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OPINION: Facing twin climate and conflict shocks, governments step up

by Mairi Dupar | Overseas Development Institute
Thursday, 1 October 2020 09:01 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A Cameroonian elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) member walks past a burnt car while patroling in the city of Buea in the anglophone southwest region, Cameroon October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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

A more integrated approach to both problems is needed, they say, as is a UN Commissioner on Climate and Security

Mairi Dupar is a senior technical advisor at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Some of the world’s protracted humanitarian disasters are in places where armed conflict is rife and people suffer from environmental crisis.

Lake Chad, which is shared by Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, is one such location. In the region, some 4.5 million people are displaced and the Lake’s area shrinks and expands markedly depending on seasonal rainfall - affecting people’s access to freshwater and food.  

The proliferation of armed groups challenges people’s ability to reach their crops or obtain drinking water, the delivery of humanitarian relief, and longer-term efforts to get people back on their feet. Although huge in scale, Lake Chad is far from alone in experiencing this nexus of issues.

“Last year, seven of the world’s eight worst hunger crises - Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the DRC, Northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - were driven by a confluence of conflict and climate shocks,” said Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

“Conflict, climate shocks and environmental degradation often go hand in hand. They drive humanitarian need and where they occur together, ramp up suffering.”

On September 25, a virtual session of the UN General Assembly intensified the spotlight on links among conflict, climate and the environment.

The Governments of Belgium and Niger joined forces with the European Union and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to urge governments to take a more integrated approach.

The debate re-opened policy questions that have long puzzled governments and aid agencies:

Is there a connection between increases in climate and environment risks and localised violence? Will climate change drive even more conflicts in the future?  If so, what should the international community do about it?

Don’t jump to conclusions

The connections between climate and environment risks and conflict are complicated and often unclear, warned Katie Peters of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI, the session moderator.

In a recent review of evidence on climate, conflict and fragility, she and others found that social tensions often rise when climate shocks such as floods and droughts lead people to compete for scarce natural resources. Occasionally, competition blows up into violent conflict.

However, scarcity can also produce more cooperation, as with water-sharing agreements.

A constant theme is that economic deprivation, weak institutions and poor governance are related to surges in violence, when environmental shocks occur.

Climate factors multiply existing social and economic vulnerabilities – they are not the sole ‘smoking gun’.

Climate change is projected to disrupt ecosystems even more in the future, though, so environmental shocks look set to rise. 

Integration of efforts

The bottom line? Humanitarian agencies are already strained by environment-related crises in unstable, conflict-affected settings today.

“As policy-makers, we can help, by developing systemic, integrated solutions and bring together the development and humanitarian communities,” said Janez Lenarčič, European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.

Philippe Goffin, Belgium’s Minister for Foreign Affairs observed that humanitarian work has become increasingly complex.

“Where it used to be exclusively response-driven, it now also needs to anticipate and focus on strengthening resilience of vulnerable communities,” he said. “These humanitarian concerns have led to a growing call for further analysis and data to improve our understanding and to develop innovative tools.”

Governments re-stated their calls – aired at the Security Council in April – for humanitarian agencies to factor greater climate resilience into their work.

There were also calls for humanitarian agencies to slash the greenhouse gases they emit – and so reduce their contribution to manmade climate change.

A spokesperson for Al Moustapha Garba, Niger’s Minister of Environment, stressed that cooperation was needed to nurture the conditions for stability and economic security in countries in crisis.

Halting land degradation and restoring land productivity would help – he said, along with developing more resilient agriculture and green jobs.

Call for a UN Commissioner on Climate and Security  

Belgium has made a point of highlighting climate, environment and conflict linkages during its temporary term on the UN Security Council. When Ireland takes up a Security Council seat in 2021, it will continue this campaign – with passion. 

Ireland has pledged “to work with Niger to address climate and environmental issues that exacerbate conflict and instability,” said Colin Brophy,  Irish Minister for Overseas Development Aid.

His country will continue to call for a UN Commissioner on Climate and Security, ensuring that these troubling trends stay high on the international agenda.