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India at the Centre of Debate Surrounding ‘Environmental’ Migration in South Asia

08 March, 2016
Dhanasree Jayram

India, flag, South Asia

India, flag
Flag of India. | © Pexels/pixabay.com

At a time when migration has become one of the biggest challenges facing the European Union, the debate surrounding the role of environmental factors in fuelling conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, causing migration, is gaining momentum. Ever since the Arab Spring erupted in 2010-2011, several studies have sprung up linking it to climatic factors – affecting wheat production in countries such as Russia and China, leading to a spike in global wheat prices and in turn exacerbating the socio-political crisis in countries like Egypt. Now climate security analysts have found ostensible links between environmental change and the ongoing civil war in Syria – predominantly the mishandling of the worst long-term drought that had plagued the country since 2006.

Linking Environmental Change to Migration

In academic and other literature concerning climate change, the term ‘climate refugee’ continues to find place, especially to evoke security implications of climate change. Thomas Homer-Dixon and Norman Myers have repeatedly made the case for recognising environmental refugees as an “emergent security issue” and the need for policy responses towards tackling this issue, by providing empirical analyses of environmentally induced forced migration. The Paris agreement (COP21) also takes note of migration and seeks to establish a “task force” to “develop recommendations”. However, the deeply political nature of the issue forced the parties to avoid any legally-binding obligations. The Pacific Island countries’ clarion call to create a “coordination facility” for managing climate refugees was eventually struck down and removed from the final draft of the agreement. Their biggest neighbour in the region, Australia, helped defeat the proposal.

First of all, international law does not recognise “environmental refugees”. Therefore, the law itself has to be changed first, in order to fit “environmental refugees” into an expanded legal definition of a refugee. Recently, in the U.S., a Louisiana tribe (Isle de Jean Charles, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans) was granted the status of first “official climate refugees” in the country. According to reports, the tribe has lost 98 percent of its land due to sea level rise, coastal erosion and flooding; and now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded $52 million to the tribe for “resilient infrastructure and housing projects”. Individual countries could take such progressive steps, but at a time when migration is being looked at so negatively through the prism of (in)security – as a security threat (Europe as a case in point) – an internationally coordinated policy can be considered nothing less than a mirage.

India’s Position on Environmental Migration

The discourse on environmental refugee or forced migration is highly polemical. In countries such as India, “environmental refugee” has not yet become a part of accepted terminology – in line with its non-recognised (or at best only informal) status in international law. Even while referring to migration (in this case, potential) from Bangladesh as a result of climate change, sea-level rise and the loss of land, the Indian position has traditionally been pinned on socio-economic and political problems in Bangladesh rather than environmental ones. The reasons for migration are most often complex and overlapping, with environmental degradation possibly being one among several. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and any socio-economic, political or environmental disruption invariably results in population movement. Owing to the scarcity of land and other non-renewable resources as well as economic opportunities and social mobility, people are forced to look for safer pastures across the border – in India, which is culturally not very different and where the fear of persecution is less.

Another factor which also cannot be discounted is the nature of politics of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The Indian state of Assam has long provided asylum to Bangladeshi immigrants. However, in recent years, there have been communal tensions in the state between the locals and the immigrants over the shifting religious and demographic landscape, sharing of common property/resources, and granting of constitutional rights to the immigrants such as voting rights. There are also allegations that some of the illegal immigrants are involved in “gun running, fake currency rackets and drug running”; and that illegal immigration could be used by radical and terrorist organisations based in Bangladesh to infiltrate into India. Some approve of providing temporary or seasonal asylum, but when the immigrants choose to settle in India permanently, there is a significant amount of resistance due to these inherent dilemmas, based on the inclusion versus exclusion debate. Hence, securitising environment-induced migration in such circumstances would be problematic as it would entail taking on obligations to safeguard Bangladeshi citizens’ interests.   

The predictions regarding mass migration made on the basis of climate models and other relevant independent variables such as ecological or geomorphological properties, socio-economic indicators, and political state of affairs among others, involve a certain degree of uncertainty. This is a good reason for policy-makers to sideline the issue for the moment. Furthermore, the veracity of empirical evidence used to link climate change to conflict and mass migration has also come under the scanner. While the facts presented by analysts in terms of the impacts of climate change may be accurate, one cannot be sure of the extent to which they have contributed to conflict and/or migration.

