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Environmental Security: Climate Change and Conflict – The Case Study of Darfur – Dr. Moshe Terdiman

February 23, 2013

Environmental Security: Climate Change and ConflictThe Case Study of Darfur

By Moshe Terdiman

Nowadays, Africa faces many security challenges, among them the ever growing energy security crisis in many parts of the continent, including Nigeria, Angola, Niger, Sudan, and Ethiopia as well as the maritime security problem in the Guinea Gulf and off Somalia shores. In addition to the above mentioned challenges facing Africa, there is one more security challenge, which is not restricted to this continent alone and which is widely neglected throughout the world, although it seems to be more and more the number one cause for the eruption of conflicts throughout the world, and particularly in Africa. This challenge is called global climate change. Africa is the continent that is most vulnerable to the uncertainties and weather extremes of climate change since ecological vulnerabilities and widespread poverty seriously limit adaptation capabilities. Extreme climate events such as floods, strong winds, droughts and tidal waves are the main threats to Africa from climate change.[1] 

Africa can easily be said to contribute the least of any continent to global warming. Each year Africa produces an average of just over one metric ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per person, according to the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Annual 2002. The most industrialized African countries, such as South Africa, generate 8.44 metric tons per person, and the least developed countries, such as Mali, generate less than a tenth of a metric ton per person. By comparison, each American generates almost 16 metric tons per year. That adds up to the US alone generating 5.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (about 23% of the world total, making it the leading producer), while Africa as a whole contributes only 918.49 million metric tons (less than 4%). It is a cruel irony that the people living in the continent that has contributed the least to global warming are in line to be the hardest hit by the resulting climate changes.[2]

The critical challenge in terms of climate change in Africa is the way that multiple stressors – such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, the effects of economic globalization, the privatization of resources, and conflict – converge with climate change. It is where several stressors reinforce each other that societies become vulnerable, and impacts of climate change can be particularly severe. A good example is the 2002 drought-triggered famine in southern Africa, which affected millions due partly to populations’ coping capacity being weakened by HIV/AIDS. More importantly, climate change could undo even the little progress most African countries have achieved so far in terms of development. With climate change there is an increase in health problems such as malaria, meningitis, and dengue fever. This means that the few resources that these poor countries have that would have been channeled into essential projects to further economic development must instead be put toward health crisis after health crisis, providing emergency care for the people.[3] 

Africa has been feeling the effects of global warming and more marked effects are likely to come. Thus, globally speaking, areas that already get a lot of rainfall – such as the equatorial and subpolar rain belts – will get more, and areas that get little – such as the subtropical dry zones – will get less. Thus, arid or semi-arid areas in northern, western, eastern and parts of southern Africa have become drier, while equatorial Africa and other parts of southern Africa have become wetter. In a paper published in the September 2004 issue of the International Journal of Climatology, Pingping Xie and colleagues wrote that “large decreasing rainfall trends were widespread in the Sahel from the late 1950s to the late 1980s; thereafter, Sahel rainfall has recovered somewhat through 2003, even though the drought conditions have not ended in the region”. The study also found that major multilayer oscillations have appeared to occur more frequently and to be more extreme since the late 1980s. The result of a prolonged drought in the Sahel during the 1970s was the death of 300,000 people.[4]

 In Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II reported that “the historical climate record for Africa shows warming of approximately 0.7 degrees Celsius over most of the continent during the twentieth century, a decrease in rainfall over large portions of the Sahel, and an increase in rainfall in east central Africa”.[5] However, temperatures have risen much higher in some areas – such as part of Kenya which has become 3.5 degrees celcius hotter in the past twenty years. Even though temperatures in Africa have only warmed slightly over the past century, desert lands are advancing into once arable rain-fed areas, and wetter equatorial parts of Africa are getting wetter, often leading to devastating floods.[6] In the summer of this year, it seems like the devastating floods have reached every corner of Africa from Mauritania in the west to Somalia and Eritrea in the east and from South Africa in the south to Sudan in the north and have caused the displacements of hundreds of thousands of people all over the continent.

Two thirds of the rural population and one third of the urban population are already affected by a lack of access to safe drinking water in Africa. Climate change is expected to exacerbate Africa’s persistent water stress. Due to the large numbers of subsistence-based communities, water scarcity presents a very serious hazard for people’s existence. As rainfall declines, the quality of water deteriorates because sewage and industrial effluents become more concentrated, thereby exacerbating water-borne diseases and reducing the quality and quantity of fresh water available for domestic use. In the Nile region, for example, most scenarios estimate a decrease in river flow of up to 75 per cent by 2100, displacing up to 90 million people by 2015.[7]

Thus, climate change has had a huge impact on agriculture throughout Africa. On any continent crop failure means trouble, but in Africa it’s a catastrophe. About 40% of the gross national product of African countries flows from agriculture, and about 70% of African workers are employed in agriculture, most of them on small plots of land. Africa is full of poor people who are very highly dependent on climate-related issues for their livelihoods. They are subsistence farmers in often very marginal environments. A UN report, which was published on November 5, 2006, predicted that by 2080, global warming could lead to a five percent fall in the production of food crops, such as sorghum in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Zambia; maize in Ghana, millet in Sudan; and groundnuts in Gambia.[8]

