Interview – Major General Muniruzzaman

Alliance magazine

‘The first thing I think philanthropists should do is to cut across funding themes. … The security focus can help do that.’

The growing attention of military forces to resource scarcity and climate change is changing the terms of the debate. What are the threats? Why is the military involved? Why is resilience so important? Major General Muniruzzaman (Retired), who has served in Bangladesh’s army for over 38 years, is among the leading non-western military voices in this agenda, now as founder and president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. In this interview with Alejandro Litovsky of the Earth Security Initiative he explains the issues, and why funders and impact investors might want to start thinking in terms of security.

First of all, why is the military interested in climate change?

There is an important distinction to make: the militaries of western countries see climate change as a threat to international security and stability, a so-called ‘threat multiplier’ in already conflict-sensitive regions. On the other hand, the military in developing countries like ours is looking at this from the perspective of being called to respond to extreme events within our borders and the security implications with our neighbours.

In Bangladesh this is of special concern. Some 25 million people are likely to be internally displaced by rising sea levels and floods in the next few decades. This will put pressure on weak water and sanitation systems and weak food production systems, and possibly lead to the emergence of pandemics, famine and lack of shelter. Military assets are by far the most important assets we have to respond to these threats, for example in the ‘lift capacity’ needed to move large numbers of people from point A to point B. In Bangladesh the military has by far the largest field mobilization capacity to act on short notice, and will therefore be called to play multiple roles.

How does this matter to Bangladesh’s national security?

The biggest threat we face is the loss of landmass, which is expected to result from rising sea levels. The IPCC 4th Assessment established that a sea level rise of just 1 metre means a loss of 17-20 per cent of Bangladesh’s landmass. When that happens, it is expected that anything between 20 and 30 million people will become refugees. The prime minister already refers to a figure of 25 million people, in the context of a high-density population (around 170 million people).

Credit Department for International DevelopmentWhen people being displaced move inwards, they put stress on a weak system. Bangladesh’s internal regions are already under stress. The worst-case scenario for Bangladesh, which has been identified by military analysts in the US, is of ‘state collapse’. This means you are facing climate-induced conditions on a large scale with multiple stresses happening all at one time on multiple fronts: food insecurity, lack of water, collapse of health and hygiene provision and rising pandemics, habitation shortages, loss of livelihoods – all obviously reinforcing each other. The state may be totally incapable of dealing with these simultaneous pressures. (Pictured right: Flooded streets in the district of Satkhira in southern Bangladesh, where people travel by boat to reach the local shop.)

Then there is the spillover migration across boundaries. In our case, the only possible route is towards India. We share a land boundary of 4,400 kilometres. Except for a small stretch shared with Myanmar, India is our only other neighbour. This border is already extremely hot and volatile. In anticipation of these impacts, India has decided to fence the complete border with Bangladesh, and has already fenced 2,500 kilometres. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Bangladeshi population is being caged. This border is also among the world’s most lethal, because Indian border guards continue to kill Bangladeshis who approach the fence. According to Foreign Policy magazine, between 2001 and 2009 Indian border guards killed over 1,000 Bangladeshis. The mass displacement of people expected will destabilize the delicate situation.

In the US military’s simulations of the climate security scenarios, Bangladesh is a case in point. The US Assistant Secretary of Defense summed it up well when she said: ‘things can get really complicated really quickly.’

What sort of timeline are we talking about?

According to the IPCC’s usually conservative projections, the loss of landmass due to rising sea levels may start anytime from 2050. We’re not very far away; many of the people who will have to cope with these risks have already been born.

How do you see these challenges playing out across south Asia?

A common misconception about internally displaced people is that they can eventually go back to their homes once a crisis situation has been solved. With the type of issues we are dealing with, in reality, most can’t go back. I’d like to call them permanently displaced people instead. Three or four years down the line, people displaced by cyclones in Bangladesh continue to live in very inhumane conditions. When people depend on nature, as is the case with the Sunderbans mangrove forests, they cannot support themselves when conditions in the forest change. This is playing out across south Asia. Pastoral lands in many parts of China are the same. Due to desertification in China, those people that depend on grazing cattle are becoming people on the move.

In dealing with these risks, most countries tend to become inward-looking. The real problem is that most of the climate impacts will happen across borders and beyond a nation’s capacity to respond. For example, most of the trans-boundary rivers in the Himalayan plateau are being fragmented. Upper basin countries like China and India are building hydropower dams and diverting water and affecting lower-basin countries. This is the primary cause of the growing desertification of Bangladesh’s Ganges area, which in turn reduces our resilience to deal with the risks I mentioned.

Why is the loss of resilience so important?

This loss of resilience triggers the security impacts: agricultural production is being affected because of a lack of water for irrigation. As many subregions face desertification, greater quantities of underground water are being withdrawn in a completely unplanned manner and aquifers are therefore being polluted with arsenic. The problem is extremely grave. The Lancet, a medical journal in the UK, calculates that 77 million Bangladeshis are already suffering from arsenic poisoning because of this. The World Health Organization calls this the largest mass poisoning of people in the world. The root cause is the growing desertification we face due to pressure over scarcer water resources. This is becoming a widespread phenomenon across all of south Asia.

