The Irrefutable Link Between Climate Change And Conflict


The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index measures a country’s climate change vulnerability against its capacity for resilience. War-torn states like Yemen, Mali, the Central African Republic and Somalia rank among the countries most disproportionately affected by climate change. A Red Cross study adds that conflict-ridden countries are less able to adapt to climate change amid the rule of law’s absence. Although people living in conflict zones are the most vulnerable to climate change, they are overlooked in global climate action because humanitarian interventions fail to account for the connection between climate and conflict.

Case Study: The Central African Republic

Since 2012, the Central African Republic has been embroiled in a violent civil war, forcing over a million people to flee to neighbouring Sudan and Rwanda. Although much of the tension stems from religious and ethnic divisions, the conflict has also pitted agricultural communities against nomadic groups. Increasing resource scarcity across the region caused by drought has severely challenged farmers. Meanwhile, violence in neighbouring countries has driven livestock herders into the Central African Republic, stiffening competition for resources between herders and farmers, adding another layer to this complex civil conflict. Concurrently, the country experiences extreme weather events. In 2019, severe flooding left tens of thousands in the capital Bangui homeless and caused outbreaks of malaria and cholera. As rainy seasons become increasingly irregular, farmers will struggle to maintain food supply.

Displacement has aggravated environmental problems. Increased concentration of livestock is depleting resources and harming animal health. Out of desperation, many resort to deforestation to relieve poverty and food insecurity——using trees for fuel, selling firewood for income, and feeding livestock with grass—at enormous ecological cost.

Case Study: Somalia

Somalia’s story is similar. Twenty-five years of internal conflict has shattered the Somali state. The country’s economy is largely informal, based on livestock and remittances. The UN’s 2010 Human Development Report states that 81% of Somalis live in multidimensional poverty, experiencing “acute deprivation” in areas such as health and education.

Worsening drought has compounded Somalia’s problems. By disrupting water access, escalating food insecurity, and spreading disease, it has escalated tensions between clans, bolstered the ranks of terror groups, and increased displacement. Precious resources like food and water are more than just a basic need today in Somalia; they have become a source of power among feuding clans.

With livestock and agriculture forming the basis of Somali livelihoods, the country is exceedingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This vulnerability is magnified by Somalia’s low-lying, coastal geography, which is threatened by rising sea levels. As climate impact worsens and al-Shabaab’s presence grows, a new conflict, pitting herders against farmers, has emerged, as flooding, heatwaves, and drought decimate agricultural output.

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Moreover, the governance vacuum in much of Somalia has prompted pastoral communities to turn to the arms trade to protect themselves and their livestock from rustlers. Rustling—the stealing of cattle—has long been an issue in Somalia, but has intensified as more livestock perish from the weather-related effects of climate change, initiating small-scale violence among communities as food competition increases.

Looking ahead

Studies demonstrate with increasing accuracy that climate change can escalate fraught security situations. Much of this research, however, has been limited to the link between rainfall variability and conflict. Other scenarios where climate impacts could transform the geopolitical landscape include sea-level rise and food insecurity. As climate change decreases economic opportunity in the Horn of Africa, increased piracy is likely to occur. Evidence from UNESCO demonstrates an overlap between countries with a high incidence of piracy and significant climate vulnerability, exemplified by the insecurity of the Gulf of Aden.

While droughts and natural disasters are not new phenomena, the increased frequency of extreme weather will place additional pressures on already stretched governments, making conflict more likely and enduring. The only positive is that climate change, compared with other security risks, can be modelled with a higher degree of certainty.

Climate vulnerability heightens the risk of instability and will increasingly precipitate humanitarian emergencies. A shift in mindset, however, may be occurring among nations and organisations in how they address complex humanitarian crises fuelled by environmental degradation.

By Global Risk Insights


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