Category: Politics

The “conflict shoreline”: A map that correlates climate change to drone strikes

Image from "The Conflict Shoreline" by Eyal Weizman

This map is a really interesting data-visualization, with a suggestive message: That climate change is very tightly woven with war and conflict.

In one sense, this relationship isn’t news. Climate change causes resource scarcity — and resource scarcity is, historically, one brutally reliable trigger of war and strife. The US Department of Defense certainly takes it seriously; last year it released a report calling climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Another nonprofit study recently argued that a massive 2006-2011 drought in Syria, by driving rural populations into the already-stressed cities, helped accelerate the country’s human-rights catastrophe.

But that map above suggests an even more intriguing and subtle finding: That climate change tracks conflict with such granularity that it even tracks drone strikes.

The map is from a book called The Conflict Shoreline, which I learned about tonight while reading “Let Them Drown”, a speech by Naomi Klein reprinted in this month’s issue of The London Review of Books. Klein describes the map really well, so I’ll quote her at length here:

In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.

I can’t comment in greater depth on Weizman’s analysis until I’ve read his book (and after reading this I’ve ordered it). But if it holds up, as a piece of dataviz, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Klein’s entire speech is well worth reading too, as a synthesis of how climate change and human rights are inextricably entwined.