China feels under the weather

2010-10-21Asia Times

BEIJING - The alarming weather events of this year's long, hot summer were almost like a visitation from Asia's foreboding future.

There were massive floods in Pakistan, caused by rivers that streamed from China’s Himalayan mountains. There were floods in China itself. Fires and unprecedented hot weather raged through Siberia and other parts of Russia, including a formerly glacial area north of China.

It is still unclear if these events represent an exception or a recurring phenomenon that we must get used to and that portends great climatic change. In any case, one could easily surmise many likely consequences of global warming around China – and from that also derive possible social, strategic and political costs of this scary future.

Tibetan glaciers could slowly melt, causing floods in all directions: in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indochina, along the Mekong River, and then in China proper. Whole areas in South Asia - possibly large parts of Bangladesh - could be inundated. Land would then materially shrink in regions that are already some of the most densely populated and the poorest on the globe.

At the same time, regions in Siberia that, because of the very harsh weather, used to be deserts settled only by the tough sons of nomad raiders and the progeny of forced laborers, could suddenly become more hospitable.

The two contemporary events could separately push a comprehensive massive migration of people from all over Asia to the north. Muslim people from Bangladesh would on the whole push upstream, toward the Indian or Burmese border, causing difficulties with both countries. Poor Indian folk from flooded and crowded valleys would move uphill to forested regions that are home to tribal people who are already at war with the New Delhi government and supportive of neo-Maoist guerrilla.

Some of the same events could take place in Indochina, where rice-farming regions in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam could be almost permanently under water.

All of this would already be bad enough in former agricultural societies, but now that flat land is being used for new manufacturing developments and sprawling cities like Kolkota in India and Bangkok in Thailand are expanding, it could be an unimaginable disaster.

Food security for many countries relying on land along the flooding rivers could be compromised. Industrial production in many key sectors, which has moved to those cities, could be stopped. Both proceedings would have global consequences.

Food shortages could cause price hikes for grains and food all over the world; halting production in some important industrial areas could fuel a global dearth and inflation. That is, besides the local social consequences, these floods could trigger a global economic wave that could bring about major political upheavals not only in Asia but all over the world.

Locally, because of the push for migration, tensions could heighten between states like Bangladesh and India and also between populations within the same state. Hill people, ethnically different from the Vietnamese flat-land majority, could come under greater pressure.

Dry mountain ground could be grabbed by displaced farmers from the valleys, and this whole process could be violent, as hill people might resist and farmers might try to evict former landowners by force. In this conflict, the state could have trouble mediating and finding a solution that is good for everybody.

At the same time, millions of people might push north in progressive waves, up to the Chinese border and the Tibetan plateau, possibly heightening tensions with China - although the height of the Himalayas would still be a major obstacle for popular migration. Displacement could occur in China, too, among people in the flooded Yangzi River and Yellow River basins and in the possibly underwater Shanghai area. These people could look to the north, as they formerly had looked at previously deserted Manchuria.

Here no great geographical obstacle bars popular migration, and we know that Chinese migrants have trickled into Asian Russia in the past. With better weather conditions in Russia and harsher conditions in China, this trickle could become a downpour, as millions of landless people would stare at millions of square kilometers of empty Russian terrain that could be open for agriculture and development.

This pressure could also be coupled with greater demographic pressures. Accelerating population growth in South Asia is being fueled by poor application of birth control and better living conditions brought on by rapid economic growth - and the population swell could be multiplied by the effect of some kind of shrinkage of land because of floods or higher sea levels.

The same is also true to some extent in China, where previously effective birth-control measures are easing. Here, there is a problem of an aging population, which made Beijing leaders take note of a possibly skewed age ratio and thus relax their attitude toward population growth. Better economic conditions allow evasions by paying fines or bribes to birth control officials.

All of these potential events could take place in a region with four declared nuclear countries (Russia, China, India and Pakistan) two states fully capable of becoming atomic countries (Japan and South Korea) the largest Muslim country (Indonesia) and one state that spent at least 30 of the past 60 years at war (Vietnam).
These scenarios may be too dramatic, but even short of full-blown realization, they could indicate a trend of future social and political tensions within and between Asian states. Many water-control measures could be gradually taken to withstand the climatic changes. There could be better embankments for rivers. Countries can build dams, like in the Netherlands, to control higher sea levels.

Governments could enforce stricter controls on population movements to prevent forced occupation of land. But unless we believe that these climatic changes will not take place, Asia and the world have to consider quite early the possibility of major tensions stemming from climate changes in order to prevent some of their worst political and strategic effects.

Furthermore, as they could entail tensions between nuclear states and major price hikes in basic commodities or industrial goods fully integrated in the global supply chain, these are issues of global relevance - they can hardly be considered just domestic or bilateral affairs.

These are long-term scenarios, for sure, and might be also very far-fetched, but they may occur in an area where tension is already growing along China’s sea borders. There are hard political reasons for this tension, but if bad weather forecasts in the continental plateau are combined with present dangers in the ocean, the overall Chinese climate could suffer greatly on the eve of the 18th Communist Party congress in 2012.

The congress should usher the second peaceful transition of leadership in the People's Republic. But if a warmer winter comes in this year, an even hotter summer falls in 2011 and flooding events engulf communities and disrupt trade and commerce, then China may end up feeling besieged.

There are many "ifs" to this picture, but there is also a hard reality: possibly there is no country in the world under greater pressure than China, and pressure comes even from heaven, the master of all weathers. (2010-10-21 Asia Times)


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