Study links social unrest in Africa to extreme weather

by Max Greene | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 22 March 2011 14:07 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 2010, the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review, the most prominent publication issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, listed climate change as a threat to national security. “Climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments,” it warned. Likewise, a UK Defence Ministry green paper predicted in the same year that climate change would drive international instability and threaten British interests.

When Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, it was on that premise that climate change can “fuel violence and conflict within and between states”.

And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a column in the Washington Post in 2007, addressed the role of climate change in the conflict in Darfur. “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change,” he wrote.

Africa will likely be the first of the world’s regions to face conflict rooted in climate change, according to The Brewing Storm? Climate Change, Rainfall and Social Conflict in Africa,, a new publication by Cullen Hendrix and Idean Salehyan of the U.S.-based Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. The study predicts that climate change effects will be severe in Africa, and because of the continent’s low capacity for mitigation and adaptation, could lead to social conflict. Ironically, Africans will likely suffer first and worst from insecurity linked to climate change even though they are least responsible for current and historic carbon emissions.

Understanding and responding to the threat of climate-driven instability in Africa requires a more nuanced definition of conflict, argues the report - “one that recognises episodic unrest, riots and demonstrations as well as interstate or civil war”.

The authors say climate change is now a top concern for the global security community, with changing weather patterns – in particular changes to rainfall – expected to play a significant role in driving social conflict in coming years.

This is borne out by the Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD), which was created alongside the study. Capturing over 6,000 social conflict events across Africa from 1990 to 2009, including riots, strikes, protests, coups and communal violence, the database gives policymakers and researchers new tools to analyse conflict patterns.


The database reveals a surprising cause of violent and non-violent social conflict: rain. In recent decades, conflict events have been more common in extremely wet and dry years than in years of normal rainfall.

According to the study, rainfall is a reliable measure of rural income and food security.  African agriculture is dependent on rain, and extremely dry and wet years lead to lower agricultural yields.

Unlike other environmental factors such as soil erosion and water quality, rainfall is not directly affected in the short term by human behaviour. This, the study suggests, points to a significant connection between climate change and social conflict.

In 2007, the IPCC released forecasts of future rainfall against a background of rising global temperatures, and environmental scientists continue to improve upon such data. 

The IPCC’s primary consensus with respect to rainfall across Africa indicates that northern and southern regions will become significantly drier, while eastern Africa will become significantly wetter. Also, rainfall will become “clumpier”, resulting in more floods and run-off with more dry periods in between.

If hypotheses on climate change and social conflict are correct, then unrest will become more prevalent as climate change brings more weather extremes. In dry years, rural incomes are depressed and food and water are scarce. In wet years, flooding causes damage to crops.

Many African communities raise cattle to earn a living, an activity that depends on the natural environment. Poor rainfall can spell disaster as herds are depleted through thirst and inadequate grazing. Pastoral communities in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan are often at the margins of society, with little or no government presence in remote areas to arbitrate disputes. Violence is often used to settle conflicts, and cattle raids have become especially deadly in recent years.

In 2009 and 2010 in southern Sudan, various ethnic groups clashed over cattle, water and grazing rights, resulting in hundreds of reported deaths. Such incidents could threaten the tentative peace between north and south Sudan and pose a challenge to the stability of the south Sudanese government as it moves towards independence.


According to the study, an extremely dry year - defined as occurring roughly once in 40 years - sees, on average, a 34 percent increase in the frequency of social conflict events. An extremely wet year sees, on average, a 27 percent increase in social conflict. Climate forecasts indicate that future rainfall patterns in Africa will become more variable, with more extreme wet and dry years, which could worsen social conflict overall.    

Further examination of the data reveals an even more complex picture. The Social Conflict in Africa Database divides cases into non-violent events, such as demonstrations and strikes, and violent ones, such as rioting and communal clashes. The data reveals that during extremely dry years, both violent and non-violent events increase by roughly the same magnitude. During wet years, however, periods of high rainfall see more violent events than non-violent ones.

Why is violent conflict more common in wet years than in dry periods? The study points to “a paradox of plenty: violence is more prevalent when environmental conditions are more favourable, because resources are abundant and more economically valuable.” Simply put, if violence is a deliberate means of capturing resources, it is only worth using when resources are available.

To break the link between extreme weather and conflict, policy makers must focus on improving water storage and irrigation systems, introduce crops that are less sensitive to drought, and improve access to insurance markets, according to the study. Knowing which regions are vulnerable can also help target efforts where they are needed most.

Those concerned with security and stability in Africa can support the strengthening of political institutions and judicial systems to resolve disputes when they do arise.

Social conflict, which does not fit neatly into definitions of armed conflict, can pose grave threats to political stability and human security. And with climate change impacts set to increase, steps to avert it are becoming a more pressing concern.