Band of Conflict: What Role Do Demographics, Climate Change, and Natural Resources Play in the Sahel?›
Stretching across northern Africa, the Sahel is a semi-arid region of more than a million square miles covering parts of nine countries. It is home to one of the world’s most punishing climates; vast expanses of uncharted and unmonitored desert; busy migration corridors that host human, drug, and arms trafficking; governments that are often ineffective and corrupt; and crushing poverty. It is not surprising then that the area has experienced a long history of unrest, marked by frequent military clashes, overthrown governments, and insurgency.
In “On Demographic and Democratic Transitions,” published in the February edition of Population and Development Review, author Tim Dyson postulates that the so-called “demographic transition” – a two-step process in which diminishing mortality rates are followed by decreases in total fertility – is an important predictor of a society’s transition from autocracy to democracy. Specifically, Dyson suggests that the population surge resulting from a decline in mortality may tend to destabilize pre-democratic regimes, while a subsequent drop in fertility rates may empower women and raise the median age of a population, thus paving the way for democracy to emerge. Dyson demonstrates a statistically significant correlation between population aging and inclination toward democracy, echoing the work of New Security Beat contributor, Richard Cincotta.
“The world my father told me about 50 years ago was a divided world,” says Hans Rosling, famed Swedish statistician and development expert, in a new video. Standing in the middle of one of his trademark graphs of development indicators, his body neatly splitting the data, he gestures: “In many people’s minds, the world still looks like this: developing and developed.”
“But it’s a myth,” he continues, “because the world has improved immensely in the last 50 years.”
›February 13, 2013 // By Graham Norwood
“We chose the Philippines because we really wanted to do a story that looked at population growth,” reporter Sam Eaton says of his two-part contribution to the Food for Nine Billion project, which aired last year on PBS’ NewsHour and American Public Media’s Marketplace. Eaton recently visited the Wilson Center to discuss his experiences in the Philippines, describing the heavy toll overcrowding and poor resource management is taking on the country’s ecosystems and highlighting how access to family planning may hold the key to a better future.
Specifically attributing a particular weather event to climate change has been difficult – as one famous analogy goes, it’s like determining which of Mark McGwire’s home runs were because of steroids and which weren’t. But climate attribution science is slowly becoming more accurate and accepted. In “Explaining Extreme Events of 2011 From a Climate Perspective,” a new study appearing in July’s Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, editors Thomas C. Peterson, Peter A. Stott, and Stephanie Herring provide a review of six extreme weather events from last year and offer “some illustrations of a range of possible methodological approaches” to the process of attribution. Among their conclusions, the editors note that, due to climate change, the extreme heat and drought that suffocated Texas in 2011 was 20 times more likely to occur than 40 years earlier. However, the devastating floods that swept across Thailand last year are blamed on a number of other non-climatic factors.
›August 15, 2012 // By Graham Norwood
It’s been a difficult year for U.S. agriculture. Record high temperatures and the country’s worst drought since 1956 have combined to decimate crops across the nation, and some forecasters are predicting more heat and dryness in the months ahead. Things have been so bad that many experts fear a recurrence of the food riots and instability that shook the world in 2007-8, and again in 2010-11. Others point to this year’s unusual weather in the United States and elsewhere as a harbinger of how climate change might impact humanity in the 21st century.
Things started out well enough earlier this year, as America’s farmers took advantage of the warmest March weather on record by planting the largest corn crop in 75 years. As late as May 10, the USDA was projecting that previous corn production and yield records would be shattered. “We’re looking at the potential for just a true bin-buster of a crop [this year],” grain expert and Iowa State University economics professor Chad Hart told The Huffington Post at the time. “There’s going to be a lot of corn flying around here.”
But those predictions came before a historic drought descended upon the country’s heartland, accompanied by soaring summer temperatures. In July, the USDA slashed its estimate for corn production by 12 percent, the largest such adjustment in a quarter century. The organization released an even bleaker update last Friday. Meanwhile, many commodity traders, believing the worst may still be yet to come, have reduced their own projections even further. Soybeans, which are frequently intercropped with corn, have also struggled with this summer’s conditions.
As optimism for the corn and soybean harvests has faded, commodity prices have surged. Corn futures have reached record highs, and soybeans have also seen dramatic price increases. Both commodities have now surpassed their peaks from the 2007-8 crisis that led to riots in more than two dozen countries across the world.
