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This case study was written as part of SIPRI’s ‘Environment of Peace’ initiative, and is reprinted with permission.
When recruiters for Iraq’s various militias came to the North Abu Zarag Marsh near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq in August of 2014, it didn’t take them long to empty the surrounding villages of most of their young men. For weeks before, locals had watched in horror as the Islamic State (also known as IS or ISIS) had surged across the country’s north and west. And for those weeks, they had been electrified by religious clerics’ call to arms against the jihadists. A good number of the community’s most committed fighters had answered that appeal, dusting down old weapons and heading to the front. But the real exodus didn’t begin until the worst of the summer heat set in and water flow through the marsh fell to its lowest level in years.
Haidar Salim, a buffalo farmer, signed on with the Badr Organization, one of the largest and most powerful of the militias. His income had all but disappeared as his animals’ milk yields withered in the now shallow, knee-deep waters—some four meters lower than they can be. Then came his unemployed twin, Mohammed, later to die in a suicide bombing during the battle for Ramadi. The brothers were followed in quick succession by no fewer than 50 fishermen, each of whom had long since given up hope of making their nets bulge. Vendors at three marsh fish markets estimate that the local catch has fallen by at least 50 percent since 2003 due to low and excessively saline river flow. “After the summer we were all women and old men and children here,” said Sayyid Mehdi Sayyid Hashem, a community leader and overseer of an important local shrine. “After the groups came through, the marsh went with them.”
In marching off to war, many of these men invoked their patriotism and piety—and they undoubtedly meant it. But with that diminished water flow in a community where almost every profession is dependent on the Tigris and Euphrates’ irrigation of the marshlands, few could conceal the undercurrent of desperation. Bit by bit, water quantity and quality had deteriorated over the previous decade, plunging residents deeper into penury. Here at last was a chance to make at least something of a living. “When you’re hungry, when you have a family to feed, you’ll do anything,” said Salim. “I didn’t see myself as a fighter, but sometimes it’s your only option.”
This is what environmental disaster can look like, and among crumbling parts of rural southern Iraq, it is directly fueling the militarization of society.
There are two hearings this morning in the U.S. Congress that are especially relevant to the climate and security discourse – one on preparedness for extreme weather events – or a lack thereof – and the other on fisheries treaties (see below). These hearings are both relevant because climate change is all about the water, and both extreme weather events and fisheries are all about the water. Extreme rainfall variability, precipitated (pun intended) by climate change, will likely lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. A warming ocean (which is where most of the earth’s heat goes) is already influencing major fisheries across the world. And an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts in some regions of the world will likely have an impact on freshwater fisheries as well. In short, climate change is likely to exacerbate water-based stresses on human societies. Or as CNA’s Military Advisory Board put it in 2007, climate change is a “threat multiplier.” We’ve listed the details of both hearings below.
First, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is holding a hearing at 10am Eastern titled “Extreme Weather Events: The Costs of Not Being Prepared.” UPDATE: A video of the hearing is now up. As listed on the Committee website, panelists will include: (more…)
There has been a lot of discussion about the recent polar vortex that swept through most of the United States. A fair amount of this discussion has been a somewhat “heated” conversation about what it means for climate change. In fact, this is the same discussion the country has during almost every major weather event. (more…)
There is a lot we can learn from what went right and what went wrong in our preparation and response to Hurricane Sandy. Two former Department of Defense officials, Jeff Marqusee, former executive director of the DOD’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, and retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State, recently penned an op-ed for the Virginian-Pilot highlighting what we can learn from the military. Their points are specifically in regards to Hurricane Sandy, but the lessons they draw demonstrate how the “military planning community” is and will be a vital actor in preparing and responding to climate change-associated risks of all kinds. (more…)