The so-called “mass migration”, involving millions of people, triggered by climate change is indeed less likely to affect India domestically in the short or medium term. But what the country cannot afford to do at this stage is to neglect the role of gradual and abrupt changes in environment in aggravating population movement as well as their long-term first and second-order impacts. History says so. India was struck by the vagaries of environmental change in the 1990s. 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 have been 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. This helped strengthen the argument for securitising climate change and climate-induced migration as well.

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 waters resolved the dispute between India and Bangladesh. However, a few experts discard these claims and found poor dredging, changes in river dynamics and 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. 

What the Future Holds for India

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 India needs to be prepared for. This includes possible migration from many endangered islands, such as Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to the mainland.

If one takes the larger South Asian picture, India is also expected to address issues concerning environmental migration into the country from low-lying countries in the region like Bangladesh and the Maldives. As far as the impacts of environmental change on the Maldives is concerned, it is already coping with a series of problems such as beach erosion, crunch in freshwater resources, excessive waste, sea level rise, to name just a few. The country has around 1,200 islands and atolls with a landmass of 115 square miles. At its highest point, it is only 8 feet above sea level. According to the current predictions made by a few scientific studies, 77 percent of the country could be submerged by the end of the century. It has also been predicted that 45 centimetre of sea-level rise may inundate 10-15 percent of the land of Bangladesh by 2050, resulting over 35 million climate refugees from its coastal districts.

Is India Prepared?

These predictions are not completely reliable, but they foretell uncertain changes that India needs to be prepared for. No country can afford to be complacent about uncertain changes in environment that could trigger socio-economic transformations. One can neither wait for complete information about a certain change, nor wait for the uncertainty to disappear. If one always attempts to achieve strong prediction, it tends to narrow the scope of futuristic assessments. Therefore, it is imperative for India to join hands with its neighbouring countries to undertake contingency planning so that it does not find itself in an uninformed and unprepared situation when unusual conditions are encountered.

Migration itself need not be seen through the ‘negative security’ lens – as a security threat. Besides, the traditional way of analysing migration in terms of people from the poor countries – depicted as dangerous and disruptive – moving to the rich countries – considered largely advanced and refined – is ludicrous and objectionable. Not only does it have racial overtones, it also starts the debate on wrong foot without leaving room for any practical policy proposals to address the issue. In a way, in the attempt to avoid “securitising” the environment, India is inadvertently “securitising” it by evading long-term action on the uncertainties that it confronts. 

India is neither a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, not does it have a national refugee protection framework. Yet it has given refuge to thousands of asylum seekers – from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan and so on. India has also allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate programmes for some of them. Therefore, a country that has a history of managing refugees and asylum seekers from across the region is well-placed to work jointly with its neighbours to tackle environmental change (including climate change and extreme weather events) and related future migration.

Scope for Regional Cooperation in South Asia

An old saying goes – prevention is better than cure. Joint programmes to undertake mitigation and adaptation measures in the region have become a necessity, especially in the wake of the Paris agreement. If environmental disruption can be prevented or managed to reduce its impact, forced migration and displacement could be nipped in the bud. In addition, organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) could launch mechanisms to address different kinds of migration that exist in the region, and as a part of these mechanisms, look into myriad environmental factors that play a role. Under their umbrella, both temporary and permanent migration has to be addressed. In cases where displacement is caused by events such as disasters, reconstruction and population resettlement in the affected area is a possibility. The cases in which the land is lost or is rendered uninhabitable by several reasons (such as the lack of essential resources like water), a more coordinated and integrated policy, which takes into account social, cultural, legal and political realities, has to be crafted. 

Presently, India is being seen as an antagonistic state, trying to ward off illegal migrants from Bangladesh to its territory by fencing the border. Although fencing is nowhere connected to climate-induced migration, this step would ultimately be linked to the latter to create an alarming scenario – where the two countries are at war with each other due to climate change. This is stretching the debate too far.

Since India is at the centre of this debate, it could lead from the front when it comes to South Asian regional climate diplomacy. While there is a dire need to revamp the legal infrastructure concerning environmental migration internationally, more importantly, diplomatic efforts require to be initiated at the regional level to find solutions to shared migration-related issues. Instead of delving deeper into potential for conflict, South Asian countries should identify potential entry points for cooperation both bilaterally and regionally.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Topic
Adaptation & Resilience
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy
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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