Climate change as a security threat multiplier

Published: November 24, 2017
The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

A growing number of think tanks and security analysts now agree that climate change is increasing instability around the world. Pakistan is not immune to such threats either, given our vulnerability to militancy and severe climate change impacts.

Jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram are evidently exploiting the scarcity of water, food and land to manipulate populations and boost recruitment. IS was able to make significant inroads in drought-hit areas of Iraq. A prolonged drought and resulting migration flows into the nearby cities of Damascus, Hama and Aleppo helped spark the lingering and bloody civil war in Syria. Of course, climate change is not the only reason for the devastation being experienced, but it certainly became a compounding factor for conflict, alongside socio-political dissatisfaction and lingering sectarian tensions.

While the situation in Pakistan is different, there are also some disturbing similarities. Sectarian strife, regional disgruntlements and militancy are also serious problems for us, as is widespread deprivation. Climate change can make matters worse.

A growing number of analysts are rightly pointing out that climate change is the biggest existential threat for Pakistan, even more serious than the challenge of militancy. However, climate change can also fuel further insecurity. There is already some evidence to suggest a correlation between restiveness, extremist threats and deprivation across many parts of Balochistan and southern Punjab. Such problems will only be compounded by climate change.

Pakistan has recently experienced unprecedented damage caused by recurrent floods and worsening droughts. We are an already highly water-stressed country and this situation could become untenable within the next decade. Yet, we continue wasting water due to a dilapidated irrigation system and unchecked groundwater use that has been depleting our water aquifers. Water is wasted on production of water-intensive cash crops like sugar to serve the interests of elite sugar barons.

A majority of our population still resides in rural areas and though most of them own no land, they primarily rely on agriculture. Continued disruptions to agricultural production due to increasing climate change will worsen the situation for this already destitute population. A few years ago, a USAID policy brief cautioned that the Taliban and other militants may try to build popular support in rural communities across Pakistan, by capitalising on anger over unequal access to land and water. This document had suggested the need for more pro-poor agricultural growth strategies and ensuring greater land access to poor rural households.

However, no significant programmatic interventions have been initiated by our government, or the international donor community to help poor and landless farmers improve their lot. Instead, millions are being pumped in by donor agencies for market-based agricultural support programmes, which primarily encourage medium or larger sized farmers to boost agricultural exports, rather than improve household level food security. While increasing climate change, the poor rural population will become more destitute and desperate. With our political elite locked in self-centred power wrangling, building widespread resilience against climate change is just not getting the attention it deserves.

A bulk of resources within our major cities are also being spent on expensive infrastructure projects, while the most basic needs of disenfranchised urban sprawl remain neglected. Our mega cities are already bursting at the seams, and it will be difficult for them to absorb a greater influx of rural migrants being driven away by ever higher risks and costs of agricultural production, due to climate changes.

Our well-trained army, nor the possession of an impressive nuclear arsenal, will be able to do much to contain the increasing social unrest instigated by worsening deprivation, especially if this discontent is hijacked by ambitious sectarian and militant outfits to further their own insidious agendas. Our economic experts and other decision-makers must rethink their priorities, and act now.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2017.

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