Opinion: Climate Change and Violence

On April 1, the Philippines was shocked by violence in Kidapawan City, the capital of Cotabato Province, where police opened fire on farmers protesting and asking for rice, killing three and injuring 116.

Eighty-seven were listed as missing in the incident, which erupted over frustrated farmers experiencing an intense drought brought on by the El Nino climate phenomenon who felt the government was doing nothing for them.  The Philippines is an island nation frequently battered y weather, often typhoons. Now it is drought.

The government could hardly have been surprised by the incident. As early as January, the City Risk Reduction and Management Council proposed placing Kidapawan under state of calamity, which was approved by the Sangguniang Panlungsod, the local city legislative branch, in February. This authorized the use of the Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund amounting to PHP4 million (US$86,500).

But damage to crops has already amounted to PHP30 million. According to the City Social Welfare and Development Office, this translates to 11,000 families or 25 percent of the city’s population. Damage now has risen to PHP128 million.

The Mindanao drought has led one farmer in Maguindanao to kill himself out of depression. Jimmy Tamberya, 37, lost his crops and failed to provide food for his family. There are thousands in almost as much despair. Hungry and left without livelihood, it is not difficult to understand why they joined the mobilization in Kidapawan. The question whether they have been “used” by the left or the statement that there are government processes that should be followed is beside the point. These farmers and their families are starving. You cannot tell a hungry person to wait. There should have been no violence.

The incident brings to light in grim detail one important issue: climate change as an issue of peace and security. This brings to mind the Syrian conflict, which researchers have linked to the drought they experienced.

Between 2006 and 2011, Syria experienced its worst drought, intensified by climate change. Almost a million farmers lost their farms to the drought and went to other cities. These frustrations led to a group of protests against the government, which spread following the path of the drought. This made Syria vulnerable to terrorist groups such as ISIS.

But did climate change play a role in destabilizing Syria? According to Francisco Femia of the Center for Climate and Security, “It is really significant when you look at 1.5 million people entirely losing their livelihood. This was five years of extended drought. People just couldn’t live any more in rural areas. The fact that there was this massive population displacement from rural areas into urban ones may have contributed to social unrest.”

Another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science says that climate change doubled or even tripled the likelihood of drought that became played a significant role in the series of events that led to what Syria is now.

“This is may be the first example of connecting emerging climate change to a modern conflict. This is not an analysis of Mesoamerica or something historical. This is happening today,” said Colin Kelley, lead author of the new study and a PACE postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Santa Barbara.

In 2007, UN Secretary General described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and the world’s first climate change conflict. According to the United Nations University, “The assumption was that water scarcity from changed rainfall patterns resulting from climate change contributed to this conflict.”

Research from Marshall Burke examined the potential impact of climate change on armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and found the relationship between past internal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and variations in temperature.

According to this research, a 1 percent increase in temperature leads to a 4.5 increase in civil war in the same year and a 0.9 percent increase in the next year. The researchers say that “conflict will derive from economic uncertainties resulting from temperature-related yield declines in societies heavily dependent upon agriculture. This is because research to date has found that economic welfare is the single factor most consistently associated with conflict incidence.”

Even the US Defense Department sees climate change as a “defense multiplier.”

“We’re not in the world war era anymore, but people are fighting and dying and at war all over the world in ways that we don’t really consider warfare in the same way. I’m really concerned about the effects on food supplies, and how that can lead to social unrest, the movement of people, people rioting and that sort of thing,” said former senior advisor of Pentagon, Christine Parthemore.

There are, of course, still doubts as to whether there really is a strong relationship between climate change and conflict. However, artist AG Sano, who walked from Manila to Tacloban and then from Italy to Paris to demonstrate his beliefs, believes it is time we take climate change as an issue of peace.

“The biggest war humanity is facing now is climate change,” he said. “Its effects are claiming lives and livelihood in an unprecedented rate and is poised to cause more damage to many nations and a big portion of the world population especially the poor.”

Sano on April 10 traced the path of the infamous April 1942 Bataan Death March, the 97 km march of Filipino and American troops during the World War II, in reverse. Sano calls it the peace walk.

“It is important to view climate change as a peace issue because is a big threat to peace. A world running low on resources and solutions can cause panic,” he added.

The violence in Kidapawan was not just about the drought, it was also about governance, the political environment, and most likely a host of other things. Like in all conflicts, there is no single cause. But the questions remain: had the government prepared well for the drought, would it have ended the way it ended, in violence? Would the farmers have been subjected to same hunger and loss of livelihood? And what does the government plan to do, now that we expect more severe drought in the coming months?

Climate change is no longer an issue that should be treated separately from all other issues. Climate change is an issue of the environment, of social justice, of poverty, and yes, of peace and security.


This article was originally published at Asia Sentinel.