Monthly Risk Spotlight: March 2023

Disastrous Weather in Brazil Ends Carnival Early

Carnival in Brazil, a festive and internationally recognized week of celebration made especially famous by colors and opulent street festivities, was met with disaster in February 2023. In the southern state of São Paulo, a seemingly unassuming rainstorm developed that would ultimately lead to a state-wide disaster and the deaths of at least 64 people, leaving thousands of others homeless or trapped by intense and deadly landslides.

São Paulo State, a coastal, mountainous area of Brazil, is particularly vulnerable to landslides. Landslides occur when land of varying slopes becomes saturated with water. Under normal circumstances, the soil will drain this excess water into underground aquifers or purge the water through engorged rivers. However, with little warning on the night of February 18/19, an entire month’s worth of water poured onto the slopes and steep geography of the area. This was not a tropical storm or a rare southern Atlantic cyclone that hit the area, but a remarkable confluence of water from a seemingly normal rainstorm. An example of the intensity and amount of water falling during this rainstorm can be seen in the city of São Sebastião, where 27 inches of rain fell in one 24-hour period. Compared to the average monthly rainfall amount for São Sebastião of 7.2 inches, this was an amount of water the soil could not absorb. The land became saturated, and several areas of the state began to slide as the surge of water had nowhere else to escape.

The amount of water and rainfall alone was problematic and dangerous, but human elements turned this natural disaster into a human disaster. Owing to the possibility of excessive rainfall in São Paulo state, many areas are designated as floodplains, or areas where human development should not occur due to the high probability of flooding. These areas are occupied by Brazil’s most destitute. As the record-breaking rain accumulated, countless people’s homes became buried in the mountain. Those lucky enough to avoid being buried by mud were isolated from receiving help as major roads and infrastructure were also swallowed up by the shifting geography.

The unprecedented downpour and waves of destruction ultimately ended the Carnival celebrations early for millions of Brazilians and travelers. Travelers were asked to avoid the region, a tourist hotspot, to not overwhelm the food and medical supplies—a sensible request but ultimately ruinous to the local economy that heavily relies on tourist activity during the largest holiday in Brazil. With environmental changes predicted to intensify in coming years the outlier weather events during Brazil’s Carnival may become the norm.

Poisoning School Girls in Iran

At least one thousand school-aged females in Iran have been mysteriously poisoned with gas while in school since November, however, attacks have dramatically increased as of early March. Iranian officials blame the country’s enemies for the attacks while state media continue to downplay the seriousness of the incidents as some officials call the attacks “mass hysteria.” The motive of the attacks is clear, to deter young females from obtaining an education.

Since November, well-orchestrated attacks have been occurring throughout the country on females during school hours or while females are in their dormitories at night. So far more than 1,200 female students in 91 schools across 20 provinces of Iran have been attacked by poisonous gas. One student has died, and hundreds of others have been treated in hospitals. Attacks have occurred at all levels of education, from primary school to universities. Some witnesses experienced a strange smell, likening the scent to burning wires or rotten bananas. Victims of the attacks have suffered from symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath to numbness in limbs. Some victims have lost consciousness. It is believed the attacks are chemical in nature.

Worried parents have grown increasingly frustrated, forcing some to sit outside school buildings during the day to deter any possible attacks. Social media footage shows one father of a female student attempting to climb a school’s locked gate as the girls can be heard screaming from inside during a suspected attack. Many parents gathered outside an Education Ministry building in Tehran to protest the attacks.

The United Nations Human Rights office called for a transparent investigation into the attacks as western nations, including the U.S. and Germany, have expressed concern. As of early March, the government has made several arrests across five provinces and say relevant agencies are conducting a full investigation. While the Iranian government denies any responsibility, its response to threats against its regime it the past makes anything plausible.

The Iranian government has faced months of anti-government protests sparked by the death of a female in the custody of the morality police. Schoolgirls were very active in the protests, many of which occurred on school grounds. The response to these latest attacks on school-aged females has triggered new protests and new calls for regime change. The risk of further attacks on schools throughout the country is imminent. As attacks continue, the government’s disappointing yet predictable response may bring its demise closer to a reality.

What’s Going on in Pakistan?

Pakistan has had a troubling year. The country experienced a series of disasters including devastating floods, a resurgent in terror threats, political turmoil, and is now on the verge of a full-blown economic crisis. Due to mismanagement of funds, Pakistan’s foreign reserves have dwindled to $3.7 billion, while its debt has risen to $270 billion. Additionally, last year’s catastrophic flooding cost the nation over $40 billion in damages.

The country has barely enough money to import energy into cities and keep businesses running. Massive power outages have engulfed the nation and have become a chronic symptom of Pakistan’s vulnerable economy. These blackouts have inflicted an estimated $70 million loss to Pakistan’s textile industry, which is its largest export sector.

