Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chile's Constitution: Water to be a Matter of National Security

A proposal by Chile's outgoing President, Michelle Bachelet would put an amendment to the Chilean Constitution saying that acces to fresh water is a matter of national security.  According to the article "CHILE: Water a Matter of National Security" by Daniela Estrada, from the Inter Press Service:  
The legal text recognises that freshwater, which is lacking in the Chilean north and abundant in the south, has become a "scarce good" and that its availability is "a matter of national security," much more than fossil fuels, which can be imported from other countries.
The proposed amendment would undo a law of 1981 (the Water Code) which effectively privatised Chile's fresh water reserves.  The government's proposal states: "with the implementation of a new Water Code, an imbalance resulted between the common good and the interests of a few individuals, an imbalance that must be corrected."  Therfor, this reform seems to be more about a conflict between public and private use of water.  Apparently, under Chilean constitution, once a good is declared a priority of national security, then the government can break contracts or expropriate private property to more effectively or equitably distribute that good. 

Talking about the economic or social impacts of such a policy are beyond the scope of this blog.  However, it leads to some interesting conceptual possibilities, if climate change alters the Chile's water supplies.  The article states: "Chile is a world leader when it comes to freshwater reserves in the form of glaciers. According to the latest inventory by the government's water agency, there are more than 3,500 glaciers, covering some 20,000 square kilometres." If those glaciers all melt (I won't venture to say a date: that has gotten some in trouble recently), then you could see the government (and military) taking charge of water supplies in order to ration them among competing groups: mining, hydro power, agriculture, sewage, and drinking water would all have claims on scarce resources.  If the government does not fairly apportion rights to water, its fairly easy to see how conflict could develop over these water rights, either against the government or between these stakeholder groups.  Just labeling water as a 'matter of national security' does not make these decisions any easier.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Analysis of Copenhagen

Just to start: I'm back to blogging on climate change and security issues, after an extended hiatus over the holidays. 

The IISS recently published an analysis, which I wrote, in our Strategic Comments web-based magazine called: "Copenhagen Accord faces first test".  Overall, my assessment from a few weeks after the conference is decidedly more upbeat than my 'first assessment' written the day after the event concluded in a cloud of acrimony. 

As I write in the article:
"The Copenhagen Accord should not be judged by the events in two weeks in December. Its success will be judged by national responses over the next decade."
The first test for whether countries are serious about addressing this issue will come on January 31, when national commitments are due to the UN.

Though some bemoan that Copenhagen did not produce a binding treaty, I think that's a good thing.  US Senators, much like Chinese Communist Party Officials and members of India's parliament, do not like international bodies telling them what they can or cannot do. I would contend that the only countries where you may have members of legislative assemblies asking to be bound by a supranational treaty are Europeans, because they've gotten used to it.  I contend that the Copenhagen Accord, because it is non-binding and calls for voluntary commitments will be more effective than a binding treaty with mandatory commitments (a-la Kyoto) could be.  James Bacchus, writing in Forbes notes that this was how the GATT began in 1948, and it succeeded in its goals of dramatically increasing international trade. 

Instead of a long-term binding treaty, negotiations can continue to adjust to changing scientific, climactic, and political realities under the Copenhagen Accord.  These can be negotiated through processes like the G-20 and the Major Economies Forum.  Ronald Bailey at Reason magazine contends that this closely resembles the program that the Bush administration followed, and I would contend that by 2007, the Bush Administration actually had a pretty good climate policy in place.  The trouble was, nobody stopped to notice by then: the narrative had already been written. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Glaciers of the Himalayas are still melting -- we just don't know how fast

Today, we've seen several articles saying that "World Misled over Himalayan Glacier Meltdown".  From my first reading of these articles, it appears that the IPCC relied on sketchy sourcing and little evidence for its claim in the 2007 IPCC report that the Himalaya's could be entirely ice-free by 2035. 

The rivers that begin with meltwater from the Himalayas are the source of fresh water for around 2 billion people in Asia.  These rivers are important for transportation, farming, fishing, tourism, and religious worship.  Because they cross heavily militarized borders, my blog and others writing about climate change and security have cited this area as a potential source of conflict.

It is important that everything we do in climate policy be grounded in sound science.  However, it is also important that security planners look beyond the lowest-common-denominator science, as its practiced by the IPCC.  We need to look at worst-case scenarios: if you plan for the worst, you'll be prepared for any eventuality. 

In fact, as I've written previously, the melting of the glaciers isn't even the most important part of the story.  Instead, a reduced snow melt, brought on by a reduced Indian Monsoon, is the biggest danger.  While glacier melt at a somewhat predictible (slow) rate, annual snowmelt is the largest driver of seasonal flooding.  The size of this snowmelt is the largest driver of this flooding, and that is predominantly driven by annual precipitation.  We simply do not know how climate change will affect the monsoon. 

Similarly, this row with the IPCC shows that we simply don't know how climate change will affect the Himalayan glaciers.  We know that many have retreated significantly.  For instance, the famous Khumbu glacier, from which climbers begin their ascent of Mt. Everest, has retreated by over one kilometer in the last 50 years.  In fact, according to the blog From a Glaciers Perspective "Everest Base Camp has actually dropped from 5,320m to 5,280m since Hillary and Tenzing first set up camp for their ascent there more than fifty years ago."  The Guardian had an excellent series of photos earlier this year, showing before and after pictures of retreating glaciers.  (I've used one of their photos above) Photos don't lie: some glaciers, at least, are melting!

The answer here, is that we need better science about how glaciers are acting and will act.  We also need better science about how climate changes will affect precipitation in the region.  What we don't need are the typical voices saying that this small (but significant) problem with the IPCC supposedly invalidates all other pronouncements from them.