ECC Platform Library

 

Environmental Change-induced Coral Degradation in India: Implications for Human Security

23 November, 2015
Dhanasree Jayaram and Ramu C. M

India, being one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world, is at the same time considered one of the most vulnerable countries, in relation to the adverse effects of climate change. One of the most threatened bio-geomorphologic features of India is its coral reefs; which are increasingly being affected by rising surface sea temperatures, ocean acidification and other direct/indirect impacts of global warming induced climate change. India is home to both fringing reefs (around the islands in the Gulf of Mannar, Gulf of Kachchh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands) and atolls (Lakshadweep). With the gradual unravelling of the geophysical cum geochemical impacts of climate change on these reefs, the security implications – especially on human security – are hard to ignore in a highly uncertain period, called nonetheless as the Anthropocene.  

The Impact of Climate Change on the Coral Reefs

In simple terms, coral reefs are the marine equivalent of tropical rain forests. Just as the latter acts as a control room for global precipitation patterns, coral reefs constantly police fluctuating sea level changes across low lying coastal terrains. These, in fact, protect the coastal populace from strong storm and tidal surges; thus preventing denudation and subsequent inundation of adjoining landforms from the vagaries of nature’s fury.

Corals are invertebrate marine organisms possessing a hard exoskeleton made of calcium carbonate. Normally, reef-building corals share a symbiotic relationship with certain single-celled photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. The corals shelter the algae in their tissues and supply them with the requisite compounds for photosynthesis. In return, the algae absorb the sun’s heat and produce oxygen, which facilitates the removal of coral waste material. In the same way, oxygen helps in breaking down glucose into carbohydrates. Corals indeed use these carbohydrates to synthesise the calcium carbonate in its exoskeleton; thereby making it sturdy and strong.

Salinity and warmth are two indispensible components for the survival of corals. This is the reason why all coral reefs and atolls are located along the warm shallow waters of the tropics and subtropics. However, when sea surface temperatures rise as a result of global warming or other phenomena, even the corals start feeling the pinch. Accordingly, the extra heat induces thermal expansion in the corals. Due to the underlying stress, the corals tend to surpass its elastic limit and begin to fracture. This weakens the exoskeleton base and it eventually withers away. But more importantly, the continued expansion and stress causes the zooxanthellae to break off from the coral. Now, the separated alga performs its functions in isolation from the coral. As a consequence, the corals lose its colour pigments and turn white. In purely scientific terms, they get bleached.

Apart from rising sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification (triggered by factors including climate change induced alterations in the ocean’s chemistry) further expedites coral bleaching. In this case too, acidic sea waters delay the calcification rate of the coral exoskeleton. A third and not-so-discussed source of coral reef destruction is the increasing frequency of tropical hurricanes and thunderstorms, exacerbated by climate change. As storms accrue, because of the unchecked surface run-off of rain water into reefs, the already weakened and bleached coral exoskeleton gets withered away. Unlike rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification (both of which chemically bleach the corals), the third one is more or less characterised by a physical degradation of coral reefs.

Implications of Degradation of Coral Reefs for the Lakshadweep Islands

The Lakshadweep archipelago consists of 36 tiny islands, 12 atolls, 3 reefs and 5 submerged banks, covering an area of 32 square kilometres, with lagoons occupying about 4200 km2. Since they are only a few metres above sea level, they are highly vulnerable to sea erosion and storms, not excluding sea level rise. Worldwide, the case of the Maldives is discussed, taking into account the challenges posed by environmental and climatic changes to the country, especially to its corals. The case of the Lakshadweep islands is no different, since both are morphologically similar.

In 2010, intense coral bleaching activity was recorded across the atolls surrounding the Agatti Island in the Lakshadweep archipelago. During the months preceding the onset of the southwest monsoons (which usually makes landfall around the last week of May, or first week of June), the sea surface temperatures had risen to hitherto unprecedented levels. Ostensibly, the sea surface temperatures that year peaked to an alarming 34 degree Celsius, with a maximum aggregate of 32.5 degree Celsius. This delayed the arrival of the monsoon rains, which concomitantly led to prolonged thermal expansion and the inevitable bleaching of corals.

