September/October 2023 Update: Military Responses to Climate Hazards (MiRCH) Tracker

By Tom Ellison and Ethan Wong

In September and October 2023, the Military Responses to Climate Hazards (MiRCH) documented 19 militaries that deployed in response to floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires in 14 countries, including Libya, Mexico, India, Ghana, the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere. 

In northeastern Libya, on 10 September the combination of Storm Daniel’s extreme precipitation and longstanding governance and infrastructure shortfalls caused two dams to collapse. The resulting catastrophic flooding left thousands missing and more than 5,000 feared dead. The international response drew on military resources from Libya and foreign partners including the United States, Egypt, and Turkey, primarily for airlifting of aid supplies. More broadly, the incident highlights how security and governance affect climate vulnerability, and vice versa. Years of conflict and corruption contributed to infrastructure failures, Libyan officials have been arrested amid recriminations over accountability for the floods, and Khalifah Haftar–the military ruler of eastern Libya challenging the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli–is using control over aid to entrench his power.

Meanwhile in Mexico, since late October 17,000 troops have deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Otis, which intensified unexpectedly into the strongest Category 5 hurricane to ever hit Mexico’s Pacific coast, leaving 100 dead or missing in Acapulco, Guerrero state. The disaster prompted power outages, food and water shortages, and looting in the area, which already struggles with poverty and violent organized crime. A lack of warning and slow relief has prompted criticism of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ahead of 2024’s presidential elections. As warming oceans contribute to the rapid intensification of storms, capable early warning and quick relief capabilities will be in greater demand. 

Elsewhere, militaries throughout the Global South and Global North are responding to extreme precipitation, storms, and flooding, underscoring the widespread risk of water-related hazards. In India, the Army and Air Force rescued thousands and conducted relief operations in several parts of the country, including in Sikkim, where a sudden extreme rainstorm in early October caused a glacial lake to burst and created flash flooding downstream that killed at least 74, including 8 army personnel. Ghana’s Navy in October rescued more than 8,000 people after heavy rains raised water levels at the Akosombo dam to its maximum capacity, prompting a controlled spillage that displaced roughly 26,000. Meanwhile, in New York City, the National Guard was deployed to assist residents after record rainfall led to severe flash flooding that trapped cars, submerged streets, and disrupted transportation networks. As climate change intensifies rainfall in many areas, these incidents further emphasize the vulnerabilities of existing infrastructure to cope with such high volumes of water. 

In contrast, militaries are also responding to the consequences of drought, illustrating the dual threats that countries face from both too much and too little rainfall. For example, the Brazilian Air Force will be supporting a new civil defense task force to provide relief to the estimated 111,000 people in the Amazon affected by an unprecedented drought. In the United States, a lack of precipitation has reduced the Mississippi River water level to a record-low, causing saltwater to move up the river and threaten the water supply of communities near New Orleans. As a result, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken steps to slow the saltwater intrusion and transport up to 36 million gallons of fresh water daily into the region. 

Finally, the ongoing disaster recovery efforts in Maui underscore the lasting damage of climate hazards. Nearly 700 U.S. Department of Defense personnel remain in Hawaii to support the FEMA-led response to the devastating wildfire in August. As officials shift towards the long-term recovery of the community, the military continues to engage with local leaders and provide  transportation, fuel and water distribution, mortuary affairs, and construction of temporary facilities. The Army Corps of Engineers will soon conduct complex debris clearing operations in preparation for eventual rebuilding.

To see the full MiRCH tracker with new updates for September and October, click here.