What does climate security mean to ‘real’ people?

This is the first part of a keynote paper prepared for the 11th Global Conference on Environment Management, being held at Palampur later this week.

At the UN Security Council debate on climate security in 2007, the Ghanaian representative, LK Christian, spoke of growing evidence that nomadic Fulani cattle herdsmen were arming themselves with sophisticated assault rifles. They were doing so in order to confront local farming communities, who in turn were threatening their cattle herds. The cause that he gave for this increasing tension was climate change which is expanding the Sahara desert.

Only the day before, the Security Council had been discussing the crisis in Darfur. This is a conflict in which 200 000 people have already died. It is a conflict in which there has been that same struggle between nomadic and pastoral communities for resources made more scarce through a changing climate.

We know from studying earlier civilizations that declined and collapsed that it was often shrinking harvests that were responsible. For the Sumerians, rising salt concentrations in the soil lowered wheat and barley yields and brought down this extraordinary early civilization. For the Mayans, it was soil erosion following deforestation that undermined their agriculture and set the stage for their demise. For our twenty-first century civilization, it is rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations and the associated rise in temperature that threatens future harvests.

To illustrate the problems of climate security, I am going to focus on the Indian Ganges, and Chinese Yellow and Yangtze river basins. I could have chosen almost any part of the world, but as this conference is in Himachal Pradesh, these seemed a good or bad choice depending on your perspective.

The world is currently facing a climate-driven shrinkage of river-based irrigation water supplies. Mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau are melting and could soon deprive the major rivers of India and China of the ice melt which is necessary to sustain them throughout the dry season. In the Ganges, the Yellow, and the Yangtze river basins, where irrigated agriculture depends substantially on rivers, this loss of dry-season flow will shrink harvests.

The world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia. China and India are the world’s leading producers of both wheat and rice – the staple component of the diet of most of humanity. China’s wheat harvest is nearly double that of the United States, which ranks third after India. With rice, these two countries are far and away the leading producers; together they account for over half of the world harvest.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch) reported that Himalayan glaciers are receding rapidly and that many could melt entirely by 2035. In particular, if the giant Gangotri Glacier which supplies 70 percent of the Ganges flow during the dry season should disappear, then the Ganges will become a seasonal river – flowing during the rainy season, but not during the summer dry season when irrigation water is so essential.

A leading Chinese glaciologist, Yao Tandong, has reported that the glaciers on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau in western China are now melting at an accelerating rate. He believes that two thirds of these glaciers could be gone by 2060, which will substantially reduce the dry-season flow of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

Like the Ganges, the Yellow River, which flows through the arid northern part of China, could also become seasonal.

At the same time, overpumping in both India and China, is depleting the underground water resources that both countries use for irrigation. Water tables are falling everywhere under the North China Plain, the country’s principal grain-producing region. When an aquifer is depleted, the rate of pumping is reduced to the rate of recharge. In India, water tables are falling and wells are going dry in almost every state.

Losing the river water used for irrigation could lead to politically unmanageable food shortages. The Ganges River, for example, is the largest source of surface water irrigation in India, and is the principle source of water for the 407 million people living in the Gangetic Basin.

In China, the Yellow River basin is home to 147 million people whose fate is closely tied to the ice-melt feeding the river because of low rainfall in the basin. The Yangtze, meanwhile, is China’s leading source of surface irrigation water, and helps produce more than half of China’s 130-million-ton rice harvest. It also meets many of the other water needs of an estimated 368 million people that live within its watershed.

The populations in either the Yangtze or Gangetic river basin are larger than those of any country other than China or India. The ongoing shrinkage of underground water supplies, the prospective shrinkage of river water supplies, and the consequent crop and subsequent food crises are occurring against the demographic backdrop of a growth in population by 2050, in India of an anticipated 490 million people, and in China of 80 million.

Grain prices around the world continue to climb and any disruption of the wheat or rice harvests in these two leading grain producers will greatly affect not only people living there but consumers everywhere. In both of these countries, food prices will rise and grain consumption per person will inevitably fall. In India, just over 40 percent of all children under five years of age are already underweight and undernourished, and we can safely predict that hunger will intensify and child mortality will likely climb.

For China, where there is already a struggle to manage food price inflation, there may well be spreading social unrest as food supplies tighten. Food security in China is a highly sensitive issue. Anyone in China who is over 50 years of age is a survivor of the Great Famine of 1959–61, when, even according to official figures, 30 million Chinese starved to death. This is also why Beijing has worked so hard in recent decades to try and maintain grain self-sufficiency.

A decade ago, China, was essentially self-sufficient in soy-beans; today, it is importing 70 percent of its supply, which has helped drive world soy-bean prices to an all-time high. As food shortages further unfold, China will try to hold down its domestic food prices by using its massive dollar holdings to import grain, mostly from the United States, which is the world’s largest grain exporter. But, as irrigation water supplies shrink, Chinese consumers will be competing with American domestic consumers for the US grain harvest. India may also try to import large quantities of grain, though it probably lacks the money to do so, especially if grain prices keep climbing.

This is not a problem that we are leaving to future generations. 2035 is only 25 years away. Assuming that starvation, pestilence, and war do not kill you, most people who are under 50 today, will still be alive then. If you are under 50, you have a responsibility to do something about it.

Glaciologists have given us a clear sense of how fast the glaciers are shrinking. The challenge now is to translate their findings into national energy policies designed to save the glaciers.

The critical factor is to reduce low-altitude atmospheric concentrations of CO2. At issue is not just the future of mountain glaciers, but the future of world grain harvests. The challenge is to abandon current policies and cut carbon emissions by, at least, 80 percent – not by 2050 which is the target many political leaders have tried to suggest, but by 2020.

The first step is to stop building coal-fired power plants, which contribute significantly to these low altitude CO2 levels. Ironically, of course, the two countries that are planning to build most of the new coal-fired power plants, are China and India – the two countries most massively threatened by the carbon emitted from burning coal. It is now totally in their interest to try and save their mountain glaciers by shifting investment from coal-fired power plants into energy efficiency and wind farms, solar thermal power, and geothermal power. It has been estimated, that China, for example, could double its current electrical generating capacity from wind alone.

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