Let alone climate change, the reefs are being threatened by a number of other human-driven factors – such as ocean pollution caused by discharge of waste and fumes from shipping vessels and ferryboats, sedimentation, increase in waste generation due to population pressure, overexploitation of fisheries, coral mining, dredging, and the loss of natural vegetation owing to construction activities among other things. The irony is that the island’s population is dependent on the reef resources for building materials.

The islanders’ livelihood security and food security are directly linked to the sustainability of the reefs. The coral fauna is known to shelter 105 species divided among 37 genera. On the one hand, there is a significant population whose main occupation constitutes reef fishery, gleaning and other subsistence and small-scale activities. And on the other hand, reef fishing and gleaning provide the requisite proteins, particularly among the poor households. During the monsoon season, when the fishermen are not able to venture into the open sea, the island’s population more or less thrives on the fish catch from the reefs – since agriculturally, only coconuts are farmed on these islands.

The coral bleaching surrounding the islands (that occurred in 1998) destroyed 90 percent of the reefs. Meanwhile, according to reports, the relatively speedy recovery of reefs was not tantamount to the recovery of long-lived species like groupers, which perished due to the destruction and/or instability of their habitats. Similarly, the 2010 coral bleaching around the Agatti Island led to a drop in the fish catch in the reef lagoons, affecting both livelihood and food security. Indirectly, coral destruction has also impacted the tuna fishery – the primary economic activity on the island.  Catching live bait for the tuna fishery adversely impacts the reefs. This in turn leads to a reduction of the live bait, thereby affecting the mainstay of the Lakshadweep economy. In short, depleting fish stocks associated with coral reef destruction can directly tamper with the human food supply system and the economy.

Since coral reefs act as natural wave breakers and also as regulators of sudden tidal swells, their destruction can have adverse consequences for the human populace inhabiting the low-lying coastal areas. First, there would be infusion, or in specific terms, intrusion, of saline water into the underground fresh water aquifers; followed by gradual submergence of the lowlands. In such a scenario, people would get displaced, their property destroyed and their dwellings would turn unliveable. Their resettlement and rehabilitation becomes an added burden on a country like India.

The most important factor that adds to the pressure on the coral reefs is the increasing population. More and more construction materials would be required for building the infrastructure. Moreover, with the increasing population density, garbage and sewage disposal/management becomes a huge problem – ultimately leading to coral degradation. Besides, several reports indicate that there already is a great amount of stress on the available groundwater resources due to population pressure. Poorly managed groundwater extraction and the above-mentioned activities (that trigger saline water intrusion) have aggravated the situation further.

Judging by the current rate at which the environment is changing (that includes global warming), a recurrence of the 1998 and 2010 scenario is very imminent. The reefs may not be able to recover from such major El Niño Southern Oscillation-related coral bleaching events all the time. With the lingering possibility of similar bouts of coral bleaching over the coming years, Lakshadweep faces several challenges, including the potential threat of transgression from the rising seawaters – if not in the near future, at least in the long run. And as a consequence, if the islands become unliveable, migration (gradual or abrupt) is an issue that the Indian establishment will have to deal with.

The Question of Migration

In popular literature concerning climate change, the term ‘climate refugee’ continues to find a place in the discourse; while in policy (particularly in countries such as India), the term is not quite popular (not even acceptable). Even while talking about potential migration from Bangladesh owing to climate change, sea-level rise and the loss of land, the Indian position has traditionally been pinned on socio-economic and political problems in the country rather than environmental ones. The degree and scale of uncertainty involved in climate modelling and predictions have given room for the Indian establishment to sideline this issue.

