The Zika Virus: More of What is to Come

With the onset of the Zika epidemic, humanity must consider pressing solutions in addressing tropical disease. Such diseases are mainly spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which thrives in hot, humid climates. One of the reasons why the virus has spread across the Americas and other tropical regions so rapidly is that these regions are even more humid and now receive more precipitation thanks to shifts in precipitation patterns. Thus, tropical diseases spread and become more prevalent as the Earth warms and populations in hot, humid climates become more urbanized. It is much easier for disease to spread in urban areas due to population density, improper sanitation and infrastructure, which contribute to mosquitoes thriving in still bodies of water, as well as general inaccessibility to vaccination and proper health care.

Disease outbreaks such as the Zika threaten global public health given the sheer globalization of our world today. Already, the virus has reached the United States and Western Europe. Yes, industrialized countries have the means to cope with these viruses, but they are still unwelcome, especially due to the severity of microcephaly, a birth defect linked to the virus. Frankly, Zika seems mild in comparison to the outbreak of diseases that are likely to occur as global warming worsens. Dengue and malaria infect 400 and 207 million annually across the globe, respectively, and are especially fatal among children. Zika is just one example of how globalized disease outbreaks threaten human livelihood. Exotic diseases that may have never found their way into the Western world now do so with immigration and travel to and from regions.

Thankfully, technology in the form of genetic modification and vaccines can alleviate the spread of tropical disease emanating from mosquito species. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds the development of genetically modified mosquitoes to both reduce the chances of young maturing to adulthood in addition to carrying a form of bacteria prohibiting the spread of dengue to humans. Of course, eliminating a species of mosquito may have a large impact on fragile ecosystems. They are an integral food source for several species of animals and insects. What is more ethical and proactive for the survival of humanity is the spread of vaccinations against major tropical disease. As the world’s deadliest animal to humans, emphasis on developing vaccines and preventing conditions for disease to spread through proper urban development may be the surest bets for addressing future public health challenges from global warming.

The Arctic Resource Curse

The New York Times published a very comprehensive article yesterday about the current assertion of sovereignty over the Arctic. Although this issue is not new to International Relations scholars, those unfamiliar with the topic would be hard pressed to find a reason why anyone would find the Arctic ice sheets a pressing topic in American foreign policy. Unlike our neighbors to the north, Canada, in addition to Russia and Denmark, the United States does not have a large physical stake to the physical land within the Arctic territory; only Alaska extends that far north on the continent. Given that roughly a third of Alaska’s territory is located within the Arctic Circle, the United States is one of five nations that claims territorial lands and waters in the region. This distinction is important later in this piece, as it excludes a single claim to the entire Arctic circle, in addition to other key players that are attempting to lay a stake in the region despite being geographically excluded from the Arctic circle.

With the phenomenon of global warming rapidly eradicating the tundra underneath the massive Arctic ice sheet and melting the sea ice that has naturally blocked commercial shipping lanes from utilizing the Arctic corridor, the region is increasingly being looked upon as the new frontier for oil and mineral reserves and economically viable trading routes. Already, sea ice melt has reduced the transit time from East Asia to Europe in half. Not only does it this save time for global shipping firms, but it also reduces the amount of oil needed to transport these goods. Furthermore, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that up to 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas reserves and 13% of oil reserves lie beneath the Arctic tundra and sea ice. This discovery has prompted Russian, American, Norwegian, Danish and Canadian oil companies to begin tapping into these troves of undiscovered natural resources.

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Image Credit: Der Spiegel

The scramble for oil reserves comes during an artificial surge in oil production by the Gulf OPEC member-states to decrease global prices. Despite the market seemingly awash in oil overproduction, and an economic decline in developing countries–including China–experts at Stanford University predict there is only forty years worth of oil reserves left to satiate demand. Of course, fossil fuels will most likely never completely deplete, but they will become increasingly expensive, dangerous and difficult to extract. And that’s where global warming trends and oil prices come in. Until now–despite the artificial drop in oil prices–it was not cost effective to drill for oil and minerals in the Arctic. Growing demand (the United States alone consumes half of the world’s supply) and the depletion of reserves have made it cost effective to conduct otherwise cost inefficient methods of oil extraction, including Arctic drilling, fracking, tar sand extraction and deep-sea drilling. The constant modernization of developing economies and their transition to the middle class will only strain competition over the global oil supply.

With all of this in mind, it is no wonder why Shell pressed the Obama Administration for rights to drill in the Alaskan arctic.

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Image Credit: Hofstra University

Cheaper energy prices for consumers, domestic energy independence and a reduction in greenhouse gases from global shippingtransport–what’s there not to like for the average consumer? Here is a short list: more dependency upon fossil fuels in the wake of a rapidly depleting resource that will most likely peak in 2050, pollution in a fragile ecosystem with dire consequences for the rest of the Earth, and fight over these natural resources which only adds to the list of political and economic tensions betweenthe United States, Russia and China. All nations perceive the Arctic as a source of wealth, particularly for oil-dependent Russia. Furthermore, the global scramble over the Arctic invokes a security component, as it calls for the United States to assert a military presence in the region through a larger Coast Guard and Naval presence. Russia has asserted its military presence as well, a move experts perceive as a means of defending its economic zone of interest.

Now, this is where all of those legal definitions come in. Who exactly is entitled to this treasure trove of natural resources–the five nations as designated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which are entitled to exclusive economic zones within the Arctic Ocean–where the majority of the drilling would take place–or the eight members of the Arctic Council? Are nations outside of the Arctic entitled to drill as well? This is certainly a pressing concern for China, who, in a never-ending search for oil and mineral reserves to fuel its industrial production, joined the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013 despite not having any geographical claim to the region. Singapore, Japan, India and South Korea were also inducted, given their interest in these resources and major stake in international shipping and trade.

