A Changing Environment and its Security Implications for Latin America

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander (ret.) Oliver Barrett/Diálogo | 1 October 2019

Capacity Building

More than 13 Latin American countries participated in combined exercise FAHUM 2019, a foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise designed to build capacity for civil and military response to major disasters. (Photo: U.S. Army Specialist Miguel Ruiz, 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Militaries across the Americas must boost preparedness for the risks and consequences of natural disasters, experts in climate change and its security implications say. While armed forces of the region increasingly participate in combined training and exercises based on natural disaster scenarios — such as the annual U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) led exercise FAHUM, which brings together hundreds of service members of the region to face natural disaster simulations — recent climate trends suggest that more needs to be done to prepare for changes in the natural environment and how these might disrupt military capabilities and facilities.

Drought and flooding due to sea level rise, experts say, are examples of slow-moving trends that military organizations generally don’t consider security related, and therefore don’t work on mitigating the risks. These non-traditional risks not only threaten peace and stability in the region, but also significantly affect the facilities where armed forces plan, train, and launch operations.

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, climate change involves significant risks that affect specific areas in different ways. From the melting glaciers of the Andes to the floods in the Amazon basin, from intensifying droughts in the Brazilian cerrado (tropical savannah) to growing food insecurity in Central America, from extreme weather events in the Caribbean to shifting rain patterns in Patagonia, the entire region faces a series of emerging challenges,” the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank that focuses on emerging security and development issues, indicates on its website.

According to a January 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), 53 out of 79 mission critical U.S. military bases are vulnerable to recurrent flooding, due to storm surges and sea level changes, and 60 of those installations will face that threat in the next 20 years.

In its 2017 report, Climate Change and the Armed Forces, Spain’s Center for National Defense Studies, a main teaching institution for the Spanish Armed Forces, said that sea level rises have already started to affect facilities worldwide where militaries train and operate.

“Rising sea levels present a formidable risk for near-shore military installations, some of them quite threatened, especially when combined with extreme weather phenomena such as intense hurricanes,” the report indicated.

Risks due to the environment-security link fall into two broad categories. The first are elevated risks to military installations. In addition to flooding, the DoD report addresses desertification, thawing permafrost, and wildfires. For example, in August 2018, a wildfire broke out — the second in a month — at the Colombian Military Forces’ Tolemaida base, in Cundinamarca department, burning more than 340 acres and impacting infrastructure and training.

The second risk is related to food and water insecurities due to climate change, such as drought. For example, in its 2019 report, Central America: Climate, Drought, Migration, and the Border, Washington-based Center for Climate and Security cites the El Niño driven drought of 2016-2018 as a catalyst for emigration from Central America due to its effect on regional economic and security conditions.

SOUTHCOM’s Environmental Security office has led efforts to sensitize regional militaries to these environmental security risks and the DoD report cites the SOUTHCOM-funded National Preparedness Baseline Assessments that include a gap analysis and a five-year plan to build capabilities and capacities within the countries of the region.

“The armed forces, particularly the navy, should carry out studies of their barracks and infrastructures, since coastal military installations at sea level are likely to be victims of the rise of the ocean. As such, military commanders should set up equipment that can study-long term naval infrastructure plans, such as fuel bases, power plants or marine shipyards,” said Commander (ret.) Patrick Paterson, professor of Security Studies at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Studies, in his 2017 report Global Warming and Climate Change in South America.

Mitigating sea level rise, experts agree, should be among the most urgent actions.. Allocating research and planning resources to better understand the environment-security links will help militaries stay ahead and be proactive in their role as national security guardians.

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