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What climate conflict looks like

Darfur refugee camp in Chad.

This article originally appeared on the New Security Beat website.

Climate change and conflict – what’s the relationship? In a recently completed set of field-based studies for USAID, the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability set aside “yes-or-no” questions about whether climate change causes conflict and replaced them with pragmatic and politically informed questions about how climate change is consequential for conflict in specific fragile states.

From Niger’s arid zones and Burkina Faso’s central plateau to the low-lying slums of coastal West Africa and the water-stressed Peruvian Andes, a series of case studies conducted from 2011 to 2014 in seven countries found that broad assertions of a causal relationship between climate change and conflict are likely to be misleading. There are too many contingent factors potentially contributing to conflict to make a useful, direct connection.

Yet, our findings also suggest that minimizing or disregarding climate change’s impact on conflict is similarly misplaced and counterproductive.

As explained in our project summary, climate-related impacts are already directly and indirectly affecting the poorest, most vulnerable, and most aggrieved groups in each of these countries. Climate change has important implications for livelihoods and economic development, state-society dynamics, resource governance, institutional performance, and relations among privileged and disadvantaged identity groups. A large body of literature indicates that these factors are often important conflict variables.

As international assistance agencies and governments formulate responses to climate change, these case studies illustrate challenges they may encounter and suggest ways to prevent or mitigate the potential for conflict.

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Traditional ways of life overturned

One of the sources of insecurity observed in rural areas is the decreasing relevance and viability of traditional knowledge and coping mechanisms.

In Uganda, Ethiopia, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Peru, rural inhabitants commented on livelihood challenges resulting from the increasingly erratic nature and sheer unpredictability of weather patterns, especially the unusually late arrival, unexpected intensity, or early cessation of rains. Among groups already frustrated by government policies and demographic challenges, the diminished effectiveness of traditional forms of adaptation adds to a sense of powerlessness.

Climate change has had a similarly corrosive effect on group identity and social roles in the Horn of Africa. Traditionally, elders have made group decisions about planting crops and where and when community members are likely to find pasture and water. After chronic and severe droughts in recent years, these voices of experience and authority have lost credibility and influence, reducing their roles in conflict prevention as well.

In Niger, traditional Tuareg nomadic life was upended by the great droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. Successive national governments failed to respond effectively to Tuareg needs and heightened the potential for conflict by favoring other dominant groups.

The potential for conflict from the impacts of climate change is perhaps strongest in the context of rapid economic development of favored sectors or groups. Pastoralists in Uganda and Ethiopia, already suffering from droughts and rising temperatures, are wary of their national governments’ plans for “sedentarization” and support for large-scale commercial agriculture and other high-value investments that require large land acquisitions and the intensive use of natural resources. The same is equally true for the Tuaregs and other herders in Niger, in what could easily become an explosive situation.

These groups see their governments’ vision for the future as one in which pastoralists decrease in numbers or disappear entirely. In Peru, farmers in the Andes do not perceive the government to be intrinsically “anti-campesino,” but they do feel threatened by what they see as a deliberate policy of giving the highly promoted and rapidly expanding mining and export sectors preferential access to scarce water resources.

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Institutional failures and an expectations gap

In all of the countries studied, climate change impacts intertwine with institutional shortcomings in ways that negatively affect stability.

In southern Ethiopia under conditions of recurrent drought, problems around access to land are exacerbated by administrative boundaries and jurisdictions associated with ethnic federalism. In Niger, the Tuareg feel squeezed and compromised by climate-driven landscape change and what they perceive as inequitable implementation of the Rural Code, which regulates the access to and use of natural resources. Among migrants driven in part by climate stresses in Burkina Faso, similar confusion and resentment arises over rural land use laws. In Peru, irrigation rights are complex and often blatantly unfair, creating a race between efforts to improve water management and the growing impacts of climate change.

Although there is both observed and anecdotal evidence of increasingly erratic and extreme weather events in most of the locations covered, there is a significant lack of time-series weather data and location-specific knowledge about climate change in all seven countries. The dissemination of timely and accurate weather information is also spotty at best. In some places, conflict itself is a reason for the absence of data.

