When the State Wilts Away

In weak nations, environmental stress can tip society into catastrophe.

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Venezuela was unraveling even before Hugo Chávez died in 2013. The situation has only gotten worse since. Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, inflation has soared to 500 percent, the murder rate is the highest in the world, and chronic shortages of food, water, and medicine make daily life a struggle. A man was recently burned alive outside a supermarket in Caracas for stealing the equivalent of $5. “The country has been on a downward spiral for so many years,” says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program, “you wonder what is going to be the final straw.”

Recently, it looked like it might be the weather. Six months ago, a devastating El Niño-induced drought damaged crops, left the capital short of drinking water, and caused rolling blackouts. In April, as a lack of rain crippled the Guri hydropower project, the country’s biggest electricity supply, President Nicolás Maduro announced a two-day workweek for civil services. (He also suggested women stop using blow-dryers: “I always think a woman looks better when she just runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally.”) In May, Maduro changed the country’s time zone by half an hour to save power. “Drought and electricity cutbacks have created a new moment that will have its own dynamic,” Arnson says. “The level of inefficiency and breakdown of public services has been so rampant that any natural disaster has been magnified.”

“You’ve got a mess, to put it mildly,” says political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, associate director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation. “Where institutions are not capable, severe environmental stress can tip society into catastrophe quickly.”

That’s not just true in Venezuela. In 2007 an extreme drought in Syria baked fields until they became deserts, destroying crops and driving families from their homes. The rain didn’t come back for three years. Rural populations fled to cities, adding to the social tensions that eventually sparked the uprising in 2011. Years of violence followed, leading to the refugee crisis that’s besetting Europe. Last spring, Colin Kelley, a meteorologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, linked the drought—Syria’s worst in 900 years—to global warming. “A drought of the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought,” Kelley wrote in a paper published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system.”

Of course, social uprisings are complicated things, and Kelley reignited a debate on just how climate affects conflict. “People for the most part don’t fight over environmental resources,” says Homer-Dixon. “What happens is that you get internal dislocations in society. People dependent on scarce resources become poorer and may move in large numbers.”

There’s abundant potential for such dislocation in Venezuela. The weather has only exacerbated the country’s economic crisis. Last month, Maduro issued a state of emergency granting himself unilateral power over the economy. He threatened to seize idle factories. Arnson now fears violent protest may be likely.

“Powerful groups, especially in corrupt states, use their power to capture resources,” says Homer-Dixon. “You get a polarization of wealth, a weakening of state capacity, and urban stress.” Although these kinds of changes are indirect effects of a drought, they are often the tipping point for social conflict. “We are seeing these things around the world now,” Homer-Dixon says. “As environmental stresses get worse, [their effects] become more common.”

Global water shortages are predicted to decrease global gross domestic product by as much as 14 percent by 2050, according to a recent report by the World Bank, which predicts that this “severe hit” will spur conflict and migration across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Even resource-rich countries previously considered to have stable economies, such as Brazil and Russia, have become more susceptible to environmental disequilibrium. Last year production of coffee, one of Brazil’s most important commodities, fell 15 percent as a result of drought. A lack of rain in Russia this fall damaged a quarter of its cereal crops. The last time the country’s harvest failed, rising global prices contributed to the Arab Spring in countries dependent on imported grain. Even Islamic State’s political power may soon be affected by drought. As water levels in Lake Assad in Syria plummet, Raqqa, the group’s stronghold, is facing severe shortages. Last year, Islamic State’s press officer, Abu Mosa, told Vice News that it would consider attacking Turkey to gain access to additional water resources.

Climate science has an explanation for why environmental forces can have this kind of destabilizing effect. Angel Muñoz, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton, says, “Risk is just a multiplication of hazard by vulnerability.” Muñoz, who grew up in Venezuela and moved to the U.S. to study climate risk management, explains that a drought is a hazard, but what actually created this year’s mess was Venezuela’s lack of what he calls “adaptive capacity.” The drought was predicted months before it began—neighboring Colombia started water rationing in September 2015. Although Venezuela has far more natural resources than its neighbor, Colombia is not in such dire straits. “A society’s vulnerability is at least as important as the hazard,” Muñoz says.

As a result, when weak states face environmental catastrophes like drought, “you might see the collapse of authoritarian regimes, as you did during the Arab Spring,” Homer-Dixon says. “But they’re probably going to be replaced with something just as bad, because a deeply divided society is still dealing with a materially stressed situation.”

If that’s the case, Venezuela and Syria offer a grim vision of how the world might react to a warming future. “In almost all conflict,” Homer-Dixon says, “a weak and corrupt state can’t evolve market mechanisms to respond to scarcity.” This means dysfunction tends to have a snowball effect: Scarcity reinforces corruption, which polarizes a political system and increases inequality. “Then everyone slides down the slope together,” Homer-Dixon says.

What that means for Venezuela now is that even the return of rain could be devastating. Meteorologists are predicting a La Niña effect will bring ample precipitation to the region—“they could go straight from drought to fast floods,” Muñoz says, because of degradation of public resources such as roads and sewage systems. The government is unlikely to be prepared. A high-ranking official in Venezuela’s military, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, says little is being done to strengthen the aging infrastructure. “We have so many resources,” he says. “It’s incredible that we’re in this situation.” He’s contemplating leaving the country, fearing a coup. “People don’t have the patience to see if things get better.”

No one knows when Venezuela will finally implode. Some factors are more visible in hindsight; just as analysts failed to see the risk of subprime debt in 2007, so far scarcity’s economic and geopolitical impacts have gone largely unacknowledged. Behavior, however, can often be predicted based on models. In a warming world, “it’s a difficult situation to build liberal institutions,” says Homer-Dixon. “I’m very worried.” With Venezuela specifically in mind, Arnson asks, “Who defines when the beginning of the end has begun?”
 
Parshley is a freelance journalist and photographer.

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