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2022/15 “Examining Climate-Conflict Links in Southeast Asia” by Darren Cheong

Southeast Asia is one of the regions projected to be most affected by climate change. In this picture, people walking through a flooded area following heavy rain in Bandung, Indonesia, on 3 November 2021. Photo: Timur Matahari, AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • There has been a recent growth in studies dedicated to uncovering links between climate and conflict in Southeast Asia.
  • This article synthesises the findings of 11 rigorous peer-reviewed studies conducted in various Southeast Asian countries to produce insights on the exact mechanisms linking climate and intra-state conflict in the region.
  • Three mechanisms linking climate and conflict are highlighted (1) economic deprivation, (2) strategic considerations by organised armed groups and (3) elite exploitation.
  • The risks of climate-linked conflict are most significant for rural communities that depend heavily upon agriculture for their livelihoods, as well as in regions where there is pre-existing armed conflict.
  • Climate adaptation strategies that reduce the adverse impacts of climatic events can provide an avenue to mitigate the risks of climate-linked conflict.

* Darren Cheong is Research Associate at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme (RSPS), ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/15, 21 February 2022

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INTRODUCTION

The security implications of climate change have become a focus for world leaders and global policymakers in recent years. One of the leading security concerns about climate change is its potential to spark violent intra-state conflict.[1] With this growing interest in the possibility of climate change being related to conflict, researchers have also focused on uncovering whether such a link exists and if so, how they are linked.

There have been protracted debates about whether climate change is indeed linked to violent conflict. While some studies have been unequivocal about the existence of a climate-conflict link, others note that the empirical findings across studies have not been consistent and robust.[2] Experts have agreed that it is difficult to make broad generalisations about the findings of such studies and that the existence of climate-conflict links should be contextualised in specific local or country settings.[3]

Even though Southeast Asia is one of the regions projected to be most affected by climate change, the vast majority of studies looking into the climate-conflict link have not been in the region.[4] Nevertheless, there has been growing research interest in the region, and a number of studies have looked at specific pathways linking climate change to conflict. While research in the region is still relatively nascent, there is growing indication that a climate-conflict link is supported by evidence in the literature and that policymakers should take note of climate-related conflict risks. Synthesising the findings of 11 peer-reviewed studies on climate and conflict in Southeast Asia, this article aims to provide evidence-based perspectives on the exact mechanisms linking climate and conflict in the region. In the context of these studies and for the purposes of this article, conflict is defined as intra-state violence that can occur on various scales. Smaller-scale civil conflict will involve events such as violent protests, riots or forced evictions while larger-scale civil conflict can involve insurgencies, rebellions and terrorist activity. These insights will be helpful in crafting prevention and mitigation strategies that target climate-related conflict.

The articles reviewed in this article were found using Boolean search strings on two academic databases: ScienceDirect and Web of Science. These studies come from various disciplines – economics, political science, geography, and anthropology – and both quantitative and qualitative studies were reviewed. A list of these studies can be found in the Appendix.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: CLIMATE DISASTERS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

As the mechanisms linking climate and conflict are often mediated through climate disasters, this section will provide a broad overview of the latter, occurring in the region. There is a growing consensus amongst climate disaster attribution studies that climate change has been a key factor in increasing the likelihood and intensity of climate disasters in recent decades.[5]

In Southeast Asia, there has been a considerable increase in climate-related disaster events (floods, extreme temperatures, droughts, landslides, storms, and wildfires) in recent decades. We note this increase in Figure 1, a histogram depicting the number of climate disasters from the 1960s to the present day. With each decade, climate disasters have indeed been becoming more frequent, with countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand bearing the brunt of this increase.

This histogram is also broadly reflective of recent climate risk indicators. Table 1 provides a summary of the various human and economic costs of climate disasters for Southeast Asian countries, alongside the most recent 2021 iteration of Germanwatch’s long-term climate risk ranking, a widely used index measuring climate vulnerability.[6] Five Southeast Asian countries – Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia – rank amongst the top 20 most vulnerable countries globally. From Table 1, we can see that these countries have also faced high costs from climate disaster events over the last two decades – with thousands of fatalities, millions affected, and billions of US dollars in damages.

Based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report[8] that climate change will exacerbate the frequency and intensity of climate disaster events, it is reasonable to expect that these costs will continue to increase. Bearing in mind the costs of climate disasters in Southeast Asia, the subsequent sections provides a detailed breakdown of the exact mechanisms linking climate and conflict.