As frustrations with the unpredictability of climate change rise, however, the lack of help or reliable guidance from government institutions is becoming a source of grievances. In 2013, for example, frustrations in Lagos, Nigeria, arose when public officials announced the likelihood of unusually intense rainfall and flooding in the approaching rainy season and advised residents to be prepared to leave – even though they had no adequate or easily accessible place to go. Over time, the gap between citizen expectations for clear risk reduction measures and actual institutional capacity and performance is likely to increase.

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Climate change amid injustice

The case study covering the urban areas of Lagos and Accra, Ghana, makes clear that two sets of climate-related issues are very likely to become more conflictive in the years ahead: 1) the conundrum of rehabilitating or relocating low-lying slum areas highly vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise; and 2) the effects of (possibly climate-driven) migrants arriving in cities from surrounding drought-affected regions.

The growth of poor and illegal settlements on highly flood-prone wetlands in Lagos is such that the relocation of at least some residents appears to be inevitable. Absent such adaptation measures, flood casualties can be expected to rise steadily. However, the question of eviction, relocation, or rehabilitation is fraught with social and political tensions.

Government policies tend to place a low priority on poor, vulnerable, and climate-affected populations’ traditional livelihoods and give high priority to large-scale commercial rural or urban development. The affected communities are well aware of this political imbalance and feel marginalized, or even abused. Slum dwellers in Lagos see the new “Eko Atlantic” project, which includes modern commercial and residential developments protected by a massive seawall, while devastating floods threaten their own homes and raise the specter of relocation.

Similarly, in Peru, rural community associations and young professionals in the highlands are trying to get more attention for grievances over natural resources and climate change threats from a central government traditionally more responsive to the political interests of wealthier coastal elites. While climate change concerns are relatively new to this agenda, past experience shows that the tipping point from nonviolence to violence can arrive quickly when passions are high in relation to social-environmental mobilizations in the Andes.

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From conflict to climate adaptation and resilience

The complexity of interactions between climate and non-climate factors is similar to the interactions of other factors commonly believed to contribute to conflict. Poor countries have higher incidences of conflict, but few analysts would be comfortable asserting in unqualified terms that “poverty causes conflict.” Poverty is nevertheless a major focus for researchers and international assistance agencies, both because of its contributions to instability and conflict and because of its intrinsic human costs. The same holds true of the relationship between climate change and conflict.

The practical challenge for governments and international assistance agencies is to ask how climate change impacts may affect or interact with non-climate factors, such as identity, social patterns, livelihoods, and institutional performance, and whether those interactions are likely to generate or contribute to the potential for conflict in specific countries or locales. The answers to those questions will help to suggest location-specific climate adaptation measures and identify the kinds of institutional and community stakeholders who need to participate.

It is worth noting that because climate-related conflict is highly likely to take place in the context of other existing grievances, these sorts of climate-and-conflict prevention and mitigation interventions are almost certain to simultaneously address other basic problems, such as rural water and soil conservation and urban housing and drainage.

In one recent example that came as a consequence of the Ethiopia case study, USAID created the Peace Centers for Climate and Social Resiliency (PCCSR) in southern Ethiopia. The PCCSR initiative uses dialogue on climate-related resource challenges among different pastoralist groups as a mechanism for addressing inter-group tensions. Tailored to local circumstances, this sort of approach to conflict prevention could be extended to other ethnically diverse regions and climate-vulnerable communities.

If the aim of new assistance programs is to build resilience, the strengthening of formal and informal institutions that can prevent or mitigate conflict over natural resources is essential. These case studies show that there are many opportunities for participatory climate change adaptation to make a lasting contribution to conflict mitigation and peacebuilding, from implementing rural resource rights in the Sahel and promoting cross-sectoral dialogue on water management in Peru to engaging slum communities in flood prevention in Lagos and Accra.

Likewise, peacebuilding or conflict resolution interventions in vulnerable places could be used as the basis for climate change responses. By engaging conflict-prone, marginalized communities, climate adaptation programs can help to address the perceived lack of participation and representation that is one of the main sources of instability in fragile states.

Jeffrey Stark is the director of research at the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability. ‘Climate Change and Conflict: Findings and Lessons Learned From Five Case Studies in Seven Countries’ was prepared by FESS for Tetra Tech ARD under USAID’s African and Latin American Resilience to Climate Change Project.

Sources: Climatic Change, Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability.

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