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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.
A new study by Climate Central’s Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss, published in the prestigious Nature Communications, finds that populated coastlines around the world are three times more exposed to sea level rise than previously thought, which has the potential to almost completely inundate major coastal cities around the world. The potential security implications of the loss of these major coastal urban areas are enormous. In an article covering the new report, the New York Times spoke with the Center for Climate and Security’s Lieutenant General John Castellaw, US Marine Corps (Ret), about projections for the important coastal city of Basra in Iraq. From the article:
Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, could be mostly underwater by 2050. If that happens, the effects could be felt well beyond Iraq’s borders, according to John Castellaw, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who was chief of staff for United States Central Command during the Iraq War.
Further loss of land to rising waters there “threatens to drive further social and political instability in the region, which could reignite armed conflict and increase the likelihood of terrorism,” said General Castellaw, who is now on the advisory board of the Center for Climate and Security, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
“So this is far more than an environmental problem,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian, security and possibly military problem too.”
Read the full sea level rise study here.
The US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq recently issued stern warnings about the possible breach of the Mosul Dam, stating that the “Mosul Dam faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning.” This is in the aftermath of the August 2014 “Battle for Mosul Dam” over control of the dam between Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were supported by Iraqi troops and US-led Coalition airstrikes. Now the risk is not just control of the dam by ISIL, but the inability to continue maintenance and regular running of the dam. This is a stark look at how resources like water face additional stresses during times of increased state fragility, instability, conflict and a changing climate (more on that here). (more…)
Thomas Friedman Cites the Center for Climate and Security on Extreme Weather in the Middle East and South Asia
New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman published an Op-ed today, “The World’s Hot Spot,” about the extreme heat waves plaguing the Middle East and South Asia, including Iran (citing AccuWeather’s Anthony Sagliani who stated that a July 31 reading in the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr was ‘…one of the most incredible temperature observations I have ever seen, and it is one of the most extreme readings ever in the world.’) The column explores political protests and sweeping changes in government, particularly in Iraq, which followed from the perceived inadequate response to the heat wave, and asks questions about whether or not enough attention is being paid to climatic events by the region’s political leaders.
Friedman cited the Center for Climate and Security’s Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, regarding how climate stresses are measured against other security risks, as well as how such extreme events can place significant strains on the social contract between governments and their respective publics. The full citation: (more…)