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Ecological threat register 2020: Understanding ecological threats, resilience and peace

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This is the inaugural edition of the Ecological Threat Register (ETR), which covers 157 independent states and territories. Produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the ETR measures ecological threats that countries are currently facing and provides projections to 2050. The ETR is unique in that it combines measures of resilience with the most comprehensive ecological data available to shed light on the countries least likely to cope with extreme ecological shocks, now and into the future.

The ETR includes: population growth, water stress, food insecurity, droughts, floods, cyclones and rising temperature and sea levels. In addition, the report uses IEP's Positive Peace framework to identify areas where resilience is unlikely to be strong enough to adapt or cope with these future shocks. The ETR clusters threats into two major domains: resource scarcity and natural disasters. The resource scarcity domain includes food insecurity, water scarcity and high population growth. The natural disaster domain measures the threat of floods, droughts, cyclones, sea level rise and rising temperatures.

The ETR identifies three clusters of ecological hotspots, which are particularly susceptible to collapse:

  • The Sahel-Horn belt of Africa, from Mauritania to Somalia;

  • The Southern African belt, from Angola to Madagascar;

  • The Middle East and Central Asian belt, from Syria to Pakistan.

Within these hotspots the most fragile countries will include Iran, Mozambique, Madagascar, Pakistan and Kenya. These countries are broadly stable now but have high exposure to ecological threats and low and deteriorating Positive Peace, which means they are at a higher risk of future collapse. In addition, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Central African Republic, are already suffering from ongoing conflicts and are also highly exposed to ecological threats. This group of countries are already trapped in a vicious cycle where competition for scarce resources creates conflict and conflict in turn leads to further resource depletion. The world's least resilient countries, when faced with ecological breakdowns, are more likely to experience civil unrest, political instability, social fragmentation and economic collapse.

High resilience regions, such as Europe and North America, have superior coping capacities to mitigate the effects of these ecological threats, however, they will not be immune from spill over effects, such as large flows of refugees. The refugee crisis of 2015 highlights that even relatively small numbers of refugees, equivalent to half a per cent of Europe's population, can cause considerable unrest and shift political systems.

The ETR results show that 141 countries are exposed to at least one ecological threat between now and 2050. The 19 countries with the highest number of threats have a population of 2.1 billion people. These countries face four to six ecological threats and more than half are among the 40 least peaceful nations. The three countries with the highest exposure to ecological shocks are Afghanistan, which is facing six ecological threats and Mozambique and Namibia, which are each facing five. Another 16 countries are facing four ecological threats.

Approximately one billion people live in countries that do not have the resilience to deal with the ecological changes they are expected to face between now and 2050. Not all of these people will be displaced, however it is likely that a large number of them will be. Pakistan, with 220 million people is the country with the largest number of people at risk, followed by Iran with 84 million people at risk. In such circumstances, even small events could spiral into instability and violence leading to mass population displacement, which in turn would have negative implications for regional and global security.

Ecological threats in many cases lead to humanitarian emergencies. Currently, more than two billion people globally face uncertain access to sufficient food for a healthy life. This number is likely to increase to 3.5 billion by 2050. Both hunger and food insecurity have increased since 2014, with an additional 300 million people now facing food insecurity. The global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 per cent by 2050, which means that without a substantial increase in supply, many more people will be at risk of hunger and food insecurity. Even with increased food production, it is not clear that this will provide those most in need with more food as the increased demand will come from the rising middle class of Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic is also predicted to negatively impact global food security and has not been factored into this analysis.

The world's least peaceful countries are amongst the countries with the highest levels of food insecurity. Yemen is a testament to this with the largest number of ECOLOGICAL THREAT REGISTER 2020 | 2 ECOLOGICAL THREAT REGISTER 2020 | 3 people facing starvation in 2020. In addition, 65 per cent of people in countries with low peace and low income experience an inability to afford adequate food at all times. Among the OECD countries, 16 per cent of the people cannot afford food at all the times, while 2.7 per cent are considered undernourished. This highlights the fact that people even in the richest countries are at risk of food insecurity.

Regionally, more than half of the population in subSaharan Africa and one third of the population in South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa are facing moderate to severe food insecurity. Currently 18 of the 20 most food insecure countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa. The five most food insecure countries are Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger, Malawi and Lesotho, where more than half of the population experience severe food insecurity.

The demand for water is projected to reach crisis levels for some regions over the next few decades. The ETR shows that over a third of countries will experience high or extreme levels of water stress by 2040, meaning that more than half of the available water is being used every year. Water use has increased by one per cent per year for the last four decades and the rise in demand is expected to increase unabated. In 2019 four billion people experienced severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year. Severe water stress is where 40 per cent or more of the available water is used.

While population growth has declined from its heights in 1960s, it is still high in many parts of the world. By 2050, the global population is projected to reach nearly ten billion people. However, the increase in population will be unevenly spread. In the most developed countries it is projected to fall by two per cent on average by 2050, with Japan having the largest fall of ten per cent. There are 17 countries whose population will more than double. Niger is likely to have the largest increase of 171 per cent. Many of these countries are already highly vulnerable. It is estimated that 1.4 billion more people will reside in the 40 least peaceful countries.

Flooding has been the most common natural disaster since 1990. From 1990 to 2019, a total of 9,924 natural disasters occurred globally, of which 42 per cent were floods. The next largest category, storm events, which include cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and dust storms made up 30 per cent of the total events.

The Asia-Pacific region was exposed to the largest number of natural disasters with 2,845 events recorded since 1990. Two-thirds of natural disasters in the region were either floods or storms with China, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam being the most affected countries. Europe had the second highest number of natural disasters, with 1,324 incidents between 1990 and 2019. France, Italy, Turkey, Romania and the UK have experienced the highest number of incidents in Europe, accounting for a third of the regional total between them.

Ecological disasters displace an average of 24 million people per year with an additional seven million displaced by armed conflict. If this rate continues, 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050. However, the rate is likely to increase. The majority of these people will be displaced within their country or into neighbouring regions. However, UNHCR estimates show that at least one in five people move beyond their country or region. Population displacement due to ecological threats and climate change could regularly surpass the European migration crisis of 2015.

Although data on Official Development Assistance (ODA) is available, there is currently no publicly available database which tracks funding from International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) for projects that aim to build resilience to ecological threats and climate change. Without adequate tracking, it will not be possible to know whether the appropriate resources are being applied to solve the world's sustainability issues.

Overall, the ETR shows that ecological threats and climate change pose serious challenges to global development and peacefulness. The adverse impacts will disproportionately affect the world's poorest and most vulnerable and create spill over pressures on neighbouring countries through mass movements of people. Building resilience to ecological threats will increasingly become more important and will require substantial investment today