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How Climate Change Combines With Policy To Create Disaster

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This Human Rights Watch report on climate change in northwestern Kenya is well worth your time. It is quite excellent because it shows how climate change combines with politics, tradition, international relations, etc., to create a disaster. In other words, people and climate together create natural disasters. An excerpt from the summary:

The report finds that climate change, in combination with existing political, environmental and economic development challenges in Turkana, has had an impact on the Turkana people’s ability to access food, water, health and security. Turkana County has long experienced periods of cyclical drought. However, increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns, combined with population growth and threats to Lake Turkana from hydroelectric and irrigation projects in Ethiopia, present significant, long-term challenges for the Turkana County and Kenyan national governments.

Increased temperatures and unpredictable rainy seasons have placed increased pressure on water resources, resulting in less dry season grazing land, diminished livestock herds, and increased competition over grazing lands. Pastoralists told Human Rights Watch that prolonged and more frequent droughts have exacerbated already difficult access to potable water, making every day a struggle for survival. Women and girls often walk extremely long distances to dig for water in dry riverbeds. Many children become sick because their families are unable to provide them with sufficient food and clean water. In northern Turkana County, increased competition over grazing lands and water has heightened the likelihood of conflict and insecurity.

Industrial and agricultural development across Turkana’s northern border with Ethiopia also poses threats that could affect the realization of rights of the Turkana people. Over the past several years, Ethiopia has embarked on a massive plan for dams, water-intensive irrigated cotton and sugar plantations, and irrigation canals and other infrastructure in Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin, which provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana. These developments are predicted to dramatically reduce the water supply of Lake Turkana: the planned irrigation projects alone could reduce by up to 50 percent the Omo River’s total flow. Some scientists predict that Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, could recede into two small pools.

Reduced water levels in Lake Turkana will have a devastating impact on the environment and people of Turkana County. Dramatic reductions in freshwater input from the Omo River into Lake Turkana will increase levels of salinity in the lake and raise water temperatures, decimating fish breeding areas and mature fish populations. Higher air temperatures will increase rates of evaporation, further increasing salinity while reducing biological productivity.

Traditional economies combine with growing populations to stress the land. Underdevelopment and national neglect of tribal peoples far from the capital increase vulnerability. International decisions around national development severely undermine watersheds up river, potentially creating international tensions or even war over increasingly scarce resources. Climate change caused by nations far, far away change the wet/dry seasons and lead to increased warming, threatening a society created over thousands of years. Social problems, often exacerbated by gender inequalities, are exacerbated by all these issues.

This is a story that in some way will be repeated throughout the world as climate change develops. Will Turkish development of the Tigris and Euphrates undermine Syrian and Iraqi stability even more as water sources are impounded for Turkish agriculture, for example? So-called natural disasters are always a combination of nature and humans. We can barely even call climate change a natural disaster since it is human-caused, but of course people will. The term “natural disaster” itself is apolitical and serves the powerful by shifting blame away from human behavior and inequality, moving it on to Mother Nature and who can blame her?

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