Ten years ago, then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was talking about Dafur, Sudan and the escalating conflict in the region, stating that ‘amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change’. Some took this statement as Ban Ki-Moon describing the conflict in the Darfur region as ‘the world’s first climate change conflict’. Research reflected that the incidence of conflicts was likely to be higher in years where there had been low rainfall, and that climate change has changed rainfall patterns.
UN Environment Programme researchers based in Nairobi corroborated Ki-Moon’s statement about the conflict in Darfur, stating that access to water ‘is the difference between life and destitution’, and climate change was creating ‘unavoidable pressure on people through migration, displacement, food insecurity and impoverishment, possibly ending in conflict’.
The causal links between conflict and climate change have been and continue to be debated by experts. Some argue that the root causes of conflicts are primarily economic and political, and actors in the conflict may exploit drought, starvation, flooding and other environmental security threats to their own advantage. Others claim that portraying climate change as the cause of conflict excuses governments from their responsibility and diminishes their culpability in inciting civil war.
Fast forwarding to 2017, Sudan and South Sudan are not faring much better. Embroiled in a violent civil war rooted in ethnic conflict, the world’s newest country is also now plagued with famine. In February 2017, it was reported that 100,000 South Sudanese were at risk of starvation, and a further one million people on the brink of famine, with the grim prediction of another five million becoming food insecure by April. Here again, we see climate change entering the stage as a “threat multiplier”, as an ongoing drought has acted as a driving force in the grievous situation of South Sudan—which the UN has referred to as the ‘world’s fastest growing refugee crisis’.
In contrast to Darfur, there has been little disagreement that civil and ethnic conflict lie at the root of South Sudan’s current conflict and ensuing famine. As the Dutch Minister for International Trade and Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen bluntly phrased it, ‘the leaders of South Sudan are bastards who starve their own people’.
What we can see in South Sudan, Darfur and other contemporary civil conflicts, particularly those which involve the mass displacement of people, is that politics, money, power and territory primarily drive conflicts. However, people’s capacity to survive in such times of conflict is affected by the impacts of climate change.
Corrupt political and military actors can exploit the impacts of climate change—such as drought, and its ensuing shortage of water and poor crop production—as a weapon in conflict. They who have the resources to purchase food and water have leverage over others who do not.
It’s often the case that drought prevents people from growing what they need to survive and violent conflict displaces those who can grow crops, whilst their governments prioritise increases in military spending over providing food and water. In providing aid in these situations, the international community needs to not only focus on providing food and water to ensure immediate survival, but also on mitigating against climate risks to ensure longer-term survival.
When the numbers of displaced people fleeing violence increases, exacerbating already-strained urban areas, and crop production decreases, resources like water, grain and livestock can become securitised. Thus, starvation can be used as a weapon of mass destruction.
Whilst serving as South Sudan’s Minister of Environment, Deng Deng Hoc Yai stated that climate change was exacerbating civil war in South Sudan, and the situation called for a more integrated approach by the international community to recognise the links between conflict and climate change, since conflict aggravated any climate defence occurring on the ground. In times of civil war, rebels ‘are free to inflict any damage on the environment unchecked and without accountability’.
People often adopt phrases like the "economic climate" and "political climate" to describe how various factors within the realms of politics and economics are contributing to a volatile situation. The situations in both Darfur and South Sudan remind us that "environmental climate" cannot be overlooked when trying to unravel the complexities of civil conflicts.
Climate change could increasingly affect both the intensity and number of civil conflicts in environmentally vulnerable regions of the world. And in 2011, the African Partnership Forum predicted that nearly half of Africa would face water stress within 20-30 years. Our understanding of the climates of conflict may become increasingly complex as climate change poses a growing threat to human security—fanning the flames of civil, ethnic, political and economic conflicts worldwide.
Georgia Collins-Jennings is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.