The issue is indeed less likely to affect the country in the short or medium term. But what the country cannot afford to do at this stage, is to neglect long-term impacts (first or second order) of environmental change. India was struck by the vagaries of climate change in the 1990s. What had ensued was astonishing, but at the same time shocking. The island of Lohachara, inhabited by 10,000 people was washed off the map; but this was confirmed by a group of Indian scientists only in 2006. The island lay in India’s part of the Sundarbans. There are conflicting reports as to how this might have occurred. It might be easier for everyone to pin the blame on global warming and sea level rise, which is why most reports readily claimed that this was the first time that an inhabited island had become a victim of global warming and the rising sea levels. Another incident in South Asia that grabbed the headlines was the submergence of the New Moore Island, which both India and Bangladesh claimed as its territory, in 2010. Many commented dramatically that the rising sea water resolved the dispute between India and Bangladesh. However, many experts discard these claims and consider poor dredging, changes in river dynamics and even eastward tilt of the tectonic plate as potential causes for the vanishing of Lohachara. Interestingly, in 2007, a group of scientists using satellite images and on-the-spot surveys revealed that the submerged Lohachara and Bedford islands are re-emerging.

The fact of the matter is that whether or not climate change caused the disappearance of these islands and whether this submergence was temporary or permanent, environmental change is triggering unpredictable events that the country needs to be prepared for. This includes possible migration from different endangered islands, such as Lakshadweep, to the mainland. The local island communities will then have to move away from their traditional habitats and livelihoods.

Coral Management as a Priority

The Indian authorities have taken several steps to protect the reefs of Lakshadweep islands. However, most of what was initiated has sadly been hampered by various bureaucratic constraints. For instance, the Wild Life (Protection) Act of India (1972) had stressed on the establishment of National Marine Parks, particularly allocated for protecting coral reefs, among other sensitive and vulnerable marine flora and fauna. Subsequently, three areas were earmarked under the initiative: the Gulf of Kuchch Marine Park (off the western coast of Gujarat), the Wandoor National Marine Park (in the South Andamans) and the Gulf of Mannar Marine Park (off the coast of Southeast Tamil Nadu). These parks are managed separately by the respective wings of the forest departments belonging to the host states/union territories. Yet, the jurisdiction of these marine parks falls under the state as well as the central authorities, depending on the criticality and scale of endangerment of the demarcated zone. This has resulted in a lack of coordination between the legislative bodies (the proponents of conservation measures) and the on-the-field management agencies (the ones who implement these measures). The sorry state of affairs, hence, is a virtually non-existent policy for the conservation and management of coral reefs.

Taking cue from the shortcomings in bridging the gap between policy planning and implementation, it is high time that a single national policy is devised to bring the holistic management of corals under one centralised authority – albeit carried out through franchise agencies under its overall jurisdiction. Not only should there be tie-ups with several likeminded NGOs on the ground, but there should also be an impetus towards strengthening the scientific base by absorbing more marine biologists. The pooling in of the findings of coral-related marine scientific expeditions needs to be effectively compounded with the framing of conservation mechanisms, on the basis of the collected data. The need of the hour is to keep checks and balances on any development-oriented activity (for example, dredging and discharge from oil refineries) that invariably contributes to the degradation of coral habitats. Just as much as the destruction of rain forests have sparked debates worldwide about the imminent threat it poses to global climate change, coral destruction ought to be given the same priority, especially with regard to its inevitable role in regulating environmental disruptions.     

 

This article originally appeared on IndaStra.

About the Authors

Dhanasree Jayaram is a Project Associate at Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India; and Research Fellow, Earth System Governance Project. She is the author of “Breaking out of the Green House: Indian Leadership in Times of Environmental Change” (2012).

Ramu C. M. is an independent strategic analyst working on geological security among other issues. He completed a Master’s Degree in Geopolitics and International Relations at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University.

Article
Topic
Biodiversity & Livelihoods
Climate Change
Environment & Migration

Region
Asia

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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