Jamie Thomson, Senior Risk Analyst at Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions is the new generation of global emergency response, and the only dedicated political, natural disaster and medical Evacuation provider designed to meet modern, commercial travel patterns. NGS has a particular expertise in drafting bespoke political reports for travellers and investors to fragile and conflict-affected states.
Politics, the Global Heatwave and what it means for travel
This summer’s record-breaking global heatwave is part of a trend of increasing temperatures over several decades. Although it may unexpectedly change, there is no suggestion from the scientific community that it will do so, and we may be faced with rising temperatures for many years to come.
A global heatwave presents a range of problems that manifest themselves in different ways, from the environmental to the medical. What is particularly interesting is that all these problems have an impact upon politics in different ways. Invariably, this is a political impact that is domestic (and negative), but it may also be economic, and occasionally international in some way.
These political impacts exacerbate the most basic problems of the heatwave, and create an inter-related network of issues across affected parts of the world, resulting in major concerns for international travellers.
This article looks at what some of these problems are, and considers how travellers can mitigate against them.
The most obvious way that a heatwave will affect a region, particularly over an extended period of time, is through drought. Cape Town has experienced the worst drought in its history, a three-year stretch of low rainfall compounded by infrastructure problems and a growing population. This has become a political issue because of the ways that this has been managed differently by different levels of government. The good preparation that the civic and regional authorities made for the drought (well-rehearsed warning systems, management of local infrastructure, and a PR campaign to reduce household consumption), compares markedly with the poor performance of the national government (which failed to prioritise funds to manage the crisis and did not respond to requests for help from local authorities). Even the Auditor General found the government guilty of wasteful spending. The relevance of this case is that the government is in the control of the African National Congress, whereas Cape Town’s local authorities are run by the opposition Democratic Alliance. In a major city in which less than 10% of the population owns more than 90% of assets, the risk of major civil unrest or even societal breakdown causing some long-term socio-economic changes is starting to loom, despite the aversion of the crisis for the time being.
Sweden’s experience this summer, in which it proved unprepared for the worst drought in a lifetime, has led to problems in the farming industry. Although this is unlikely to provoke any civil unrest, it will cost the government financially and politically. Livestock no longer have adequate grazing, so farmers have needed to import emergency fodder to keep animals alive. Many have preferred to slaughter livestock early, rather than allow them to starve. While the government has been forced to ask the EU for help, the concern now is that inadequate supplies for livestock during the winter will risk prolonging a problem that may persist for years of hot summers until the system is completely overhauled by the government.
The influence of high temperatures on infrastructure (particularly power) puts populations in direct conflict with governments. Iraq is seeing the direct results of these conflicts. Basrah, for instance, is already a hot part of the world, but the latest heatwave has forced everyone to leave fans on throughout day and night. Inevitably the electricity infrastructure failed, leading to widespread power outages that have brought people onto the streets to demonstrate. This has rapidly become a political issue: demonstrations sparked by people overheating in their homes have been compounded by dissent over the lack of employment opportunities for locals in the oil sector, and the persistent failure of Baghdad to invest in infrastructure in the oil-rich province. Demonstrations quickly took an anti-government turn and spread throughout Iraq, including to Baghdad itself. Compounding the problem has been the government response which, whilst promising to invest government funds into regional infrastructure, deployed security services to violently disperse protesters.
Most dramatic for those monitoring the news this summer have been the wildfires in Greece, which have devastated settlements and homes, caused more than 80 deaths, 180 injuries and several people missing. Amongst the carnage, some victims have not allowed this to remain simply the result of high temperatures, but have turned it into a political issue by blaming the government for inadequate national infrastructure, lack of foresight, and inability to co-ordinate civic policies as vehicles fleeing towns ended up burning in traffic jams. The government was naturally blamed for these deaths, as some routes leading out of towns had been blocked weeks before by developers acting without proper licences. Criticism of PM Alexis Tsipras has been strong, and has gathered momentum as the crisis has developed; it is now likely that his administration will not survive for long. In a country already facing tension over a weak economy and a failing immigration system, discontent against the government may soon bring people onto the streets to protest, a common form of Greek political engagement. It should be noted that wildfires were also experienced in countries such as Sweden, the US and the UK.
As heatwaves increase the turbulence of local weather systems, it is just as likely that local flooding will cause devastation to people and infrastructure. The Colombian government issued flood warnings for seven provinces, while in India many people have already died after floods washed away buildings and destroyed infrastructure. Of perhaps greater concern to politicians will be landslides associated with major capitalist infrastructure projects, such as the landslide that killed three teenagers at a goldmine in Guinea. Such incidents highlight poor safety regulations and the weak oversight that governments have over major infrastructure projects.