Experts are worried that the unfolding catastrophe in the nation will have consequences beyond its borders. The crushing weight of Pakistan’s debt has forced the nation’s current prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, to request a financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), however, experts fear that this will not be enough to avoid a crisis.

The economic constraints are already impacting Pakistanis’ most basic needs. Double digit inflation has made everyday goods such as food and fuel more expensive, and hiking interests’ rates have resulted in the devaluation of Pakistan’s Rupee. An economic crisis in Pakistan could have serious implications for its relationships with countries like the U.S. and China. The U.S. sought to stabilize Pakistan by providing billions of dollars in military aid and other forms of assistance throughout the past 20 years. China has also invested billions of dollars through debt and equity financing for its Belt and Road Initiative. While the nation has since reduced its lending to Pakistan, a prolonged crisis could deter Beijing from investing money into Pakistan in the future.

Coupled with political instability, an economic crisis in Pakistan could weaken the states hold and make the nation progressively more difficult to govern. Disputes between major political parties and frequent leadership changes have made it difficult to handle the nation’s crumbling economy, paving the way to even more problems.

The situation has hindered the nation’s recovery after historic floods displaced millions of its poorest citizens and submerged one-third of its landmass underwater.

In recent months, Pakistan has seen a resurgence in terrorism from radical extremist groups. The Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, announced their return in a devastating suicide attack at a mosque in late January. Experts worry that prolonged shortages of goods and energy will lead to a deeper political crisis and leave the nation vulnerable to terrorist groups.

Without a bailout from the IMF, Pakistan inches closer to bankruptcy. However, a bailout alone will not completely save the country. Pakistan has been receiving some financial aid from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in the form of deposits and credits; but these loans will only provide temporary relief to the country.

There is tremendous uncertainty regarding the future of Pakistan. It is difficult to see a pathway to stability due to the political turmoil and the government’s handling of the economy. If the country does not mend its ways, governance, aid efforts, and daily life will be incredibly challenging in the foreseeable future.

Nigeria’s Presidential Election

Millions of Nigerians went to the polling stations on February 24 to vote for the new president, hoping for change as the country has been dealing with corruption, increased terrorist activity, and an economic crisis. Nigeria has a history of civil unrest occurring during elections. After the 2011 presidential elections, violent protests broke out across northern Nigeria, resulting in over 800 people dead. However, the elections that took place in February resulted in a relatively peaceful outcome despite the opposition groups seeking to overturn the elections. Bola Tinubu received 37% of the vote and is expected to be sworn in as president on May 29. There was only a 29% voter turnout which is the lowest in Nigerian history.

Leading up to the election, there were concerns that the election would need to be postponed if the National Electoral Commission could not obtain the money to hold the elections. However, on February 23 the National Electoral Commission announced it had obtained enough money and the resources necessary to run the 177,000 polling stations. The country has been in an economic crisis and a cash shortage, raising concerns on whether the National Electoral Commission could hold the elections. The cash shortage was also a contributing factor to the citizens voting. Despite the Electoral Commission receiving the funds, Nigerians struggled to access their money.

Several technical issues arose and caused delays in opening some of the polling stations which resulted, in some people not voting until the next day. The long delays caused some distrust in the election results. The National Electoral Commission used the new ‘Bimodal Voter Accreditation System’, which was supposed to verify voters using biometric data and facial recognition, helping to post-election results faster. However, this was the first time the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System was used, and it caused technical issues. Nevertheless, opposition groups said that the delay in posting election results was due to political pressure for the electoral commission to falsify votes. Peter Obi who came in third place claimed he won the election and would prove that to Nigerians. Atiku Abubakar with the People’s Democratic party came in second and stated that he rejected the election results and would discuss with lawyers how to challenge it. Those wishing to appeal the election results have three weeks from the day the results were announced to make an appeal. However, the election can only be invalidated if it is proven in court that the national electoral system did not follow the law and managed to change the result. No election has ever been overturned in the supreme court.

In addition to the technical issues there were some concerning incidents across Nigeria at different polling stations. There were reports of ballot box snatching and voter intimidation. In Lagos, a group of armed men shot at a polling station and stole the ballot box causing fear amongst the voters. Between the irregularities, voter intimidation, and delayed reporting, there has been widespread distrust in the election, resulting in the opposition parties working to appeal the election.

President-elect Bola Tinubu ran on the same ticket as outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari. Bola Tinubu has promised to fix the violence, oil theft, and the high inflation rate. Tinubu was governor of Lagos from 1999-2007, and his supporters approved of his term as governor. However, since Tinubu ran on the same ticket as President Buhari, many are skeptical of his promises since Nigeria has struggled to gain control over the violence and economic situation under Buhari’s administration. Tinubu intends to expand the public infrastructure program to create more jobs and reduce corporate tax to increase investment. Tinubu also spoke of increasing the number of military and police officers in Nigeria to fight terrorism and the increased violence throughout the country.

