The Global Impact of a Limited Nuclear War in South Asia: Famine, Disease and War

Earlier this week, the nuclear watchdog group Physicians for Social Responsibility, published their report authored by Ira Helfand  “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?” The report summarizes, synthesizes and expands upon a number of findings made in previous scientific studies by independent sources on the likely consequences of a ‘limited’, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan on global food supplies.

For the purposes of the study, Helfand assumes this ‘limited’ war to be one in which a total of 100 15 kiloton nuclear weapons would be detonated (less than 0.1% of the current global nuclear arsenal). Using conservative estimations, these 100 nuclear explosions would release 5 million metric tons of black carbon aerosol particles into the earth’s upper atmosphere.

The expulsion of these particles would, in turn, provide the initial spark for a chain reaction of processes that could potentially lead to billions of people around the world facing starvation, disease and civil and international conflict.

1. A 5 million metric ton expulsion of black carbon aerosol particles would cause a significant average drop in world surface temperature. According to a 2006 academic study, the release of these particles would cause global average surface cooling of -1.25 °C for up to a decade after the conflict. Most of this cooling would occur over grain-growing regions and cause declines in global precipitation.

2. Average crop yields would fall across the globe causing a shortage of agricultural produce in many regions. Due to the absence of studies investigating the effects of climate change on global agricultural output, Helfand extrapolates the effects from previous, country-specific studies. These studies used a number of sophisticated meteorological models to predict changes in crop yields over time.

A 2012 study concluded that the change in climate would, averaged over 10 years, cause corn and soybean production in the US to decline by 10%. A 2013 study concluded that this climate change would, averaged over 10 years, cause maize, rice and wheat production in China to decline by 16%, 17% and 31% respectively.

According to Helfand, these numbers are conservative insofar as the studies did not consider other factors that would affect agricultural production. These include, among others, the effects of the increase in UV light and temperature, along with the decline in available fertilizer and gasoline. Taking these factors into account, the impact of this climate change on world agricultural output would be far more severe.

3. As crop output declines, global food prices would skyrocket, potentially leaving billions of people at risk of malnutrition and starvation. A decline in agricultural production would lead to higher food costs as demand remains constant in the face of shrinking supply. A 2011 study concluded that a one year 20% decline in crop yields would cause a 19.7% rise in crop prices. Cumulative over ten years, a total of 215 million people would become threatened by famine as a result of such a price increase.

Helfand, building on the previous 2013 study on the decline in crop output in China, argues that a further 1.3 billion poor Chinese would also be threatened from famine after China’s grain reserves had been depleted in the years after the nuclear war. Taking into account the 870 million people already suffering from malnutrition, a limited nuclear war in South Asia could eventually result in over two billion people threatened by famine a decade later. Over ten years, it is unlikely that the majority of this figure would be able to survive.

Again, Helfand points out that these figures are conservative. They do not take into account the historical trend that, following traumatic events, global food markets usually react with commodity speculation and hoarding. Nor do they consider the fact that, as crop yields decline, food exporting countries would likely halt exports in order to ensure their own food security. All of these factors would cause world food prices to increase even more significantly.

4. Correspondingly, the resulting food shortage would likely lead to medical pandemics and a conflict-prone international security environment. Historically, famines have triggered epidemics in their wake including cholera, malaria, smallpox, and the plague. Due to globalization and urbanization, it is unlikely that modern medicine would be able to resolve what most likely would be global pandemics as diseases break out in concentrated population areas and then spread quickly around the globe. Pandemics of this scale would result in significant loss of life; particularly among developing countries of the global south.

Furthermore, the potential for armed conflict between and within states would increase exponentially as states and individuals fear for their own food security in the face of food shortages. The competition for limited food resources could also exacerbate existing regional, ethnic and/or religious tensions that could lead to war. If these conflicts were to break out, the resulting casualty rate and loss of life could be catastrophic.

These conclusions should remind us of the terrifying global consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons even in a situation as relatively restrained as a ‘limited’, regional nuclear war using low-yield weapons. They should also, in turn, remind the international community to refocus their efforts not just on deescalating South Asian tensions, but on non-proliferation and disarmament efforts worldwide. The consequences of failing to do so are just too great to be ignored.