U.S. military grasps effects of the rising tide

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Bangladeshi soldiers portray rebels during a live demonstration of a UN peacekeeping routine at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operations Training in Rajendrapur Cantonment, Bangladesh. The exercise was part of a conference on training for peacekeeping missions with participants from 30 countries including the United States. (Malathi Nayak/Medill)

By Malathi Nayak
Medill National Security Reporting Project

RAJENDRAPUR, Bangladesh – The sound of gunshots and wailing women and children rose above the din of a hovering helicopter one recent morning in a makeshift refugee camp in this military cantonment outside the capital of Dhaka.

Dust filled the air as Bangladeshi soldiers, deployed as United Nations peacekeepers, engaged a gang of rebels who had attacked the camp. After a long negotiation and exchange of gunfire, the rebels were captured and peace was restored.

Thunderous applause soon followed, as representatives from 30 countries watched what turned out to be a live demonstration at the Bangladesh Army’s peacekeeping training facility here.

The onlookers, including a team from the United States, were part of an ongoing effort to understand and be prepared for global security threats in conflict zones that will require peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.

Climate change is fast becoming one of those security threats, according to U.S. and Bangladeshi officials, who have concluded it will help create new conflict hotspots around the world and heighten the tensions in existing ones—and impact the national security of the United States in the process. Moreover, climate change could overstress the U.S. military by creating frequent and intensified disasters and humanitarian crises to which it would have to respond.

Nowhere is that potential chain of events more worrisome than in Bangladesh, a country strategically sandwiched between rising superpowers China and India, and which also acts as a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia.

Already, Bangladesh is beset by extreme poverty, overcrowding and flooding that frequently render large numbers of people homeless. The Muslim-majority country also has had problems with Islamist radicalization.

And over the next two generations, those problems are expected to get worse due to climate change, which worsens other problems such as food and water scarcity, extreme weather and rising seas, according to interviews with current and former officials and experts. By 2050, rising sea waters are projected to cost the low-lying country about 17 to 20 percent of its land mass, rendering at least 20 million people homeless and decimating food production of rice and wheat, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By then, its population is projected to reach more than 200 million, which could lead to internal societal unrest that spills over into neighboring India.

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Retired Maj. Gen. A.N.M. Muniruzzaman says that preparing for the security challenges connected to climate change will take time. (Click to watch the video)

“That is a frightening scenario. Given the complications of conflict relations in South Asia, any destabilization of a regional border can have very severe consequences on a regional scale”, said Maj. Gen. A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, a retired Bangladeshi military officer who heads a think tank called the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.

Many displaced people already try to go into India when the flooding comes every year or so or economic opportunities run out, so much so that the New Delhi government has built a massive border fence to keep them out—and plans to electrify it.

Muniruzzaman refers to climate change as a “transnational security threat” — one that could not only push Bangladesh to the brink of state failure but potentially destabilize the rest of South Asia and draw in the U.S., because of it has the largest military in the world, to provide relief aid, humanitarian assistance and possibly peacekeeping.

“We are saying it can go into a meltdown phase, unless we have a response mechanism both at the national level and international level in place, rehearsed and solidly put into position so that it can be kicked into action very quickly,” Muniruzzaman added.

U.S. officials agree, and acknowledge that these new challenges they are contemplating would require a shift from the traditional military role of fighting wars. In response, officials say they are working to leverage their existing network of military partners around the world to grasp and deal with an expected fallout from climate change.

“It’s really up to leaders in the upper echelons of the U.S., Bangladeshi and Indian governments to discuss ways to mitigate those issues before they happen,” said Maj. Luke Donohue, who heads the office of defense co-operation at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka. “I think that it’s beyond any one’s comprehension to deal with.”

Waking up to the threat

Last summer, the U.S. Navy conducted its first “war game” to assess its ability to respond to possible climate change-related conflicts around the world. The exercise at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., involved scientists, water specialists, climatologists, aid workers, intelligence officials, business analysts and military officers.

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During a demonstration of a United Nations peacekeeping routine, children sit near a military tanker at a makeshift refugee camp.(Malathi Nayak/ Medill)

The participants were given two complex scenarios – West Africa in 2017 and South Asia from 2010 to 2050 – with a combination of existing security challenges like ethnic strife, political instability, piracy, drug trafficking, natural resource exploitation, Islamic extremism, fluctuations in the global market, terrorism and geopolitics.

Thrown into this combustible mix were the projected effects of climate change, including cycles of massive droughts and floods, mass migration, glacier melt, armed water disputes, epidemics of meningitis, bacterial encephalitis and dengue fever, large scale crop devastation and depletion of resources in fisheries.

The results sent to the Pentagon revealed gaps in the current abilities of the U.S. military, according to a report obtained by the Medill National Security Reporting Project. The report stated that the participants found the crises designed in the scenarios to be “too large in scale, scope, and complexity to be adequately addressed given the existing missions and capabilities.’’

Moreover, it said that in the context of the scenarios, the Defense Department has limited capabilities in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, airlifts, maritime intelligence, port reconstruction, communication, interagency coordination, cultural expertise and civil-military relationships.

Some questions raised by the exercise: What ships would the Navy need to provide temporary shelter and produce potable water? What investments would the Navy need to make, such as mobile desalinization plants for its ships? What assets would the Navy need to respond better?

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