The presidential elections were less violent than some of Nigeria’s past elections; but still, president-elect Bola Tinubu will have many issues to contend with, from the growing insecurity to the high inflation rate. While the opposition parties are contesting the election, it is highly unlikely that the elections will be overturned.

Kosovo-Serbia Dispute has Lingered for Decades

In December 2022, Serbia placed its army on combat alert and increased its armed presence on the border with Kosovo. Reports from Belgrade speak of ethnic Serbs being attacked by Kosovars, but authorities in Pristina deny the claims. However, Serbia continues to use Russian-inspired rhetoric to justify increasing its military presence on the border.

During the Yugoslav era, Kosovo was a province in the southwest of Serbia, populated by majority ethnic Albanians that sought the province’s independence. Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999 between a Kosovo Albanian rebel group and the Serbian military, the Kosovar government has never had complete control in the north of its recently established country. The war, which lasted from February 1998 to June 1999, sowed the seeds of Kosovo’s ultimate independence but also displaced hundreds of thousands of Kosovo-Albanian refugees and led to credible allegations of ethnically motivated human rights violations. These include mass executions; burning and looting of homes and villages; sexual assault; and mass expulsions. International efforts to resolve the conflict diplomatically failed, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ultimately carried out air strikes over Serbian military positions in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, ending the conflict. Shortly after, NATO introduced a peacekeeping operation in Kosovo to restrain the two sides forcibly.

Kosovo officially declared its independence from the former Yugoslav republic of Serbia in February 2008. To date, Serbia’s dream is to restore the “Serbian world” (Srpski svet) in the region, uniting all Serbs in the Balkans into a single state. North Kosovo is divided into four majority ethnic Serb population municipalities, which maintain close ties to Serbia. The leading Serbian politicians, judges, and police officers in the area have and continue to state political allegiance to the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić rather than Kosovo.

Kosovo has been recognized by most European states, including Japan, Canada, the United States, and other states from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. However, Serbia has vowed never to agree to the secession and views the separation of majority ethnic Serb land controlled by Kosovo as a crime. Furthermore, Russia, China, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Spain, and Azerbaijan have not recognized the independence of Kosovo. Both countries’ efforts to join the European Union (EU) have been slow. While Serbia is negotiating its entry, Kosovo has yet to become an official candidate. While the EU remains intent on accepting applications from both countries to join the bloc, it has made acceptance contingent on a final resolution of the standoff between Serbia and Kosovo and recognition by Belgrade of Kosovo’s independence.

Two main issues have fueled recent tensions between the neighbors. In August 2022, Kosovo attempted to mandate a switch to Kosovar issued license plates and personal documents for ethnic Serbs in North Kosovo who have so far made a point of continuing to use license plates and documents issued by Serbia. Serbs in Kosovo have viewed this new requirement as a threat to their identity. Shortly after the requirement was announced, many Serb police officers in northern Kosovo quit in protest and daily demonstrations and traffic jams occurred at the two northern Kosovar border posts. Kosovar authorities arrested some of these Serb officers on charges of terrorism. Kosovo Premier Albin Kurti accused Serbia of instigating the unrest. In response, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić threatened to send troops to protect the Serb minority and requested authorization from NATO as required under the Rambouillet Agreement signed in 1999. NATO has denied authorization claiming that it would dramatically increase tensions in the Balkans, and so far, Serbia has kept troops on its side of the border.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added a new dimension to the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, given the special relationship between Serbia and Russia under President Vladimir Putin, an outspoken Serbia supporter. Putin has compared the cause of Kosovo to that of two regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. He has criticized the West for what he says are double standards because Kosovo has been recognized by most of the Western world. There has been concern that Russia could use its close ties with Serbia to open a “second front” in the Balkans by stirring up trouble in the Western Balkans to divert attention from Russia’s losses in Ukraine. Serbia is relying heavily on Russia economically (oil, gas, and weapons) and diplomatically in its efforts to reunite ethnic Serbs. While most of Europe has imposed sanctions on Moscow for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Belgrade has rejected such moves and declined to join the global condemnation of Russia’s actions. Even if Serbia were to consider the military option seriously, it would almost certainly lead to a confrontation with NATO peacekeeping forces already stationed in Kosovo since 1999, ready to intervene if stability were threatened. In contrast, Kosovo’s leadership aligns itself with Western Europeans and the U.S., which should help further integrate into international institutions.

While it has not become violent yet, the confrontations between authorities in Kosovo and Serbs residing in northern Kosovo could escalate and spill over to other parts of the Western Balkans, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. The risk of a breakdown into violence will likely remain until the region’s underlying problems, including residual disputes of the 1990s wars, are resolved.


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