Climate and conflict - bedfellows of disaster?

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 8 February 2018 12:58 GMT

Turkana tribeswomen collect water from holes in a dry river in Baragoy, Kenya August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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"It's impossible to build climate resilience without understanding conflict dynamics"

For countries feeling the effects of climate change, from floods to drought and extreme heat, conflict can be an additional challenge.

Climate change can lead to and exacerbate conflict, say experts, but for those affected, these dual problems intersect and compound disasters.

Take Sudan's western Darfur region - a dryland region hit by erratic weather, with a history of conflict playing out at the local, national and international levels.

"Governance institutions in Darfur have remained strong despite protracted conflict," said Helen Young, a research director at Tufts University, said at a meeting convened this week by the UK-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme.

"But local livelihood institutions have been damaged, including those that govern relations between herders and farmers," Young said.

The practice whereby tribal leaders announce when animals can graze crop residues is no longer respected, she added.

Drought can impact on harvests and livestock migration, and cause tensions between communities before the harvest, Young said. "Farmers now remove all crop residues for their own use or resale, while pastoralist herds are increasingly damaging crops before they reach maturity and harvest."

"The farmer-herder tensions are generally worse in a drought year, and much less of a problem if there is a good rainy season leading to a good harvest for farmers and plentiful pasture for herders," she said.


"Unfortunately, the power dynamics between farmers and herders has shifted quite significantly since the outbreak of the wider conflict, in part because of the arming of herders while many of the farmers remain unarmed," Young explained.

Anne Radday, also from Tufts University, said "it's impossible to build climate resilience without understanding and taking into account conflict dynamics."

Such problems are not unique to Sudan, however.

Across the Sahel nomadic herders looking for pasture and water for their cattle often turn to land and wells used by settled farmers. 

In western Chad this can spark tension, said Isaac Gahungu of Concern Worldwide, a charity working on the BRACED programme.

"The traditional leaders try to find solutions... but it's still hard because most of them [leaders] have the same problem - access to water," he said.

Although mediation and better communication can help, the long-term effects of climate change will only drive further conflict, said Gahungu.

"The conflicts will continue - even now NGOs, civil society and government are struggling to find solutions," he said.

By 2035, 80 percent of those living in extreme poverty are expected to be in fragile states, according to research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 


In Asia too, water scarcity has led to conflict, according to Parvin Sultana, a senior research fellow at Middlesex University.

A dispute over water broke out between two communities in the Hakaluki Haor region of Bangladesh, which quickly escalated into violence between  groups living at the top and bottom of the river.

Village elders were consulted and shared information about where other water sources had once been found, with young people then digging up old wells, Sultana said.

This approach led to the rediscovery of abandoned water sources that were then joined to create a rudimentary canal, which resolved the conflict, she said.

The community then sold the surplus of water, using the extra income to maintain the canal.

The project provides a good example of using local knowledge and managing climate-induced conflicts for others to learn from, said Sultana.

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