Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Darfur and resilience to climate shocks

Rallies were held around the world on Sunday to demand UN intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan. I had expected to see a large turnout at the New York rally. It was heartening to see that young people made up the majority of the 20,000 that gathered in Central Park. A number of the speakers mentioned that the fraction of young faces in the audience countered the notion that the younger generation doesn't pay attention to what is happening around the world.

As I mentioned in the last post, the ongoing drought in central Africa may have helped fuel the tensions that led to the current crisis in Darfur. The same argument has been made for other conflicts. The logic is that people in places like southern or western Sudan, where there is limited infrastructure (or grain reserves), the people there are less resilient, to use the popular term in ecology, to drought than, say, North Americans.

The comparison is not wrong, just simplistic. First, in reality, there is a distribution of resilience in each region, country or society, regardless of development status (take a look at New Orleans). Climate 'shocks' like floods or droughts tend to hurt the worst off in each place. Second, with the global exchange of people, goods and resources, the resilience of one region influences that of another. North America may be immune from the direct impact of a drought in a place like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Darfur, or a major wheat-growing region like Russia or India. However that same drought could inspire military intervention, a shift in crop prices or demand, or a rise in oil prices that will affect North America. That’s why it is important not to treat the various impacts of climate variability and climate change as separate boxes - a drought here, a flood there. More attention needs to be paid to the potential cascading effects of that drought, that flood.

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