The second trend affecting water availability is salinity intrusion due to rising sea levels. As rivers have less force to discharge their waters, there is an inland movement of salt water into agricultural lands. There is a marked drop in food outputs due to the loss of land to saline conditions, as well as losing river fisheries in sweet water.

Security analysts tend to think in terms of ‘hotspots’ of climate security. In this case, where should we focus our attention?

Here the security hotspot is the Himalayan plateau. We must quickly agree to manage these trade-offs among the plateau’s nations. For example, Bangladesh shares 54 rivers with India, which flow from the Himalayan area. We currently have only one agreement for one of those rivers (the Ganges), which is not being well implemented. In the other 53 rivers there is a very low level of cooperation, which is horrifyingly dangerous. In the case of the Hindus, India is planning to build dams upstream that will affect Pakistan. India and Pakistan already have their ‘Nuclear Red Line’ to manage, and the broad fear in the region is that the issue of water may slip into the nuclear deterrence thinking in the subcontinent.

There is also a new kind of tension growing between China and India, in particular driven by both countries’ energy security concerns. The Chinese, according to Indian perceptions, are planning to withdraw water from the Brahmaputra, plans currently denied by the Chinese. These perceptions are a symptom of the climate of tension we are living in around these issues. Climate change and melting glaciers are stresses on this already stressed situation. Unless we can come up with new regional plans we’ll be boxing ourselves into national boundaries that aggravate the situation. In south Asia I don’t see a regional approach to the problem; quite the opposite, tensions over water resources are being escalated.

Does the greater involvement of the military mean a greater emphasis on conflict and war?

I completely disagree with the alarm that is being raised in the NGO and academic community. I’m often asked this question: is this a new military excuse to get new toys? I have talked to militaries around the world and the reply is that their hands are full already, and they don’t want to take responsibility for issues they have little idea about. In places like Bangladesh, it is not the military driving this agenda but the government, which sees that its military assets will have to be involved. The problem is so large that states will struggle to cope. It will need a whole-state approach that defies our coordination capacities.

The challenge is that the strategy planning for preparing for these interconnected risks is very weak. A strategic plan is needed in order to ensure the right level and type of involvement of the military. There is an ongoing debate on the issue of ‘securitization’ of climate change, mostly in academia. But whether we like it or not, climate-induced effects touch on the security agenda, especially as it challenges the overall failure of the state. However, the military is usually a very large and complex machine and can’t be equipped without proper foresight and training, the skill-sets required, etc. You need to make the military ready for a reasonable degree of operational success.

Can these tensions be resolved in a peaceful way?

To maintain peace and cooperation we must look at this problem holistically, considering the resilience of the regional ‘ecosystem’, beyond national boundaries. The Himalayan cooperation system is a weak regional management system. It must be better at coordinating the various economic and demographic pressures that push water withdrawals. The usual channels of government funding are not going in this direction and there is therefore an opportunity for philanthropists that are more visionary about this agenda to seek to disrupt these processes and create a new momentum.

Importantly, we must work across boundaries. I see three areas of priority: first, water security and the framework for effective management of limits through cooperation. The second is to fully understand what the human security implications are from climate change in the region. Third, we must prepare to manage the displacement of people in a peaceful way inside and between nations. Right now these are topics of tension; we must view them as opportunities for cooperation and prosperity.

How can philanthropists and impact investors help build the resilience of populations?

We clearly need new ideas. There is a lot of foreign aid assistance flowing into Bangladesh, but very little of it is preparing for this agenda. There is therefore an opportunity for impact investors to make way into this agenda to develop and test new ideas.

The first thing I think philanthropists should do is to cut across funding themes. There is funding for peace, funding for environment, funding for development, but there is little funding that is trying to work across these themes, and across nations. The security focus can help do that.

One practical area is funding that can help create greater understanding across various actors of these trends and what they mean for particular subregions. For example, much of the funding that is going into the Sunderbans mangrove forests from foundations, even those that are funding the conservation of tigers, should be incorporating a security perspective.

We know that 20 to 25 million people will be driven to become climate refugees in the next 40 years due to the loss of their livelihoods. A question that philanthropists interested in the environment should be asking themselves is whether the Sunderbans ecosystem can withstand climate changes and continue to provide protection against cyclones. If so, there should be a substantial amount of energy and money directed to that aim.

This would also need to involve philanthropists interested in pro-poor development. Investing funds in building greater cooperation between nations like Bangladesh and India is also essential, and this is something that the funding earmarked for ‘climate adaptation’ doesn’t take into account. We need philanthropists to step in. Thinking in terms of security can help focus funders to deal with the interdependent priorities and to be creative regarding the responses we need.

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