When armed conflict collides with climate change

Ahmed Di Ba, herder in Mauritania Ahmed Di Ba, herder in Mauritania © Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

This article is a brief presentation of the ICRC’s report on the cumulative impact of armed conflict, climate risks and environmental degradation

60% of the top 20 countries most vulnerable to climate-related risks, according to the ND-Gain Index, are affected by armed conflict. This is partly due to their geographical location, but also due to the fragility – hugely caused by long-term conflict – of the institutions, essential services and governance, critical to support people to deal with a changing environment. Recent research by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) explores how conflict-affected communities in the Central African Republic (CAR), Iraq and northern Mali cope and adapt to the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation, and how the humanitarian sector can tailor its response and operations to address new climate risks in this delicate context.

Although climate change is a term that people in the CAR, Iraq and Mali know very little about, they are all too familiar with climate-related changes in their environment, which are often affecting some vitally important aspects of their daily lives. In the CAR, people talked of the escalating tensions between farmers and herders due to changing patterns of livestock movement caused by desertification and insecurity; in Iraq, water scarcity is the main reason for the forced displacement of 94% of migrants, and in northern Mali, the combination of repeated droughts and heavy rains is dramatically changing the way of life of farmers and pastoralists, compelling some to move from their homes to look for fertile land. Examples from the case studies show that the impacts of the convergence of climate risks and armed conflict, in some cases intertwined with other interconnected megatrends such as epidemics and demographic growth, are severe.

Armed conflict has been destabilising the CAR since 2013, as part of a decades-long period of violence and fragility. Weak institutions and limited essential services make the region extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate variations, as illustrated by the devastating floods of late 2019. In addition to frequent flood damage, desertification and conflict in the region are forcing changes in transhumance patterns and, in turn, increasing violence amid herders. This is a clear example of the intersection between the climate-related environmental degradation and the obvious, devastating and long-lasting impact of conflict, causing a visible deterioration in the economic and food security of the people inhabiting the region.

Iraq is already experiencing desertification and frequent droughts. Water scarcity has been exacerbated by the lasting impact of repeated bouts of conflict, which have led to poor resource and infrastructure management. The entire region is water-stressed, and water security depends on effective water management and water diplomacy with the country’s neighbours. Further adding to social grievances, some people attribute the water insecurity and desertification to the cutting of date palms for military purposes during the Iran-Iraq war, which have not grown back since.

Living conditions in northern Mali are some of the most challenging in the world, even during peacetime. Violence and armed conflict have been destabilising the country since 2012, and have resulted in the weakening of the State which is no longer able to offer institutional support to the Malians to mitigate the impact of desertification and severe droughts. Many have been forced to move to the cities, turn to farming in the limited greener areas of the country, or find other work in neighbouring countries.

Scientific evidence shows that the climate stress is bound to continue. In the CAR, temperatures are expected to rise, and droughts, heatwaves and reduced soil fertility are expected, as is flood damage. In Iraq, higher temperatures reduced rainfall and the increased soil salinization caused by the drying up of marshland in the early 1990s could turn the entire Fertile Crescent region into an infertile area by 2100, wiping out the source of livelihood for at least a fifth of the Iraqi population, who mostly depend on irrigated or rain-fed crop production. While in agriculture-dependent northern Mali, the complex dynamics could see an increase in social tensions, insecurity and displacement, as more people lose their livelihoods and share the ever-depleting resources. The impact on people’s health and wellbeing is severe, particularly in those parts of the world where their survival depends on safe access to pastureland, water and fertile soil.

These three case studies highlight a global problem affecting conflict-affected communities disproportionately vulnerable to climate-related risks. The UN Water 2020 report has in fact forecasted that over half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2050. So the ICRC’s research paper represents, most of all, an urgent call for joint action. Through a series of recommendations, it aims to inspire the humanitarian sector to team up; to strengthen its data monitoring and climate modelling programmes; to collectively mobilise to support conflict-affected communities, equipping them to deal with these new risks and ultimately restoring  their connection with their precious environment.


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Author: Giulia Ferrara

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