Even wheat, which is primarily a winter crop, has experienced a price increase of about 50 percent over the past two months. “If the price of corn rises high enough, it also pulls up the price of wheat,” Robert Thompson, a food security expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told The Guardian. Wheat has not yet outpaced its high from the 2007-8 crisis, but it is trading higher than after the Russian wheat export ban that helped lead to another crisis in 2010-11 (and ultimately, some analysts say, to the Arab Spring).
Crisis Catalysts Beyond the U.S. Drought
The United States is vital to the global food market, being the world’s largest exporter of corn, soybeans, and wheat. However, several other key grain-producing regions have been affected by abnormal weather this year as well.
Summer heat waves in southern Europe have adversely impacted corn crops from Italy to Ukraine – a region that produces 16 percent of the world’s exports, according to Bloomberg. Below average rainfalls in parts of South America and Australia threaten other strategically important production areas.
And that’s not all. Spain suffered its worst drought in 70 years this past winter, leading analysts to reduce projections for Europe’s wheat crop. Flooding in Japan, India and Bangladesh has jeopardized rice crops. And an unusually cold winter in the Himalayas has dramatically slowed glacial melting, leaving farmers to cope with a greatly reduced Indus River and as much as an 80 percent reduction in available water for irrigation.
Add to all this the fact that world grain stocks are reportedly headed for a five-year low, and it isn’t difficult to see why there is such concern about the global food market.
Causes for Concern
Rising grain prices are expected to lift overall food costs throughout the world over the next six months. That spike is unlikely to have much of an impact in the United States, where consumers spend on average just 13 percent of their household budgets on food. However, in less developed countries – where the portion of household income used for purchasing food is often 50 percent or higher – there is cause for concern that a new round of food riots may be in the offing.
Kaitlin Shilling on climate conflict and export crops in sub-Saharan Africa
“Large numbers of people live very close to the edge,” Save the Children’s Justin Forsyth recently told The Financial Times. “Failed rains and high food prices have tipped lots of people over the edge from being able to cope to not being able to cope.”
“Based on my research on the natural disasters-food prices-social unrest nexus, I think we will observe increased social unrest in the next 6 to 12 months,” warned Duke University professor and agricultural economist Marc Bellemare in an email exchange, stressing the distinction between social unrest (i.e., food riots) and civil war or intra-state conflict.
“The similarity between now, 2007-8, and 2010-11 is that they are all episodes of high food prices caused by a series of natural disasters,” he continued. “The difference is that this time around, the natural disasters in question – episodes of extreme temperature and drought – are taking place in our backyard instead of halfway around the world, which makes this all the more salient in American minds.”
Some Reasons for Optimism
Still, there are a number of reasons to believe the present situation will not lead to the kind of instability and conflict that characterized the last two food crises. One key difference between 2007-8 and today’s situation is the price of oil.
In July of 2008, oil rushed to an all-time high of $147 per barrel; today, it’s around $90 a barrel. This means that consumers can buy relatively more food now than in 2008, making food riots less likely.
Moreover, any reduction in the possibility of riots and other political instability has a multiplying effect, according to a recent Chatham House article:
And because riots are less likely, governments are less inclined to impose export controls, reducing the chance of a collapse in confidence, as one country after another bans exports, pushing up international prices further and encouraging others to do the same. This dynamic was a major factor in both the 2007-8 crisis and the 2010-11 spike.
Perhaps most important of all is the fact that the crops in the worst shape this year – chiefly corn and soybeans – are less fundamental to the diets of many in the less developed world than rice or wheat. “[Rice] is very important for [the] food security of millions of people around the world,” Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist and grain expert at the FAO, recently told Reuters. “We do not see any production or supply problems with rice.”
Meanwhile, USDA Chief Economist Joseph Glauber has downplayed fears of an imminent food crisis because of a relative abundance of wheat. “Prices are higher [right now], and there’s no question about that, but we really had an extreme shortage of wheat in 2007-2008 and I don’t see that at this point,” he recently told The Financial Times.
Unlike rice and wheat, corn is seldom consumed directly. Rather, it is far more commonly used for ethanol production (roughly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to produce biofuels), food processing, and especially animal feed. This means that a rise in corn prices won’t have as direct and deleterious effect on people in the developing world as did the acute rice and wheat shortages that triggered previous crises. Higher corn prices will certainly increase the costs of meat and dairy products, processed foods, and other comestibles, but these price increases are unlikely to have much of an effect in less developed countries, where such products are seldom prominent in the daily diet.