CLIMATE AND CONFLICT: EVIDENCE-BASED MECHANISMS

Early research on climate and conflict has been met with scepticism because of its preoccupation with uncovering broad correlations between climatic events and instances of violent conflict. While the existence of such correlations serves as a useful starting point for investigation into the climate-conflict link, they do not offer insights into the potential mechanisms that may be driving these correlations. The reason for this can be seen in Figure 2, which shows a climate disaster density map of the Philippines, overlaid with locations of conflict events[9] between 2000 to 2019.

The figure demonstrates that there is indeed a correlation between climate and conflict. Areas of high to medium disaster density experience a higher concentration of violent conflict, indicated by the darker hues of the conflict event points. From Figure 2, we cannot glean insights about what exactly might be driving this correlation. There might also be arguments that the Philippines can be characterised as a country with pre-existing tensions, most notably those associated with the Maoist and Moro insurgents. It is thus unclear if and how climate-related factors play a role in creating conflict in the Philippines.

The studies reviewed under this article have however circumvented the pitfalls of past correlational studies through the incorporation of rigorous and highly localised context-specific research designs that have allowed them to discern if, when, and under what circumstances climatic processes have led to conflict in Southeast Asia. There can, thus, be a high degree of confidence in the insights gained from these studies. The following sections outline the three main mechanisms identified in these studies, linking climate and conflict in the region: (1) economic deprivation, (2) the strategic considerations of organised armed groups, and (3) elite exploitation.[12]

Mechanism 1: Economic Deprivation

The proposition that climate and conflict are linked through economic deprivation is theoretically motivated by economic theory related to opportunity costs. If adverse climatic events undermine economic output and livelihoods, there might be the expectation that the opportunity costs of conflict would decrease and that anti-state grievances might arise.[13] Research evaluating the existence of such an effect has primarily been focused on agricultural communities whose incomes are heavily climate dependent.

Several studies have validated economic deprivation as a mechanism linking climate and conflict in Southeast Asia. In a 2016 quantitative study using provincial-level conflict data in Indonesia between 1993 and 2003, researchers found that reductions in rice yields, because of increases in temperatures during the rice-growing season, were a determinant of future upticks in violent conflict.[14] This increase in conflict is predicated on continued reductions of rice production per capita. In other words, on average, provinces that experienced increases in temperatures and reduced rice yields can prone to face increases in conflict incidences in the future. Conflict in this context has been defined as collective violence, where violence is perpetrated by groups. Examples include riots and acts of terrorism.

Another study in 2018 in the Philippines utilised data from military incident reports produced by the Philippine army to explore the effects of rainfall shocks on violent conflict.[15] These reports reflected instances where either government forces or insurgent groups had initiated attacks on one another. They concluded that above-average rainfall during wet seasons, which resulted in decreased agricultural yields due to flooding, led to more casualties and conflict incidents being reported in the subsequent year. This effect was particularly pronounced in provinces that dedicated a larger proportion of land to rice production, the Philippines’ most important crop and the main source of income for millions of farmers.

Aside from studies regarding land agriculture, a 2016 study on 260 coastal districts in Indonesia found a link between climatically induced reductions in fisheries output and increases in sea-piracy activity.[16] The author argues that this phenomenon is driven by the opportunity costs of participating in piracy being reduced for fishermen whose livelihoods have been threatened by climatic conditions.

Apart from Indonesia and the Philippines, few Southeast Asian countries have been the research focus for such research. This is not to say that economic deprivation as a mechanism for climate-linked conflict does not exist in the rest of Southeast Asia. Given that millions of people in the region depend on agriculture for their livelihood, it is reasonable to expect that future climate disasters can foment similar conflict-stirring conditions in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Table 2 provides a country-by-country breakdown of the economic contributions of the agricultural sector to Southeast Asia. We can see that the sector constitutes a considerable percentage of many Southeast Asian countries’ GDPs. More importantly, significant proportions of their populations rely on the sector for employment.

Table 2: Economic Dependence on Agriculture in Southeast Asia

Source: World Bank World Development Indicators (2021)

The sixth IPCC assessment report projects that Southeast Asia will face increased precipitation levels, more intense tropical cyclones, and higher flood levels under future climate change scenarios.[17] More intense and frequent climate disasters can certainly aggravate the risk of conflicts, especially in agriculturally dependent regions.

Mechanism 2: Strategic Considerations by Organised Armed Groups

In the wake of destructive climate disasters, organised armed groups may take advantage of the unrest to reorganise and bolster their own positions. This mechanism for climate-linked conflict is typically applicable to Southeast Asian countries where there are ongoing insurgencies or rebel activities.

