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Are China’s New Silk Road Ambitions a Desert Mirage?

17 August, 2020
Will Marshall, Fair Observer

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Belt and Road, China, Fossil Fuels, Green Investment
© Trevor Cole/unsplash.com

China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects may exacerbate the risk of climate-related instability across the Middle East in the long term.

Anthropogenic climate change and the unprecedented shift in the global center of economic gravity from West to East represent two of the most profound macrotrends set to transform the geopolitical landscape in the 21st century. Indeed, as Asia’s emerging powerhouses, notably China, with its population of 1.4 billion, seek to elevate their citizens to a standard of living comparable to that of the developed world over the coming decades, global energy demands are on course to rise at an exponential rate, bringing with them the unsettling prospect of a 3°C increase compared to pre-industrial levels — double the upper threshold enshrined by the Paris Climate Agreement.

As such, ensuring China’s energy security constitutes one of the core objectives of Beijing’s much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and development project aimed at furthering China’s geopolitical and geo-economic clout on the world stage. Predicated upon the revival of the ancient Silk Road connecting the Mediterranean and the Pacific, Beijing’s “project of the century” hinges upon developing a vast network of highways, pipelines and strategic ports across the Greater Middle East, a geographical macro-region stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan that is as rich in fossil fuels as it is vulnerable to the most damaging repercussions of climate change.

Crescent of Fragile States

Even absent the threat posed by climate change to Middle Eastern countries, the broad crescent of fragile states spanning from the Levant to the Hindu Kush already represents one of the most challenging environments for foreign investors. Plagued by the aftershocks of the war on terror and the Arab Spring, political and security risks remain endemic across the region, from widespread social discontent exemplified by ongoing mass protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq to incessant civil conflict as seen in Syria, Libya and Yemen set against the backdrop of an escalating Saudi-Iran proxy conflict encouraging all but the most fearless investors to steer a wide berth.

Moreover, climatologists predict that Middle Eastern countries stand to be among the worst affected on the planet if current meteorological patterns persist, with summer temperatures set to rise at double the global average, increasing the likelihood of devastating droughts, famines and extreme weather events across the region.

Climate change has long been regarded as a threat multiplier exacerbating conflict, social unrest and state fragility. For instance, Ankara’s damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as part of the colossal Southeastern Anatolia Project aimed at transforming Turkey’s underdeveloped provinces through mass irrigation serves to foment conflict over scarce water resources downstream in Syria and Iraq. As water shortages and decreased rainfall undermine agricultural livelihoods and increase food insecurity, desperation has driven millions to migrate to urban centers such as Baghdad, Basra and Damascus, causing overpopulation and overburdening already fragile urban infrastructures.

Unsurprisingly, the Syrian crisis was predated by a once-in-a-generation drought, which saw the country’s urban population increase by 50% over a decade and is widely attributed as a major underlying factor propelling its descent into civil war in 2011. Nor can less obvious yet equally damaging second and third-order effects of climate change be neglected. Unprecedented monsoon seasons during 2018 and 2019 driven by a warming Arabian Sea have given rise to immense locust swarms that have decimated crops, exacerbated food insecurity and fueled the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century in Yemen.

Strategic Planning

For Beijing’s investors and strategic planners, such increasingly volatile environmental conditions and, more importantly, their associated social, economic and political consequences, are likely to prove a thorn in the side of China’s BRI ambitions. Already, Chinese-led infrastructure projects along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have been repeatedly targeted by the Balochi Liberation Army, a separatist militant group that exploits widespread water insecurity exacerbated by climate change to fuel insurgent recruitment in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province, as illustrated by a spate of recent attacks that have resulted in the deaths of several Chinese nationals.

As Beijing grows its footprint in the fragile states and frontier markets of the Greater Middle East, it is reasonable to expect Chinese investments to be increasingly targeted, for example, by Islamist extremists hailing from East Turkestan active in Syria, enraged by Chinese activities in Xinjiang vis-à-vis the Muslim Uighur minority. Such incidents not only represent physical risks to BRI projects but also commit potential investors to support extensive private security operations, potentially undermining the financial viability of such investments. Indeed, China’s BRI projects may exacerbate the risk of climate-related instability across the region in the long term as evidenced by the projected impact of the Chinese-built Sardasht and Rudbar dams in Iran on water security downstream in Iraq.

