Backdraft #9: Joshua Busby on Mapping Hotspots of Climate and Security Vulnerability
Maps help us to grasp complex ideas, such as patterns of risk and vulnerability, but the stories they tell can have significant implications. “It’s very difficult to validate that what you’re capturing in the maps is representative of real-world phenomenon,” says Joshua Busby in this week’s “Backdraft” episode, describing his efforts to map climate and security hotspots in Africa and Asia. “You have to be modest in what you think the maps can tell policymakers, but also realize there is some seductive power in the way maps simplify complex reality.”
The maps produced by Busby’s Climate Change and African Political Stability and Complex Emergencies and Political Stability projects are designed to help planners, donors, and national governments “shore up resilience on the ground.”
“The real question that we have to ask and answer all the time is, ‘Do the maps have any basis in reality? Are they useful?’ ” says Busby, associate professor from the LBJ School at the University of Texas, Austin.
When Busby and his team traveled to East Africa, they found that some of the challenges associated with chronic water scarcity were missing from their work, so they incorporated new indicators and updated the maps to more accurately represent the current situation. Without this “groundtruthing,” the maps could be misinterpreted and used to support interventions and other policy actions that could produce negative results, such as conflict.
Building Consensus on Climate Action
With proper groundtruthing, maps can be useful tools for reaching new audiences—and for reaching across the aisle. To build political consensus on climate change in the United States, Busby suggests focusing on related challenges, like water’s connection to security. “Because of its centrality to human wellbeing, [water] creates a reservoir of political goodwill that goes across political ideologies, and that’s why we’ve had great success in the U.S. government in creating a groundswell of sustained support for water and sanitation projects.”
However, a focus on water is not a silver bullet, especially if that focus is primarily on providing infrastructure, or “taps and toilets,” without supporting the governance mechanisms needed to manage resources sustainably. “What’s been lost in this wider discussion are concerns about water and security and the institutions both at the national and international [level] that can shore up the ability of countries to manage water resources on their own,” says Busby.
Donors should support efforts to build the capacity of countries to sustainably manage their water resources, particularly resources that are shared with other countries. As climate change increases both floods and droughts, poorly managed water resources could spur political instability both within and between countries.