Following climate disasters, insurgent groups have been known to actively entice disaster victims to join their movements. This enticement works in tandem with the economic deprivation mechanism, where disaster-affected communities will find the opportunity costs of participating in conflict to be reduced. In a 2016 study on all 81 provinces in the Philippines, researchers found that precipitation shocks in the form of droughts, floods and storms, coincided with significant escalations of violence during four ongoing insurgencies between 2001 and 2007.[18] Provinces that experienced these shocks were found on average to have increased onsets of violent insurgent activity. These escalations were linked to ramped up recruitment efforts by insurgent groups, who sought to play up political grievances following the loss of livelihoods from climate disasters. A case study supported by interviews which the author conducted was when the Communist Party of Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), under the guise of providing aid, organised indoctrination sessions to encourage villagers to join the group. Such recruitment drives subsequently fortified their ranks and motivated them to engage in more insurgent activity.

As climate disasters may similarly diminish the food supplies of insurgent groups, some of these groups engage in conflict to bolster dwindling resources. In a 2017 study on Thailand, researchers analysed the case study of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) in Songkhla province in the south during the extreme droughts of 2004.[19] As a response to the onset of droughts, farmers in the province had stockpiled rice in their fields in anticipation of future depressed rice outputs. This motivated the BRN-C to conduct raids on rice fields in various parts of the province to capture and control rice fields during the drought. These raids were extremely violent and often involved killing, beheading, and beatings. Part of the evidence supporting these claims was a Thai Ministry of Interior report in 2005 highlighting a 90 per cent increase in the number of villagers killed by insurgents in Songkhla province during the 2004 droughts.

These studies echo the point that climate change can be understood as a threat multiplier that amplifies the risks of existing security issues. That being said, it is not completely certain that armed conflict perpetrated by insurgent groups will flare up whenever climate disasters occur. Whether or not armed groups choose to take advantage of unrests during climate disasters will be heavily contingent upon the specific disaster and local contexts. For instance, typhoons Bopha and Haiyan in 2012 and 2013 were found to have weakened two rebel groups, the CPP-NPA and National Democratic Front (NDF) in the Philippines. In a study of those cases, the author concluded that this weakening was likely to be temporary and to be due to the typhoons being especially devastating in areas where the groups were active.[20]

Mechanism 3: Elite Exploitation

The third mechanism, elite exploitation, does not come about as a direct consequence of climate disasters. Rather, the mechanism involves local elites, under the veil of humanitarian assistance and climate change mitigation/adaptation policies, seeking to gain a foothold in ongoing land conflicts with local communities.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, local populations in the island of Sicogon were forced by the local political elite to waive their rights to land on the island.[21] In exchange, they would receive either a lump-sum cash payout or a house at a relocation site in the mainland, along with immediate disaster assistance. The parcels of land the indigenous populations resided on stood in the way of a planned tourism project and was the source of ongoing land conflict between local communities and the local elite. Preying on the local populations’ desperation following typhoon Haiyan, the local elites saw an opening to dispossess them of their lands. Those who refused the offer for payouts or relocation reported becoming victims of constant harassment and threats.

To be sure, such conflicts can also take place in the absence of climate disasters. There is, for example, an ongoing pattern of local elites in Southeast Asia justifying land grabs using the veil of climate change adaptation or mitigation – a phenomenon commonly referred to as “green-grabbing”.

In Myanmar’s Northern Shan State, a 2020 study found that the justification for hydropower projects along with the Salween River has increasingly been framed in terms of climate change mitigation.[22] Villagers had also stated that this sort of framing had become more prominent since talks about dam-building began in the early 2010s. Many villagers opposed to the dam were ultimately forced to vacate lands the government wanted to acquire as part of the hydropower projects.

Elsewhere in Cambodia’s Greater Aural region, the expansion of flex crops used for biofuel production ignited conflicts between local communities and local companies backed by the governing elite.[23] Increasing the use of biofuels had been touted as a form of climate change mitigation strategy amongst global policymakers, and in 2010, the Cambodian government awarded large land concessions to two sugar companies owned by a tycoon closely associated with the country’s political elite. These companies encroached upon farmland belonging to local communities. Evictions soon turned violent, and villagers reported bulldozers, backed by army battalions, clearing their lands without warning.