Moreover, connecting China’s diverse portfolio of investments across the Greater Middle East into a single integrated economic corridor traversing East and West demands the incorporation of fragile and conflict-afflicted states holding valuable geostrategic locations such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative. While Beijing has expressed a keen interest in playing a pivotal role in post-conflict reconstruction in such fragile environments, ongoing food and water insecurity, land degradation and migration resulting from climate change may drag China’s geo-economic ambitions into the same quagmire of intractable conflict that thwarted Washington’s geopolitical aspirations over the past two decades.

Green Investment

Nevertheless, the notion that Beijing’s New Silk Road is merely a path to ecological ruin is a mistaken one. Domestically, China is the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy as well as the most prolific innovator in the renewables sector, holding more patents for renewable technologies than any other nation. Moreover, Beijing realises such comparative advantages represent a valuable yet insofar underexploited resource to fuel development along the Belt and Road, setting up a state-backed Green Silk Road Fund to coordinate investment in carbon-neutral projects abroad, such as Morocco’s Ouarzazate Solar Power Station and Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park.

Despite widespread evidence of the detrimental impact of dam construction on downstream habitats, efficiently managed dams backed by Chinese capital not only offset emissions through the provision of hydroelectric power but hold the potential to mitigate the most detrimental effects of climate change through extensive irrigation systems in hitherto arid regions of Iran and Pakistan.

Paradoxically, Beijing’s most lucrative opportunities for green investment may lie in the petroleum-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf. As Gulf states look toward a post-oil future, ensuring the prosperity and relative political stability such countries currently enjoy in the coming decades is paramount. Given the Gulf’s immense energy demands and vast potential for solar, wind and tidal energy production across the region, green investment represents an integral pillar of post-petroleum diversification initiatives such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Kuwait’s Vision 2035 and the United Arab Emirates’ Energy Strategy 2050, with investment in renewables across the Gulf soaring 313% from 2014 to 2018.

Already, Beijing has successfully harnessed such ambitious visions to promote the Green Silk Road, partially funding the Mohamed bin Rashid Solar Park, the world’s largest solar plant, in partnership with the UAE government, while obtaining a 49% stake in Saudi ACWA Renewable Energy Holdings, one of the largest financiers of green energy projects across the Middle East and North Africa. At one level, Chinese investment in the renewable energy transition in the Gulf is likely to present a win-win situation: financing the diversification of petroleum-dependent economies while providing ample scope for Beijing to export its domestic success promoting a sustainable energy transition abroad. However, even among the more stable, petroleum-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf, the prospect of rapidly rising temperatures and an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewables may endanger Beijing’s BRI ambitions.

As increased global investment in renewables lowers the cost of solar, wind and tidal energy relative to fossil fuels, decreased demand for petroleum and natural gas is likely to mean that Gulf monarchies in the midst of an energy transition yet still dependent upon non-renewables for a substantial proportion of their GDP may encounter insurmountable challenges as they are forced to shift from their traditional rentier political economies, raising the prospect of widespread social and political unrest.

As the unprecedented collapse in global fossil fuel prices as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Saudi oil price war during the first half of 2020 illustrated, the political and economic systems of the Gulf monarchies remain ill-prepared for the rising debt, tax hikes and extensive austerity measures that such a transition may entail. The prospect of increased political volatility in countries that have long represented an anchor of stability in an otherwise turbulent Middle East may yet undermine what has so far been one of the clear-cut successes of Beijing’s BRI across the region.

Overall, China’s greatest obstacle to realizing its expansive ambitions for a New Silk Road is not Beijing’s economic or geostrategic rivals — of which there are many — but rather an increasingly hostile geophysical environment in the states that straddle its heartland. By 2049, the proposed terminus date of Beijing’s flagship project on the centenary of the People’s Republic of China, average temperatures across the Middle East and North Africa region are set to increase by more than 4°C, followed by extreme droughts and famines rendering large swathes of land surrounding the Persian Gulf uninhabitable.

How China’s investors and strategic planners respond to this looming threat only time will tell. Despite recent positive signals indicating Beijing’s desire to jump aboard the renewables bandwagon, the most damaging repercussions of anthropogenic climate change are likely already irreversible. Just as America’s unipolar moment became unhinged amid the shifting sands of the Greater Middle East, China’s BRI ambitions may prove to be little more than a mirage in the desert.

*[Gulf State Analytics a partner organisation of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

 

[This article originally appeard on the Fair Observer.]

 

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Source
Topic
Technology & Innovation

Region
Middle East & North Africa

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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