Climate change, drought and the march to war

·3-min read
A Yemeni woman transports jerricans of water from a tanker  in the southwestern Al-Maafer district amid an extreme heat wave and severe water shortage (AFP via Getty Images)
A Yemeni woman transports jerricans of water from a tanker in the southwestern Al-Maafer district amid an extreme heat wave and severe water shortage (AFP via Getty Images)

Climate change is now recognised as one of the main drivers and catalysts of wars across the world — especially in Asia and Africa. The impact of extreme weather in the form of a succession of droughts is one of the main factors that brought such a swift victory for the Taliban last month.

The drought, which rivals that of 2018 which saw the death of thousands and the migration of at least half a million, meant that crops withered, with yields of wheat, pomegranate and pine nuts down by 40 per cent. Desperate villagers felt abandoned by the government of Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, and turned to the Taliban.

The international committee of the Red Cross has reported that of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are in a state of war. These include Afghanistan and Yemen, southern Iraq and parts of Syria, including the bread basket of the north-western provinces. In Africa, Mali and Somalia suffer from intense heat and lack of water.

A country like the Central African Republic has suffered from desertification on the one hand and devastating floods on the other. The Red Cross says that the impact of increasing desert has been under-recorded, especially on the migration of flocks. The republic has been in war since 2013.

“The land is becoming a desert,” said one farmer in southern Iraq, where the marshes had been drained under Saddam Hussein. “There are more snakes. We lose animals and our land. We are becoming poor people.” To the north of Afghanistan, across the fertile Fergana valley, which crosses Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, there are now regular and lethal fights for access to water between villages and communities along ethnic grounds. Local water officials, the murabs, are supposed to arbitrate, but Uzbek and Kyrgyzstan farmers often attack and murder each other with shovels and hoes.

The land is becoming a desert. There are more snakes. We lose animals … we are becoming poor

In 2011, I visited a local Afghan army base in Faryab right on the border with the great Steppe which stretches for thousands of miles across Asia. A rugged Uzbek major, with a huge scar, told me there were regular fights there between the Turkman and Uzbek communities for water rights and grazing in the spring. “We also get new armed groups of Pashtuns now — supported by Taliban — they’re really powerful.”

The whole region is being influenced by the above-average rise in temperatures and the melting of the glaciers in the mountains of central Asia — the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakoram.

Altogether there are some 8,500 glaciers feeding 14 major river systems, including the Helmand, Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow River.

In the past 40 years 16 per cent of the ice mass feeding the Fergana valley has been lost. It is accelerating fast and most of the glaciers are projected to be under 40 per cent of their present mass by the end of the century. This will affect roughly two billion people across Asia.

No wonder the Taliban announced they want to discuss climate change as a priority with the international community. How much of this gets onto the agenda at the Anglo-Italian chaired COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November is an open question. As a marsh Arab-Iraqi told the Red Cross, “before rain was falling. Now it’s only dust”.

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