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Friday, June 14, 2024

How Maritime activities are affected by climate change?

The critical logistics hub for US and UK militaries in the Middle East faces the immense danger of coastal erosion and flooding. The highest point above sea level is 22 feet, but the island’s mean height above sea level is 4 feet. A sea-level rise of several feet would force the US military to relocate and abandon this strategically important naval outpost in Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

In the rapidly changing geopolitical and geostrategic environment, securing maritime interests has become a predominant concern for nations. This is so since economic prosperity is tied to the security of sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) and the uninterrupted flow of commerce thereupon. Undoubtedly, navies have a profound role in securing maritime highways in global commons.

On the other hand, natural calamities triggered as a result of climate change have a huge potential to reduce naval preparedness, increase maritime criminality, disrupt global supply chains and thereby increase the benign as well as the constabulary role of navies. According to a study conducted by Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in various regions of the world and should be considered as a threat to national security. Consequently, the impacts of climate change on the role of navies must be examined.

Read more: US tries to prove China maritime claims unlawful

Traditionally speaking, the role of a navy is threefold: benign, constabulary and wartime. As far as climate change is concerned, benign and constabulary roles are the ones that are impacted by the effects of climate change. Benign role includes humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue (SAR) and salvage operations etc. In the constabulary role, the navy is employed to maintain order at sea, ensure the security of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and maintain coastal and offshore security.

How UN looks at climate change?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as “a change in climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable periods of time.” In the maritime realm, it is resulting in sea-level rise (SLR), ocean acidification, warming of oceans, fish migration, coral bleaching, coastal flooding and frequent hurricanes. All these changes have a direct as well as indirect bearing on the benign and constabulary role of navies.

The effects of climate change limit the ability of naval forces to perform their functions effectively by undermining naval preparedness. It was observed when Cyclone Hudhud hit the city of Vishakhapatnam in India. It caused massive infrastructural damage to India’s largest naval base on the eastern seaboard in 2014. Communication and power remained disrupted for several days, resulting in a complete breakdown in the functioning of the naval base.

Rising sea level poses a significant threat to coastal naval facilities

As per 5th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global average sea level could rise by one meter by 2100. It is pertinent to mention that sea-level rise would vary across different regions and would pose a greater threat to naval facilities of the coastal countries most vulnerable to climate change. Pakistan is one of them as per the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. The effects of climate change along the coast would be amplified by means of extreme precipitation, cyclones and storm surges. It would incur a physical, economic and strategic loss to the respective naval force.

As per report published by American Security Project in 2021, US naval facility in Diego Garcia is vulnerable to rising sea levels. The critical logistics hub for US and UK militaries in Middle East faces the immense danger of coastal erosion and flooding. The highest point above sea-level is 22 feet, but the island’s mean height above sea level is 4 feet. A sea-level rise of several feet would force US military to relocate and abandon this strategically important naval outpost in Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Similarly, with reducing sea ice in the Arctic as a result of climate change, the region has emerged as an area of strategic significance and competition between Russian and US navies, opening the possibility of new shipping routes and exploitation of marine resources. With a growing fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, the Russian Navy is aiming to ensure its dominance in the region by increasing its maritime patrolling in the Arctic. In 2016, it launched the world’s biggest nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika. 

Read more: Pak Navy inducts first modern long range maritime patrol jet

The impacts of climate change may incur a human loss as well

Not only locals, but naval personnel faces increased vulnerability to extreme weather events. It was reported that in 2016, US military planes had to evacuate nearly 700 family members of troops and other officers from the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Florida ahead of Hurricane Matthew. Similarly, naval relief operations are likely to be increased in the face of climate disasters. Evacuations, search and rescue (SAR), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations will require navies to perform multiple roles.

For instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina 2005, the US Navy quickly responded by deploying ships, aircrafts and personnel to support disaster relief operation. Similarly, Operation Madad – a relief military operation carried out by Pakistan Navy in the wake 2010 Pakistan floods speaks about the importance of navy in view of climate disasters.

The 5th assessment report of IPCC has recognised the possible indirect linkages between the effects of climate change and maritime criminality. With increasing threat of coastal hazards coupled with migration of fish stocks due to ocean acidification and rising temperatures, maritime crime becomes a means to compensate for loss of income and livelihood. In some cases, maritime piracy emerges. Not only that, migration of fish stocks can lead local fishermen to explore faraway waters without much consideration for jurisdiction and quotas, thereby leading to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF). It may trigger a potential dispute between states.

It is pertinent to mention that droughts, famine and illegal fishing by foreign fishing vessels were recognised as one of the major causes contributing to the rise of Somali fishermen as pirates off the coast of Somalia. It led to the formation of Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in 2009 – a multinational maritime coalition to suppress piracy.

Climate-induced migration across maritime realms poses additional risk to naval forces operating to maintain order at sea. European Migrant Crisis is a case in point. Driven largely by droughts and famines leading to Civil War in Syria, the unprecedented flow of millions of Syrian refugees via sea routes of the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea to reach Europe put additional burden on regional navies. It forced EU countries to increase their maritime patrolling to contain migration, prevent loss of life at sea and fight against human trafficking and smuggling. In view of this, NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 consisting of destroyers and frigates was deployed in the Aegean Sea in 2016 to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and monitoring.

Such naval deployments incur huge financial and operational costs for the navies

To cap it all, climate change poses additional challenges to naval preparedness and operations. It leaves naval assets to the vagaries of nature. Above all, it increases the benign and constabulary role of navies. United States Navy is playing a leading role to address the implications of climate change for naval operations.

Read more: India has ‘concerns’ with US for maritime operation

It formed Task Force Climate Change (TFCC) in 2009 and subsequently, promulgated Climate Change Roadmap in this regard. Pakistan being the 8th most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change must integrate the threats posed by climate change in its military and naval strategy for building resilience and adaptation capacity.



The author teaches in the Department of Politics and IR, University of Central Punjab, Lahore. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.