongue as United Nations leaders and politicians made bold claims about the inevitable carnage that resource scarcity would bring. Climate change heightens these concerns as the gap widens between what science tells us is necessary and what politics tells us is feasible.
The blueprint for the Great Green Wall is nothing if not ambitious. Quite Canute-like, it would seem.
The aim is to plant a forest of trees about 15km wide, snaking some 7 775km from Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Red Sea – crossing another nine Sahelian states on the way – to halt the southward march of the Sahara into the Sahel. This elongated forest would cover about 11 662 500 hectares.
The idea was originally conceived by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 and enthusiastically embraced by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. In 2007, the African Union Commission (AUC) took it up as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI). Obasanjo seems to have borrowed the idea from China, yet the Chinese precedent is not entirely encouraging. Its bricks and mortar equivalent failed to keep out the Mongolian hordes from the north in the 13th century. And China’s Great Green Wall – launched in 1978 with the aim of creating a forest of trees 4 500km long – has also not stopped the southward drift of the Gobi and other deserts, despite the planting of about 70 billion trees to date.
This article is included in our ‘Conflict Hotspots 2014’ dossier which can be accessed here.
On the grand scale, Central Asia’s water problems have been well documented since the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalists wrote of the apparently inexorable shrinking of the Aral Sea, once one of the four largest lakes in the world; by 2007, at a tenth of its normal size, it had split up into several smaller bodies of water. An excellent view of these broad shifts can be found at Aqueduct’s Water Risk Atlas.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned of war if upstream countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan pursue power generation projects that might alter, or make open to political manipulation, the supply of water needed to irrigate Uzbekistan’s cotton crops. Public anger over a decline in basic services fuelled the unrest that led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. (See our report Decay and Decline.) Bakiyev sold water to Kazakhstan during a period of electricity shortages in his own country. Across the region corruption and neglect undermine confidence in government and contribute to political discontent.
The oil fever has struck the Arctic sooner than expected. Several of the world’s biggest oil companies are vying for access to Greenland after a gas discovery last month raised expectations for offshore exploration around the inhospitable nation.
Greenland, the planet’s largest island with a population of just over 56,000, had been searching for the black gold for decades. In the past, however, Greenlanders have been destined to make a living from fishing and $600 million in annual subsidies from the Danish motherland (making up 55 precent of the island’s budget – or 0.75 percent of Denmark’s.) So, quite understandably, a majority of Greenlanders are now looking favorably upon the latest developments and are supporting oil exploration as a way to create jobs and wealth in a country troubled by high unemployment and social problems such as alcoholism and the world’s highest suicide rate.
Besides, the islanders are hopeful the oil might yield sufficient revenue to finally throw off the yoke of external rule and maybe even turn their icy island into an Arctic Kuwait.
These developments come soon after Greenland’s latest step towards independence. Already in 1979, Denmark granted home rule to Greenland, and in November 2008, voters in Greenland overwhelmingly approved a plan for expanding the island’s autonomy. The plan (which Denmark supported) allowed the small, mostly Inuit population to take control over the local police force, courts and coast guard and to make Greenlandic, an Inuit tongue, the official language.
It also set new rules on how to split future oil revenues between Greenland and Denmark, giving Greenland the first $13 million of annual revenues, while anything beyond that would be split equally between Greenland and Denmark. The new status quo then took effect on 21 June 2009, leaving the Danish royal government in charge only of foreign affairs, security and financial policy, while still providing the $600 million annual subsidy (or approx. $11,300 per Greenlander.)