In a separate region of Cambodia, in the Prey Lang Forest, a 34,007-hectare land concession was awarded to a Korean company, Think Biotech, by the Cambodian government in 2010 to execute a reforestation project under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).[24] Local communities residing within the concession were forced to give up rights to the land. In 2013, approximately 300 villagers organised local protests outside Think Biotech’s offices in Kratie province, seizing two company trucks in the process. Think Biotech’s activities continue to face resistance and protests from local communities to this day. Ironically, the project’s green credentials are now in doubt. The concession now consists of a monoculture timber plantation, whose creation had involved industrial-scale slash and burn activity. The initial aim of CDM accreditation was also dropped because the requirements to provide proof of emissions reductions were deemed “too complicated”.[25]

These case studies demonstrate that climate change can provide an avenue for local elites to assert control over resources, which might, in turn, spark conflict. In many Southeast Asian countries where land rights for rural communities are often lacking, there will be risks of elite exploitation leading to conflict. No doubt, such exploitation is not new, but climate change policies have now provided a new legitimation for local elites to justify land grabs.

CONCLUSION AND POLICY DIRECTIONS

Climate-conflict research in Southeast Asia is still nascent. The studies reviewed for this article certainly do not provide a definitive assessment of the climate-conflict link in the region. However, they can be seen as a cross section of Southeast Asia’s climate-conflict risk landscape, and certain important insights about the exact mechanisms linking climate and conflict can be gleaned from them.

The main takeaway is that climate-related conflict will typically play out where livelihoods are heavily dependent upon climatic factors, i.e., in agriculture or fishery. The propensity for locals to participate in conflict in response to adverse climatic events will decrease if policies are in place to mitigate the economic harm suffered by communities during climate events.

Measures that reduce the impact of climatic events on agricultural yields have been suggested as a potential mitigation strategy for climate-linked conflict.[26] For instance, building irrigation infrastructure, diversifying crops and improving access to climate-smart agriculture technologies are some of the policy paths that governments can consider. These also have other economic and environmental benefits that will make them particularly attractive to local or federal governments.

Regarding land conflicts linked to “green grabbing”, these can be mitigated with improved land rights for rural populations that have typically relied on customary land tenures that have little to no formal recognition. Increasing the level of transparency and accountability in environmental impact assessments for projects justified in the name of climate change mitigation/adaptation will also be needed. In this regard, the role of local non-government organisations who are familiar with local environmental contexts will be important.

Since climate change is projected to severely impact Southeast Asia in the near future, climate-conflict research that is contextually sensitive to the region is needed more than ever.

Appendix: The Southeast Asia Climate-Conflict Studies Analysed for this Article

Author(s)TitleJournalYear
Arnim Schneidel and Courtney WorkForest plantations and climate change discourses: New powers of ‘green grabbing’ in CambodiaLand Use Policy  2018
Benjamin Bagozzi, Ore Koren, and Bumba MukherjeeDroughts, land appropriation, and rebel violence in the developing world.The Journal of Politics  2017
Benjamin Crost, Claire Duquennois, Joseph H. Felter, and Daniel I. ReesClimate change, agricultural production and civil conflict: Evidence from the PhilippinesJournal of Environmental Economics and Management  2018
Carol Hunsberger, Courtney Work, and Roman Herre  Linking climate change strategies and land conflicts in Cambodia: Evidence from the Greater Aural region.World Development  2018  
Colin Walch  Weakened by the storm: Rebel group recruitment in the wake of natural disasters in the PhilippinesJournal of Peace Research   2020  
Joshua Eastin  Hell and high water: Precipitation shocks and conflict violence in the Philippines  Political Geography  2018  
Maria Angelina Uson  Natural disasters and land grabs: The politics of their intersection in the Philippines following super typhoon Haiyan  Canadian Journal of Development Studies  2018
Nicolas Gatti, Kathy Baylis, and Benjamin Crost  Can irrigation infrastructure mitigate the effect of rainfall shocks on conflict? Evidence from Indonesia  American Journal of Agricultural Economics  2021
Raul Caruso, Ilaria Petrarca, and Roberto Ricciuti  Climate change, rice crops, and violence: Evidence from Indonesia  Journal of Peace Research   2017
Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Jennifer C. Franco, and Zau Nam  Climate change and land: Insights from Myanmar  World Development  2016
Sebastian Axbard  Income opportunities and sea piracy in Indonesia: Evidence from satellite dataAmerican Economic Journal: Applied Economics  2016

ENDNOTES

[1] UN Security Council. “The UN Security Council and Climate Change” Security Council Report. 21 June 2021. https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/climate_security_2021.pdf

[2] Koubi, Vally. “Climate change and conflict.” Annual Review of Political Science 22 (2019): 343-360.

