Monday, April 16, 2007

Predictive mapping of climate-related conflict

The Wilson Center last month sponsored a very interesting discussion about how climate change (and resource scarcity more generally) may cause social and political conflict. In the discussion Marc Levy and Charles Vörösmarty discuss their effort to map the regions where climate change may lead to conflict:

[The project] overlay[s] geospatial information with demographic and conflict data to assess the connections between environmental factors—particularly shocks to water supply—and conflict. The researchers hypothesize that the links connecting environmental scarcity and conflict are found between groups at the local—not the state—level, and that changes in availability and distribution of local resources, and the context in which scarcity occurs, are the true indicators of increased risk of environmental conflict....

Looking at the local level, Levy and Vörösmarty's team discovered that changes in rainfall patterns can contribute to conflict indirectly through economic shocks. Increased scientific understanding of the water cycle and more accurate models now allow researchers to compare the amount of surface water available for human consumption with actual consumption data to identify potential sources of conflict. Additionally, overlaying demographic data with other datasets—such as water extraction, climate variance, and land cover change—allows researchers to identify particularly vulnerable regions.

Using data-overlay maps, Vörösmarty pointed to potential "hospots" where conflict could occur, such as regions that are severely overdrawing their water resources to produce and export food, and those where climate change may increase rainfall variability. Such maps, which reveal the relationships between vulnerable societies and water (or other resources), may provide information that can be applied to management and policy decisions, he noted: "We take these kinds of maps and our estimates of local water supply and we combine them and make a series of calculations that now are beginning to embed the human perspective. So instead of just talking about the excess water…we can talk about how much of that runoff supports how many people and how many times those people use and reuse that water supply and impart pollution signatures into the mix."

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