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Climate change lacks 'the immediacy of now' in conflict zones - experts

by Rachel Stern | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 October 2015 09:05 GMT

A Tuareg man holds a bullet near a destroyed vehicle belonging to Islamist rebels on the road between Diabaly and Timbuktu in Mali January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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Climate change can contribute to conflict - but it's hard to focus on in conflict areas with pressing immediate needs

BERLIN, Oct. 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Barren barley and wheat fields stretch across the dry landscape of northern Afghanistan, the result of persistent drought and flash flooding that has left thousands of people facing food shortages and loss of work.

Climate change is a core culprit of such extreme weather, according to longtime humanitarian worker and biologist Jim Jarvie. He believes sustainable, less resource-intensive solutions are needed to help farmers adapt.

But he has not always had much luck conveying the message to some of his peers.

“I’ve found that in conflict areas, if you raise the visibility of climate change – which we did in Afghanistan – we can just see the eyes rolling up, saying, ‘Oh good Lord’, because it’s not the immediacy of now,” said Jarvie, who served as the first director of the climate, environment, and energy unit at MercyCorps, a humanitarian organisation that helps people bounce back after conflicts, natural disaster and other crises.

Indeed, adapting to climate change may not be as pressing a concern for the world as stopping bullets or Islamic State. Yet failing to tackle climate pressures now will carry severe future consequences for both sustainable development and security, those working on building peace in fragile states say.

“For many, climate change is too far removed from the present context to be of immediate concern; (people say), 'It’ll be a problem 20, 30 years down the road, but I’ve got bigger problems today’,” said Alec Crawford, who leads on environment, conflict and peace-building work at the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD).

While there is truth in that, a failure to consider climate risks could threaten the long-term sustainability of their work, Crawford added.

Changing drought and flood patterns, for instance, could challenge the viability of refugee camps, such as those in Chad, which currently hosts over 450,000 refugees from neighboring countries such as Sudan and Nigeria, he said.

Climatic extremes also could undermine farm-based job programs targeting ex-combatants, such as those in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

“Climate change is already upon us, and it’s hitting these fragile countries hardest,” said Crawford. “We can’t ignore it.”



Fragile states are the most exposed to climate change impacts, even though they are the less equipped to deal with them, said Crawford in a report he recently co-authored. Many fragile countries are already struggling with problems such as weak security, governments and law enforcement, as well as corruption and economic instability.            

Even if climate change does not directly lead to conflict in fragile states such as Chad, Somalia and Haiti, it may act as a “threat multiplier”, exacerbating existing challenges, experts say.

Drought used to hit Somalia, for example, once a decade. Now about every three years, families are forced to abandon arid lands and move their sheep and goats – or camels for those better off – to areas with more water and forage, or where they can grow crops, experts say.

“The more that these cyclical shocks prevent people from having sustainable livelihoods, the more we’re seeing migration of people, which is leading to a lot of inter-clan violence” said Dustin Caniglia, who works in Nairobi for Concern Worldwide, a humanitarian organisation.

“That’s where the peace building starts to break down,” he said.

But programming on climate change, “hasn’t been extremely well received in Somalia” by humanitarian organisations, he said, because it’s currently easier to convince donors to fund projects with tangible impacts in the near future.



In Mali, rainfall has dropped by 30 percent since 1998, leaving almost two million people in need of food aid according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. Furthermore, the vast Sahara desert is expanding southwards at a rate of 48 kilometers a year, according to a 2011 study by the University of Idaho.

Yet the Malian government, strained by a recent war and lack of resources, is calling on outside agencies like the United Nations to provide wastewater sanitation and food.

“Mali has good environmental laws, but the country does not implement them as it lacks the means to do so,” said Sophie Ravier, chief of the Environment and Culture Unit at the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Unit in Mali (MINUSMA), which aims to protect and support Mali's citizens and human rights in the country.

Overstretched and underfunded, governments in fragile states are often overwhelmed by climate change adaptation requirements, said Colin Rasmussen, who has served as a humanitarian aid worker for agencies such as Save the Children, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Creative Associates International.

And failure to adapt and protect food and water security, particularly in the face of worsening droughts and floods, can lead to humanitarian crisis.

The struggle for scarce water resources along the Kenya-Ethiopia border, for example, led to clan violence spanning both countries in 2012. A new dam being built at Lake Turkana, which stretches into both countries, is predicted to trigger more clashes, according to Human Rights Watch.



As global temperatures rise and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increases, more of the world’s population is at risk. Nearly 40 percent of the global population lives near the ocean, according to the United Nations, and climate change will increase the risks associated with hurricanes and flooding.

Despite these challenges, there are a few core ways in which development and peace-building workers can weave climate-resilient interventions into their work. The aim is to help communities and countries “anticipate, cope with, recover from, and adapt to shocks and stresses” in the environment, Crawford said.

Understanding local context is the first step, IISD emphasizes. What climate challenges does a particular state face, today and in the future, and why? With this in mind, how can short-term needs – such as the settlement of internally-displaced people – be balanced with longer-term ones, such as ensuring that there are adequate water supplies in the long-run for all users?

The main critique of climate change in peace-building and humanitarian work is that we can only take care of the short term,” said Geoff Dabelko, a senior adviser to the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.

“Yet,” he said, “the short-term often becomes the long-term.”


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