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Climate and conflict in South and Southeast Asia

Flooding in the city of Bangkok, Thailand

Over the last few years the linkages between climate change impacts and conflicts have entered mainstream discussion. One key factor has been the Syrian conflict. The role of drought and water shortage – that were unlikely to occur as part of normal weather patterns – as drivers of insecurity have been closely studied in Syria, with it being spoken of as “the first climate war”. As early as 2014 the US Department of Defense had already highlighted the role of climate change in exacerbating security threats.

Vulnerable regions

This awareness, though, does not seem to have filtered through to South and Southeast Asia, which host 2.5 billion people, a third of the global population. As the SIPRI report highlights these two regions are also deeply vulnerable to climate change impacts, with their long, vulnerable coastlines as well as the large number of people living along the sea. South Asia is also critically dependent on the monsoon, as large areas are dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Given that change in precipitation patterns – often leading to floods and droughts – are a key result of climate change, South Asia, with hundreds of millions of people dependent on agriculture for their incomes, is deeply vulnerable.

The drivers of conflict

The report highlights four ways that climate change impacts may exacerbate violent conflict. Climate-related environmental change influences violent conflicts when: (a) it negatively affects people’s livelihoods; (b) it influences the tactical considerations of armed groups in ongoing conflicts; (c) elites exploit social vulnerabilities and resources; and (d) it displaces people and increases migration in vulnerable and highly vulnerable natural resource-dependent contexts. Despite the limited research done on these issues in the regions under study, the paper offers very clear examples of how these factors play out.

For example as climate change, and a variation in rainfall, leads to a fall in income levels, local populations are more easily lured into illegal activity if there are no alternative means of generating income. This is true across regions, and countries. As the report states, “In some coastal areas of Indonesia, for example, reduced income opportunities from fishing have been linked to an increase in piracy-related activities. In other cases, such as in some areas affected by the Naxalite conflict in India, worsening livelihood conditions have been related to the increased intensity of ongoing civil conflicts, with increased support for rebel or government groups.”

Writing about how tactical considerations of armed groups change with climate change, the paper notes that during droughts in agriculture dependent areas armed groups may increase their use of violence against local populations to ensure their own food security. This is particularly true of rural areas if government infrastructure is weak, and armed groups play a disproportionately large role. In fact, the paper notes, “findings from India show that both rebel groups and government forces find recruitment easier in times of drought or when drought is expected.” This means that violence is likely to increase from both state and anti-state forces.

This recruitment, though, is highly specific to the region and seems to be directly dependent on the strength of state control in an area, or the lack of other non-governmental organisations that can help the local populace cope with disasters. “In Pakistan, for example, increased support for the Islamist group Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) after extreme floods in the Sindh province was only found in areas where the group already had a stronghold or where the government or other non-state groups were not present—and the JUD was able to provide disaster aid and assistance to the local population.”

Institutional weakness also plays a role in the third aspect of climate change and conflict: elite exploitation. In certain cases elites use the “opportunity” of disasters to either capture the aid that flows in, or to capture land that people have had to vacate due to a disaster. In Bangladesh, specifically “in the Brahmaputra-Jamuna floodplain, for example, rural landlords have used private armies to violently bar people from land they previously occupied”. This is only possible if there are no redressal mechanisms, if state authorities are too weak to assert themselves, or have been co-opted by the elites.

The last factor detailed by the report is the impact of migration due to climate change impacts. This is particularly potent in India and Bangladesh, as well as between the two countries. This impact, especially with floods washing away the river islands known as “chars”, has already become a highly contentious issue in the Indian state of Assam, and is likely to continue to exacerbate tensions.

More study needed

While listing out these details and examples, the authors of the SIPRI are very careful to explain that not enough research exists to draw clear conclusions. They also point to the fact that while these drivers of conflict are universal, they may be offset – or exacerbated – by specific local factors. In other words, context matters. If successful programmes of climate adaptation can be used to enhance stability and incomes for rural communities then these risks may be managed.

But, as the SIPRI report states repeatedly, there just is not enough research available from the states of South and Southeast Asia to definitively identify what these risks may be, much less what can be done to make sure that conflicts are successfully managed. As the impact of climate change increases across the regions, this lack of research is not something that the countries can afford to ignore.