“[This] is a serious situation which has to be monitored closely, but it is too early to refer to it as a food crisis situation,” said Abbassian.
The Role of Climate Change
Whether or not this summer’s troubles blossom into the kinds of food riots and political instability seen in previous food crises remains an open question, but there is another unresolved issue with even greater potential long-term impact. With so many extreme weather events playing a role in this year’s high prices, many are wondering: To what extent is climate change a factor? And what might continued warming and increased CO2 mean for the long-term prospects of global food security? Are this summer’s stifling conditions “the new normal,” as the blog G-FEED has asked here and here?
One of the most significant recent developments in climate research is that scientists have begun linking individual extreme weather events to anthropogenic climate change. A groundbreaking 2011 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the UK Met Office, and others explained:
In the past it was often stated that it simply was not possible to make an attribution statement about an individual weather or climate event. However, scientific thinking on this issue has moved on and now it is widely accepted that attribution statements about individual weather or climate events are possible, provided proper account is taken of the probabilistic nature of attribution.
The report goes on to apply this principal to several extreme weather events from last year, including a devastating drought in Texas it claims was made 20 times more likely to occur by man-made climate change.
While no such study has yet examined the 2012 U.S. drought or other recent extreme weather events, most scientists believe that climate change is playing at least some role in this year’s freak weather episodes. “I think what we’re seeing is largely a naturally occurring event [influenced by La Niña weather patterns], but it’s occurring against the background of a warming environment,” Richard Seager, a professor and drought specialist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Climate Central.
The idea of naturally occurring droughts playing out across a backdrop of global warming is a sobering one, because of the unique interactions between precipitation and hot weather. One timely study published last month describes how dry conditions increase the likelihood of abnormally hot weather: During droughts, less of the sun’s heat energy is used to evaporate moisture in vegetation and the soil, meaning that more energy can go into heating the air directly. Thus, “the occurrence probability of an above-average number of hot days is high after dry conditions and low after wet conditions.”
The study suggested that this phenomenon played an important role in exacerbating the 2011 Texas drought. Moreover, lead author Brigitte Mueller noted in an email conversation with Climate Central that precipitation in the 2012 U.S. drought was within the range where the drought/heat feedback would be expected to occur, “which implies an even higher likelihood for an above-average [number of hot days] to occur.”
With the planet expected to continue warming due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and with reports from IPCC and National Center for Atmospheric Research predicting increasingly frequent droughts in the decades ahead, the heat/drought feedback loop is still more bad news for a global agricultural sector already tasked with the formidable job of feeding a world population expected to reach nine billion by mid-century.
Research on the effects that heat and drought have on crop yields and food production is beginning to emerge. One recent paper conservatively estimated that U.S. farm production could drop 4 to 13 percent over the next two decades or so. Another study, which considered “worst-case scenarios,” projected that average U.S. crop yields could plummet 63 to 82 percent by the end of the century if global warming is particularly rapid.
Such an outcome would necessitate fundamental changes in how the world is fed, and would obviously make global food security an issue of paramount importance. Even in the present, however, it seems clear that climate change is already an integral part of the food security issue. This summer’s freakish weather, in the United States and elsewhere around the globe, has brought the world closer to another round of food riots and political instability.
Although there are reasons to be optimistic that such a crisis may yet be averted in the short term, it appears that maintaining and improving global food security will remain a major challenge into the foreseeable future.
Sources: Bloomberg, Chatham House, Climate Central, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Resources for the Future, Reuters, USDA.
Map Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor, courtesy of Mark Svoboda/National Drought Mitigation Center. Drought stricken corn on a farm in Iowa, which President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited on Monday, courtesy of the USDA. Future drought conditions, courtesy of Aiguo Dai/Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews.
Contraceptives prevented an estimated 272,040 maternal deaths in 2008, reducing worldwide maternal mortality by 44 percent, according to a recent paper by Saifuddin Ahmed, Qingfeng Li, Li Liu, and Amy O. Tsui, published in The Lancet. But the prevention of maternal deaths could have been even higher. The study, “Maternal Deaths Averted by Contraceptive Use: An Analysis of 172 Countries,” estimates that an additional 104,000 maternal deaths – many occurring in developing parts of Africa and South Asia – could have been averted simply by satisfying existing unmet need for contraception. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only 22 percent of women who are married or sexually active use contraception – a far cry from the 65 percent which the study suggests is the point at which maternal deaths avoided by contraceptive use begin to plateau. Not surprisingly, this has also yielded some of the highest regional fertility rates in the world.