For Tokyo, the heatwave has been a health problem rather than one of infrastructure. In general, as soon as outside temperatures start reaching body temperature (about 37°C), then the human body begins to struggle operationally. However, in Tokyo, some outside temperatures have reached 41°C, with even higher temperatures recorded on city metro carriages. As a country that takes its responsibilities towards energy use seriously, air conditioning is not commonly installed, and people are finding little relief. A selection of medical conditions (in addition to heat exhaustion and dehydration) are directly associated with such temperatures, including strokes, migraines and unmanageable mood swings, all of which have an impact on physical health as well as the working environment and productivity. As a result, more than 22,000 Tokyo inhabitants have been hospitalised this summer due to heat-related conditions, and at least 65 people died in July alone. The political ramifications for Tokyo are less to do with internal dissatisfaction, particularly in a country where civil unrest is less of a tool for unhappy people than the ballot box is. However, of greater concern is that Japan is scheduled to be hosting the Olympic Games in 2020. There are global fears that the government’s failure to install measures to keep people working during increasingly-hot summers will lead to severe illnesses to athletes (particularly in events such as the marathon), and possibly some nations boycotting the event. Of equal concern is that the workforce will fail to build stadia and facilities in time. There may need to be a complete rescheduling of the event, which would be an embarrassment for the IOC and the Japanese government, and would hit them both financially.
Health can be affected in other ways, and this year Pakistan reported a doubling of its cases of dengue fever to over 2500 so far this year, including nine deaths. Such infections have been exacerbated in the Muslim world by the fact that the annual Ramadan month did not end until mid-June, by which time many people in major urban centres in developing countries (particularly the likes of Karachi or Dhaka) were already malnourished and not consuming adequate food and water for their immune systems to be able to combat diseases. By the end of June, hospitals in Karachi were full and turning away patients, as the power infrastructure suffered. The Pakistani government has spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to cast doubt on the casualty figures and blaming deaths on any other factor than the heat. Meanwhile, Imran Khan has made political capital by bashing Pakistan’s poor environmental policies, and highlighting the country’s need to prepare for extreme weather. In the context of his environmental policy to plant 10 billion trees over five years, his party’s victory in the latest general election should perhaps not be a surprise.
Ultimately, every fallout from the heatwave has a political consequence. This could be party political disputes, international tensions, or local disturbances. However, as long as temperatures remain high, there is a very high risk that all these problems will lead to civil unrest of some sort. Angry protestors without work during the summer months, who are just as likely to be baking indoors as out on the street, are likely to join any local anti-government rally, particularly if their gripe relates to a major issue such as infrastructure or corruption. Most governments in developing countries will respond to this sort of unrest by protecting themselves first of all, using state security forces to employ violent public order tactics against crowds, something unlikely to resolve a situation in sweltering heat. In Basrah, for instance, the public order response deployed by the local security agencies has proved adequate at stopping protestors from blocking access to the oilfields that are critical to Iraqi wealth; but they have caused an upsurge in civil unrest throughout the whole country, including the political capital, Baghdad.
Travellers considering going to a country that is suffering the political effects of a major heatwave need to plan journeys very carefully. The most important question to consider is whether their trip is critical, or whether it can be conducted either later when temperatures have dropped, or perhaps using different means (such as flexible communications applications). As well as personal health considerations for heat exhaustion and heat stroke (available from the NHS website), a traveller must consider the political and security implications of a heatwave. If there is a risk that civil unrest will disrupt their journey, or cause violence to them or their contacts, then they should:
- consider rescheduling the visit;
- consider using a security escort;
- register with an international tracking and emergency assistance company that will monitor their movements and respond to evacuation or medical requirements;
- not travel alone, particularly after dark;
- monitor local news and social media updates to establish a picture of where civil unrest is taking place and what routes are safe to use;
- ensure that, for every movement, they have an emergency secondary route and a clear evacuation route that can guarantee evacuation to a safe place;
- avoid any crowded areas that could involve demonstrations;
- be careful not to engage in discussions with unidentified locals about political issues;
- use only verified, secure hotels;
- leave valuables and important documents in a secure hotel safe (if necessary, carry a photocopy of passports and travel tickets).
Record-breaking heatwaves are likely to continue to be a feature of summers for years to come. It will become increasingly important for travellers to become familiar with not only the health implications of changing global weather patterns, but also of the political and security implications.
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