Global Policy Forum

Pentagon Preps for Conflicts Sparked by Climate Change


By Jim Maceda

December 16, 2009


Dr. Mamdouh Hamza stood on a salty, barren stretch of caked sand and pointed to a clutch of rich green date palms a few hundred yards away. "What you're looking at over there - that gives life to people." Then he pointed down, towards his muddied shoes. "And this is land which gives death to people. That's the difference - life and death."

For this 50-something environmental engineer, what is happening to his beloved Nile Delta is nothing less than lethal. The funnel-shaped ancient land of the delta, the most fertile area in the Middle East, is Hamza's birthplace, and home to some 60 million Egyptians.

But the delta is under attack from the Mediterranean Sea, which has risen one foot in about 70 years - some scientists believe as a result of global warming. The rising water has already crept into aquifers and lapped across fields of crops, turning them into marshland.

"It's terrifying," said farmer Mohamed Helawany as he pruned his few surviving guava plants. "We've built barriers with wood and reeds, but the water keeps coming on the plants and kills them."

Some scientists predict that, based on current data, the sea will rise another three feet in about 30 years. Hamza translated that projection into flesh-and-blood reality. "It will mean losing at least a quarter, perhaps 40 percent of our delta. It's not only agriculture, it's roads, it's railways, hospitals, schools, banks, government buildings - it will be an economic disaster."

Pentagon eyes conflicts over resources

But Hamza - and the worried delta farmers - are not the only ones who are watching the encroaching sea. So is the Pentagon.

In fact, the Nile Delta is a part of the Department of Defense's "table-topping," or war-gaming of extreme climate impacts around the world that could trigger conflict which, in turn, could require the use of U.S. forces as peace-keepers or even peace-enforcers.

For the past several years, Pentagon security analysts have looked anew at climate change, as if they were facing a potential enemy army or naval fleet. Global warming is now shaping their future military missions and nowhere more so than in places like Egypt, which is so dependent on its unique resource - fresh water.

Former CentCom Commander and retired U.S. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who co-wrote a groundbreaking report on the link between global warming and conflict in 2007, said that Egypt is on his list of "top ten" global climate hotspots.

"The Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile. Historically, for millennia, they have defined their national interests around that, they've even said it would be a 'causus beli,' a reason for war, if the upstream resources were somehow controlled, dammed, polluted or whatever," said Zinni.

But that is exactly what is happening. Even as the Nile Delta is covered in rising seas, the Nile itself is 'shrinking' - with thirsty upstream neighbors like Ethiopia damming the Nile, in four places at last count, to improve its own water supply.

Meanwhile, Sudan is selling some 30 million acres of commercial land to China, which will require, according to Hamza, at least 180 billion cubic meters of water to irrigate, for the export of crops back to China.

Where will the water come from? Where else? "It's going to be a fight within the family, I think. But a big fight, if Ethiopia continues to dam, and Sudan continues to sell land," Zinni warned.

Hamza, swatting flies from his face and wiping tears from his eyes as he scanned the wasteland of rotting stumps that was a luscious date palm oasis, had no doubt that the next war in the Middle East or in Africa will be fought over water.

"We have to think that one day, the River Nile flow will drop so much that Egyptians will go hungry. In such a case we'll need not only scientists and diplomats and politicians - we'll also need a good military power."

Planning for worst case scenario

Back at the Pentagon, Amanda Dory, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, spends her time gaming out that and many other scenarios, trying to figure out, with NATO allies and a number of other U.S. agencies, just how it will affect U.S. national security.

Dory said there is no longer any doubt that what happens to the Nile, or its delta, will have an impact on U.S. and NATO forces or materiel. "I would characterize the attitude within the Department of Defense as nothing short of a sea change in terms of our thinking about the importance of climate change," she said.

Hamza put it more simply - climate change should be looked at just like any challenge to national security, referring to the 1967 Six Day War. "Every country must protect their borders, protect their land, whether it's an invasion like when Israel took the Sinai, or like this invasion of nature into our delta."

But he lamented that, while Egypt went to war back then, and had so many casualties, the Egyptian government is doing nothing today about the flooded delta.

He says he's already proposed a relatively inexpensive $4 billion plan to save 200 miles of delta coastline with a system of reinforced berms, based entirely on current technology. "But the government doesn't answer at all. It's like a dead duck!" he said.

Hamza wouldn't even consider what might happen if nothing is done. He cut me off when I spoke of the potential for "climate refugees" in the millions. He'd rather focus on winning the "war" that resonates all the way back to the Pentagon. The war on climate change, he said, is a "good war."

"It's a good enemy because you don't really have to fight, or fire a weapon and kill people to get back your land. All you need to do is employ good brain power to protect your land without loss of life."

That may be true, some day, for the floods that are killing his precious delta. But as the former four-star Gen. Zinni might say, it may take more power than brain power to reverse the shrinking Nile River itself.


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