National security implications of climate change

In the past 40 years, nine out of 10 of the top disasters have been climate related.

Rina Saeed Khan December 03, 2013
The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist. She holds an MA in Environment and Development from SOAS in London

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, when the National Guard had to be mobilised to respond to the two disasters, the US military was informed by experts that the biggest threat to internal security is not from terrorism or North Korean missiles or even Chinese hacking, but from climate change.

In fact, the Pentagon has been concerned about the national security implications of climate change for quite some time now and various military officials have spoken out about them. According to Navy Admiral Samuel J Locklear III, who leads the US Pacific Command, significant upheaval related to the warming of the planet “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen … that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about”. He should know what he is talking about because in the Pacific, powerful typhoons, like the one that recently hit the Philippines this year, are becoming common. Typhoons (or hurricanes) gain their strength by drawing the heat out of the ocean (which has been warming up in recent years).

Admiral Locklear focuses on risk management and preparedness: “While resilience in the security environment is traditionally understood as the ability to recover from a crisis, using the term in the context of national security expands its meaning to include crisis prevention.”

Given that Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to impacts of climate change “resilience thinking” is not something on the government’s, or even the military’s, radar. This is strange given the horror and devastation of the floods of 2010, which were described in the media as the ‘biggest human tragedy’ triggered by ‘freak’ monsoons in the North; attributable to the effects of a changing climate. The floods of 2010 cost the national economy a whopping $9.7 billion in damage costs and thousands of people became ‘climate refugees’. In the years to come, experts say the country will need to spend an average of $6-14 billion a year to deal with climate-triggered extreme events. In the past 40 years, nine out of 10 of the top disasters have been climate related.

Flooding in our rivers is not the only climate change impact. Areas in northern Pakistan (like Chitral) are facing higher risk of glacial floods and landslides. The agricultural belt in Sindh and Punjab is experiencing temperature rises, declining farm yields and variable rainfall. Sea intrusion and declining fish catches are affecting coastal Sindh and Balochistan. Interior Balochistan is also experiencing soil erosion and acute water shortages.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, Pakistan’s institutional infrastructure is weak, ill-resourced and ill-equipped. It is the only country in South Asia that does not have a robust programme to deal with climate change. With devolution, it seems that climate change has now become the concern of the provinces, which as yet do not have the capacity or know-how to deal with it.

According to retired ambassador and climate change expert Shafqat Kakakhel, “There is no national adaptation plan. Pakistan needs a well-equipped federal office or an institutional mechanism to coordinate climate change efforts in three key sectors: disaster management, health, water and power. Water has been identified as the most important sector in Pakistan.” He points out that this office could well be the climate change division (created this year when the federal climate change ministry was demoted) but it needs to be restructured and requires staff that is highly trained and has technical and administrative knowledge. It must have the capacity to coordinate actions so that “Pakistan can put its house in order”.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2013.

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Rex Minor | 7 years ago | Reply

An excellent pointer for the disaster which awaits all three countries in the region namely India, Pakistan and Bangla dedsh. The Indian experts know of it that the likely melt down of the glaciers because of environmental unfriendly activties of the Indians and the chinese are going to cause heavy floos endangering the lives of estimated 100 million people of Bangla Desh whosed escape route has now been sealed by the Indian security wall.

Rex Minor

Parvez Amin | 7 years ago | Reply

“Pakistan can put its house in order”. Aplan for preventing floods and saving fresh water has already been conceived by Madadgar Pakistan. In addition it has many side benefits that will contribute to Pakistan's economy. Anyone wanting more information may contact me.

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