Such high fertility rates are driving growing concerns about scarcity and capacity in the region, and how climate change might exacerbate already-difficult development hurdles. This nexus of issues was the subject of a recent policy brief by Population Action International and the African Institute for Development Policy, titled Population, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development in Africa. The brief points out that “a large share of Africa’s population lives in areas susceptible to climate variation and extreme weather events,” and that there is an inherent tension the continent faces as it seeks to balance high population growth with climate change-induced reductions in the availability of natural resources, like water and arable land. The authors urge policymakers, rather than focusing on environment, population, and health individually, to “connect population dynamics and climate change” to address their interlinked challenges together.
›Over the past year and a half, USAID has been busy reinventing itself. The announcement of its USAID FORWARD initiative and the release (jointly, with the State Department) of the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review in late 2010 signaled significant changes for the organization, including several reforms designed to modernize operations and improve transparency. Part of that effort is making data collection and dissemination more open.
Thus far, the results have been encouraging.
September of last year saw the launch of an awareness campaign focused on the Horn of Africa, co-sponsored by the Ad Council and called, somewhat confusingly, USAID FWD (famine, war, drought). As part of the program, USAID published a collection of regional maps, aggregating the organization’s substantial data pool and showing everything from food and water security to the movement of refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons).
Using data from its own FEWS.NET site, USAID created the maps with open-source tools, allowing other organizations and concerned individuals to leverage the data for additional aid and outreach activities. Many, including the ONE Campaign and InterAction, were quick to incorporate the maps and underlying data into their own activities.
In order to promote greater data access and transparency, USAID also collaborated with the Department of State to create the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a website that provides sortable aid budget allocation data to the general public. Launched in late 2010 with frequent updates since, the site allows users to see easily how aid is apportioned by region, sector, initiative, or other categories.
For instance, visitors can see that USAID more than quadrupled its humanitarian assistance to Pakistan in 2010 as a result of that country’s devastating flooding. Aid then fell back to near 2009 levels the following year.
Recently, USAID has also taken its open data efforts to the Web. Faced with 117,000 records of development loans provided by its own Development Credit Authority and lacking proper geographic coding, the organization undertook a pioneering experiment in crowdsourcing this June. Civilian volunteers from the online technical communities GISCorps and the Standby Task Force pitched in to help code the data, as did unaffiliated citizens attracted by social media campaigns.
The end results were outstanding: the volunteers finished the job in just 16 hours, although USAID had initially expected the operation to take 60.
Representatives from USAID recently published an illuminating case study about the crowdsourcing experiment and launched it at the Wilson Center. “By leveraging partnerships, volunteers, other federal agencies, and the private sector, the entire project was completed at no cost,” the report noted, adding that USAID hoped to have “blaze[d] a trail to help make crowdsourcing a more accessible approach for others.” One of the case study authors, Shadrock Roberts, noted that “we need to be working as hard to release relevant data we already have as we are to create it.”
USAID’s recent experiments with transparency and greater civilian participation appear to be part of a larger organizational shift toward greater openness and collaboration. Administrator Rajiv Shah seemed to confirm this in a March interview with Foreign Policy, when he spoke at length about the benefits of partnering with the private sector as well as other NGOs.
The recently reported demise, or at least great diminishing, of President Obama’s Global Health Initiative (GHI), which closed its doors amid a heated turf battle between USAID, the State Department, and PEPFAR, lends credence to this theory as well. The official GHI blog stated last week that it would “shift focus from leadership within the U.S. Government to global leadership by the U.S. Government.” This appears to indicate greater future emphasis on collaboration, with an eye toward enabling non-USAID actors to play a greater role in the development process.
It remains to be seen how USAID’s role and strategy will change over the next few years. However, results from the organization’s initial attempts at open data and open government policies have been positive in many respects, and there is reason to hope they will continue to push the boundaries in these areas.
Sources: Center for Global Development, Foreign Assistance Dashboard, Foreign Policy, Global Health Initiative, USAID.
Image Credit: Foreign Assistance Dashboard.
Join the Conversation
- The Resilience Beat: Reporting on Climate, Population, and Health Wednesday, December 3, 2014
- Addressing Maternal Health and Gender-Based Violence in Times of Crisis Thursday, November 20, 2014
- Solutions for Sustainability and Resilience in a Constantly Changing World Wednesday, November 19, 2014