Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Climate Change, Weak States and the "War on Terrorism" in South and Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Climate Change, Weak States and the "War on Terrorism" in South and Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

On 29 April 1991, Cyclone Marian struck 110 miles off the southeast coast of Bangladesh. Over 139,000 people died, while millions were left homeless. The storm, described by a prominent Bangladeshi politician as "his country's Hiroshima and Nagasaki", caused more than US$2 billion in damage to housing and national infrastructure. (1) In addition, it destroyed crops cultivated over 74,000 acres of land, while another 300,000 acres of cropland were damaged. Bangladesh's major port, Chittagong, could not function for several days as a result of sunken ships that blocked entrances and exits (McCarthy 1994, pp. 2-3).

Recognizing that it was overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, the Government of Bangladesh reluctantly requested help from other countries, including the United States. The United States responded with a massive humanitarian operation known as Operation Sea Angel. Over 4,000 U.S. Marines and 3,000 U.S. sailors would ultimately take part in the relief effort (McCarthy 1994, p. 1).

For the country of Bangladesh, the arrival of Cyclone Marian--considered a "Super Cyclone" whose size approached that of Bangladesh itself--was not particularly surprising given the fact that natural disasters are common in that tropical country. The country suffers almost yearly from an onslaught of tropical cyclones, floods, tornadoes and tidal bores. Cyclones, and their accompanying storm surges, have been recorded as early as the sixteenth century. In addition, more than 175 severe cyclones were recorded between 1891 and 1988 (Rahman 1993, pp. 59-60).

However, the real significance of Cyclone Marian may not have been the fact that it was simply one more in a long succession of damaging storms to affect Bangladesh; rather, in light of predicted global climate trends, this particular storm--and its destructive impact--may serve as a harbinger of things to come. In February 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will likely become more intense. In addition, they will also feature larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with continuing increases of tropical sea surface temperatures, or SSTs (IPCC 2007a). In other words, the experience of Bangladesh in 1991 may be repeated, perhaps more frequently and with greater severity, in the years and decades ahead.

For the United States, such an assessment clashes directly with key hopes and aspirations that U.S. officials have held for US-Bangladesh relations. As the seventh most populous country in the world--in addition to being a Muslim-majority state--Bangladesh has been viewed by Washington as "a voice of moderation among developing countries, in the Islamic world and in South Asia" (Rocca 2003). However, it is also a country with a nascent militant jihadi movement, one that Washington hopes that Dhaka can keep subdued (ICG 2006).

In many ways, Bangladesh is emblematic of the dilemma facing the U.S. Government as it prosecutes its global war on terrorism (GWOT). Washington recognizes that many of the countries that the United States must aid, engage, assist, or establish alliances with--in the context of combating terrorism--tend to be poorer, developing states that have an array of pre-existing social, economic or demographic challenges. Many of these states also happen to be precariously positioned in the direct pathway of future and foreseeable climate change-related disruption and violence.

Bangladesh, as one U.S. official noted, is "one of a handful of moderate, democratic Islamic nations in the world today" which is an important ally for the US in its larger global campaign against terrorism (Chamberlin 2003). However, a Bangladesh that is grappling with the destructive effects of climate change--a phenomenon that the United States government does not consider officially to be among its top security challenges (2)--may not have the capacity to live up to America's hopes or expectations. …

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