The Arctic is unlikely to spark the next world war, but it is becoming increasingly integral to foreign policy. Satisfying the demand for natural resources will, over the long-run, influence international relations–just look at the recent Iranian and Russian oil embargoes. For nations dependent upon oil production for a significant proportion of their GDP, asserting their presence in the Arctic is a matter of national interest that has the potential to strain already stressed relations between the United States, European Union and Russia. Already, NATO members Norway, Denmark and Iceland have responded to the increased Russian military presence in the Arctic with joint military exercises between the three NATO members and Finland and Sweden. This foreign policy issue is certainly an issue to pay attention to, for whomever becomes the next President of the United States. President Obama created the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which comprises of several military components, including the preservation of freedom in the region, enforcement of treaties, protection of the Alaskan territory and U.S. sovereign territory.

This issue is just one example illustrating the effect of global warming towards international affairs and U.S. foreign policy in future years to come. The title of this article refers to the resource curse, or the relationship between natural resource abundance and poor economic growth within oil-producing countries. Hopefully, future leaders will not hedge all of their bets in Arctic resource exploitation, and will explore sustainable economic sectors as to diversify and grow their economies instead of being reliant upon natural resources for economic security. Such situations may lend themselves to a dire need of control over such resources, and punishing consequences if their resource exports do indeed decline over the long-run.

Water & Instability on the Arabian Peninsula

Water scarcity exacerbates Yemen’s already unstable governance. Thirty of the past forty years of Yemen’s history have been marked by civil conflict and instability. As Houthi rebels battle coalition forces, the country’s underlying sources of political and social instability threaten any possible settlement of the current conflict; foremost among these is the lack of access to fresh water. The average Yemeni only has access to a tenth of the UNDP’s annual water benchmark, placing them well below the water poverty line. Yemen’s immense water poverty illustrates the widespread regional water poverty levels across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the world’s “most water stressed region.” Arid conditions, low and variable rainfall and high rates of evaporation due to extreme temperatures characterize the region’s vulnerability to climate change. By 2050, the water per capita availability in the entire MENA region will be reduced by 40%, competing with rapid, further stressing water supplies.

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Although a small nation like Yemen seems insignificant in terms of its impact on regional stability, its water scarcity and immense poverty are two underlying issues that are almost certain to create potential discord in the future. In addition to having one of the highest birth rates in the world, at 4.2% per year, Yemen’s population of 23 million only has, on average, access to 100m3 of water annually. Compare this to the United Nations Development Program’s water share benchmark of 1,000m3, and the average Yemeni is significantly beneath the water poverty line. Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, is still facing ongoing sectarian violence over water queues. And unlike its neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, there is no government or resources to construct expensive desalination plants that run off of a nearly unlimited domestic oil supply. The Yemeni government’s current collapse is likely implicated in this inability to provide basic services for its burgeoning population through its encouragement of cultivating water intensive crops. This phenomenon is reflected in its ranking as eighth in the Fragile States Index.

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Image by UNICEF MENA

Despite this dismal situation, solutions are being developed to address this growing problem. Inexpensive alternatives to desalination and reverse osmosis technology are being developed, especially in Saudi Arabia, as seen with the construction of Al Khafji Solar Saline Reverse Osmosis Plant in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in northern Saudi Arabia. Other desalination techniques, such as electrochemical desalination microchips and Lockheed Martin’s Perforene™ filtration system for potable water, are just some of the technologies underway, and could potentially be exported to such developing, water-scarce nations as Yemen as they become further developed and affordable. Furthermore, a shift in agricultural tariffs and subsidies by the government could act as an incentive for Yemeni farmers to produce less water intensive crops, especially qat, a popular water-intensive narcotic, and practice more efficient irrigation methods.

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A desalination plant near Dammam, Saudi Arabia

With rising political instability—as well as growing food and water insecurity across the entire MENA region—water insecurity could serve the political agenda of such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State and multitude of Al-Qaeda franchises. Both of these non-state actor groups impede the security of the Arabian Peninsula. According to a UNESCO report, the deprivation of basic resources creates “ripe conditions for extremists and terrorists to fill the vacuum.” The inability to access basic resources can act as a multiplier effect in weak states, a scenario that some experts attribute to provoking the Syrian War. A serious collapse in water supplies could affect migration patterns, forcing poor farmers and citizens to migrate to countries with better access to resources. And, given Yemen’s strategic location, shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden could be even more prone to piracy. Past governmental collapse and economic depression have led to market shocks in oil prices. Such political and market volatilities are bound to burden wealthier, developed nations, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, through migration and conflict, straining resources and compromising regional stability.

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Map Credit: Business Insider

As Yemen rests on the Saudi Arabia and Oman borders, mitigating this potential threat is crucial to maintaining stability across the immediate Arabian Peninsula region. Incorporating long-term environmental security measures is crucial for planning the long-term stability of the nation and fragile nations like it for all key regional stakeholders. Yemen’s water crisis illustrates the effect of water insecurity on fragile governance, state functionality and its broader implications within complex security nexuses, especially with its neighboring nations. Such a vital resource has proven itself to accelerate and exacerbate fragile political tensions and governance in a traditionally unstable nation. Given these factors, maintaining water security in developing, water scarce nations is crucial to maintaining long-term stability across not only the Arabian Peninsula, but the MENA region in the wake rapid global climate change.