Mekong Delta Drought Crisis: A Climate-Change Security Risk In The Making
Apr 20, 2016 @ 04:47 AM
The Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam, and the country’s southern-central highland areas, is suffering a crippling drought. Record low water levels in the delta is also causing saltwater intrusion that is wiping out crops and contaminating drinking water supplies.
The humanitarian and economic impacts are becoming increasingly dire. Government authorities estimate almost half a million households lack fresh drinking water and are experiencing food shortages. More than a million hectares of crops have been destroyed due to either a lack of water for irrigation or contamination by saltwater. It is estimated the drought could pull the country’s projected GDP growth this year down by a full percentage point.
People have pointed to numerous causes converging to create the current situation, including inconsistent rainfall caused by climate change, the El Nino weather pattern, and the numerous upstream hydropower dams on the Mekong River.
China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam all share stretches of the river system that begins in the Tibetan plateau and runs for over 3,000 miles to the South China Sea. All of these countries met last month to discuss the crisis, with calls made for China, Laos and Thailand to reconsider new dam or water-diversion projects.
So while the immediate humanitarian and economic effects are obvious, what implications does a continuing climate crisis have for potential conflict in this part of Asia? These sorts of questions can sound somewhat alarmist, but policymakers and governments around the word are asking just these sorts of questions.
The link between climate change and potential conflict is a complex and subtle one. Rising sea levels alone are unlikely to trigger a war. The non-partisan think tank The Center for Climate and Security calls climate change a “threat multiplier” that can aggravate existing threats to security.
What this means is that if there are other factors present that may cause conflict, such as existing grievances, competition for resources and so on, climate change could increase the likelihood of a conflict being sparked by interacting with, and making worse, these already existing driving factors.
In terms of the potential risks for this part of the world, the center’s assessment is fairly blunt: “A growing coastal and urban population in the broader Asia-Pacific region, coupled with projected climate change-exacerbated stresses on water security, mean that the nations of the Asia-Pacific are also particularly vulnerable to climate change effects.”
In the context of the Mekong River region, the questions are how climate change will interact with the needs of millions of people who rely on the river for agriculture and fishing, and increasingly energy-hungry urban centers drawing electricity from hydropower dams.
It also bears remembering that the countries along the Mekong have a long history of conflict and tension. The dispute between China and Vietnam over islands in the South China Sea is only the latest example.
A Defense Department report submitted to the US Congress in July last year stated that climate change was a security risk because “it degrades living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations”.
“It is in this context,” Pentagon officials said in a statement at the time, “that the department must consider the effects of climate change – such as sea level rise, shifting climate zones and more frequent and intense severe weather events – and how these effects could impact national security.”
In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. in November last year, CIA Director John Brennan said the agency saw climate change as a “deeper cause” of conflict in many parts of the world.
“Extreme weather, along with public policies affecting food and water supplies, can worsen or create humanitarian crises. Of most immediate concern, sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia,” he said.
It is interesting, if disheartening, to recognize that while some political leaders are unable to even acknowledge the existence of climate change, military and intelligence agencies are already looking for ways to mitigate the fallout from a global crisis that seems inevitable.