[3] Mach, Katharine J., Caroline M. Kraan, W. Neil Adger, Halvard Buhaug, Marshall Burke, James D. Fearon, Christopher B. Field et al. “Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict.” Nature 571, no. 7764 (2019): 193-197.

[4] Adams, Courtland, Tobias Ide, Jon Barnett, and Adrien Detges. “Sampling bias in climate–conflict research.” Nature Climate Change 8, no. 3 (2018): 200-203.

[5] Carbon Brief. “Mapped: How climate change affects extreme weather around the world”. Carbon Brief. 21 February 2021. https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-how-climate-change-affects-extreme-weather-around-the-world; Ornes, Stephen. “Core Concept: How does climate change influence extreme weather? Impact attribution research seeks answers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8232-8235.

[6] Eckstein, David, Vera Künzel, and Laura Schäfer. Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Who Suffers Most from Extreme Weather Events: Weather Related Loss Events in 2019 and 2000-2019. German Watch, 2021.; von Uexkull, Nina, and Halvard Buhaug. “Security implications of climate change: A decade of scientific progress.” Journal of Peace Research 58, no. 1 (2021): 3-17.

[7] Guha-Sapir, Debby., Regina Below and Phillipe Hoyois. EM-DAT: The CRED/OFDA International Disaster Database (29 December 2021), distributed by Université Catholique de Louvain. www.emdat.be.

[8] IPCC. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[9] Conflict events are defined as incidents where armed force was used an organised actor, against another organised actor, or against civilians, which resulted in at least one direct death at a specified date and location.

[10] Rosvold, Elisabeth L., and Halvard Buhaug. “GDIS, a global dataset of geocoded disaster locations.” Scientific Data 8, no. 1 (2021): 1-7.

[11] Pettersson, Therése, Shawn Davies, Amber Deniz, Garoun Engström, Nanar Hawach, Stina Högbladh, and Margareta Sollenberg Magnus Öberg. “Organized violence 1989–2020, with a special emphasis on Syria.” Journal of Peace Research 58, no. 4 (2021): 809-825.

[12] An earlier study provided the mechanism framework that is utilised in this paper. Nordqvist, P., & Krampe, F. (2018). Climate change and violent conflict: sparse evidence from South Asia and South East Asia. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

[13] Salehyan, Idean, and Cullen S. Hendrix. “Climate shocks and political violence.” Global Environmental Change 28 (2014): 239-250.

[14] Caruso, Raul, Ilaria Petrarca, and Roberto Ricciuti. “Climate change, rice crops, and violence: Evidence from Indonesia.” Journal of Peace Research 53, no. 1 (2016): 66-83.

[15] Crost, Benjamin, Claire Duquennois, Joseph H. Felter, and Daniel I. Rees. “Climate change, agricultural production and civil conflict: Evidence from the Philippines.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 88 (2018): 379-395.

[16] Axbard, Sebastian. “Income opportunities and sea piracy in Indonesia: Evidence from satellite data.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 8, no. 2 (2016): 154-94.

[17] IPCC. Sixth Assessment Report.

[18] Eastin, Joshua. “Hell and high water: Precipitation shocks and conflict violence in the Philippines.” Political Geography 63 (2018): 116-134.

[19] Bagozzi, Benjamin E., Ore Koren, and Bumba Mukherjee. “Droughts, land appropriation, and rebel violence in the developing world.” The Journal of Politics 79, no. 3 (2017): 1057-1072.

[20] Walch, Colin. “Weakened by the storm: Rebel group recruitment in the wake of natural disasters in the Philippines.” Journal of Peace Research 55, no. 3 (2018): 336-350.

[21] Uson, Maria Angelina M. “Natural disasters and land grabs: The politics of their intersection in the Philippines following super typhoon Haiyan.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement 38, no. 3 (2017): 414-430.

[22] Borras Jr, Saturnino M., Jennifer C. Franco, and Zau Nam. “Climate change and land: Insights from Myanmar.” World Development 129 (2020): 104864.

[23] Hunsberger, Carol, Courtney Work, and Roman Herre. “Linking climate change strategies and land conflicts in Cambodia: Evidence from the Greater Aural region.” World Development 108 (2018): 309-320.

[24] Scheidel, Arnim, and Courtney Work. “Forest plantations and climate change discourses: New powers of ‘green grabbing’ in Cambodia.” Land Use Policy 77 (2018): 9-18.

[25] Ibid, 10.

[26] Gatti, Nicolas, Kathy Baylis, and Benjamin Crost. “Can irrigation infrastructure mitigate the effect of rainfall shocks on conflict? Evidence from Indonesia.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 103, no. 1 (2021): 211-231.

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