Land ownership changes, less restrictive trade policies, commercialization of the agricultural sector, and increasing impoverishment, along with population growth, have pushed people into farming in dry areas, such as the savanna, that not long ago were open to cattle and wildlife grazing. Faced with shrinking open grasslands, once solely pastoral people are settling down and planting crops of their own to supplement their livestock. New farmers tend to be poor and their farms, set in these dry areas, are usually small and thus especially vulnerable to droughts, floods, and other weather hazards associated with climate change. Rainfall is the biggest variable for crop and animal production here. Everything depends on how the rainy seasons are going, so climate change is going to have a huge impact with the expansion of the number of people doing cropping in the more marginal areas. These tend to be the people on the edge of doing well anyway because there is not enough rainfall for them to be productive. Small farmers in Africa are especially vulnerable to changes in precipitation. Only a small number use irrigation or fertilizer of any kind. Larger growers, such as the commercial farms of parts of East Africa, are better able to cope with weather extremes, but they are in the minority.[9]

People who depend on livestock will be just as hard-hit as pastures go brown. Large pastoralists are usually committed to herds of cattle, which demand plentiful water and easy-to-reach areas in which to graze. When water is scarce, they are forced to move their herds southward to relatively wetter areas that are usually occupied by sedentary farmers, thus precipitating inter-group conflicts. However, people who have just a few animals can switch to goats and sheep, animals that tend to be more inventive when it comes to finding food and water.

With changes in land use and climate, some areas in East Africa have become drier and water sources are becoming intermittent or disappearing. Streams that used to run year-round are now seasonal. The expansion of agriculture into savannas also blocks migration routes for large animals such as zebras, wildebeest, and elephants. As a result of climate-related ecosystem changes, some wild sources of food are also becoming harder to find. The fish stock in the deep Rift Valley lakes of East Africa, for example, are decreasing as average air temperatures rise. These lakes–a chain of fresh and brackish bodies including lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria–contain greater biodiversity than any other of the world’s freshwater systems. That diversity depends on algae that are supplied when surface waters mix with nutrient-rich deep waters. With climate change, there is less of this mixing, because the temperature-mediated density difference between the surface waters and the deep waters has gotten greater, and so it takes more energy to mix deep water up to the surface. Less algae means less food for the entire food web, and the result is big decreases in fish catches in all of these lakes.[10]

Thus, O’Reilly and colleagues reported in the 14 August 2003 issue of Nature that climate change had contributed to a 30% decline in Lake Tanganyika fish stocks over the past 80 years. Such declines can be disastrous for the villages in the region, where the average income is less than US$250 per year, and where the people depend on the fish from these lakes for all of their protein.[11]

When this important food source fades, every aspect of the regional environment is affected. As fish yields go down, increased demands are put upon the land as some fishermen switch to arable farming. This, in turn, leads to more intensified farming, and thus more deforestation, increased erosion, and degradation of the shoreline. Degradation of the shoreline destroys in-shore habitat and spawning grounds for many fish species, further impacting the fish population. When food sources dry up, Africans also turn to wild game. This can put pressure on already endangered species and potentially expose diners to the diseases these exotic animals carry.[12] 

Insects – and with them the diseases they harbor – have also been affected by new climatic conditions. As Africa has warmed, vector-borne diseases – those in which a pathogen is carried from one host to another by pests such as mosquitoes – have increased their range. Malaria, for example, has moved into higher African latitudes and can be found nowadays in places such as Nairobi, as highlands have warmed enough for mosquitoes to breed. Furthermore, as malaria makes its way into higher latitudes, it reaches people who didn’t develop malaria immunity as children. The result is an increase in adult mortality. For example, in 2004, a locust plague occurred in several West African countries as a result of desertification and higher temperatures that are likely to have been exacerbated by climate change. The plague destroyed millions of hectares of crops, causing a food crisis for people in the Sahel.[13]

When famine and pestilence appear, war can’t be far behind. Decreasing pastoral lands, decreasing available tillable land, decreasing wild game, and decreasing available water all add up to more strife. Subtropical dry, arid areas are going to be a huge source of conflict over the next half-century or more because there are still very high population growth rates, very low economic growth rates, and deteriorating environment in those areas. Basically, not only are the spillover effects environmental, in terms of dust storms and soil erosion and so forth, but there is also massive spillover of people moving out of more stressed areas into better resourced areas. Thus, in relatively developed countries such as Nigeria and South Africa, 30% or more of the population consists of illegal immigrants.[14]

It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 250 million people who will be forced to flee their homes due to drought, desertification and extreme weather events. Worldwide environment-related migration has been most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa.[15] In 2005, Professor Norman Myers stated that of the 25 millions environmental refugees recorded in 1995, roughly five million in the African Sahel and four million were in the Horn of Africa. In other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa where 80 million people were considered semi-starving due largely to environmental factors, seven million people migrated in order to survive. Of the millions of peoples starving in other parts of Africa, a large, but undocumented number could also be considered environmental refugees.[16]

Farmers, pastoralists, and the new agro-pastoralists are already competing for water and suitable agricultural and grazing land. Regional warming and drying can only be expected to worsen the situation. On occasion, the conflicts that result from this competition can turn violent, although most are settled peacefully. Although many conflicts are politically instigated and driven by underlying economic inequities in resource access, rather than climate change as such, increasing drought stress can exacerbate conflict and violence.

Darfur provides a case study of how existing marginal situations can be exacerbated beyond the tipping point by climate-related factors. It also shows how lack of essential resources threatens not only individuals and their communities but also the region and the international community at large. Thus, the Darfur crisis, which is always discussed in political and military terms, has also roots in an ecological crisis directly arising from climate change.

Thus, according to a UN Environment Programme report published on June 22, 2007, the conflict in Darfur has been driven by climate change and environmental degradation, which threaten to trigger a succession of new wars across Africa unless more is done to contain the damage. Therefore, “Darfur… holds grim lessons for other countries at risk,” the report concludes. With rainfall down by up to 30% over 40 years and the Sahara advancing by well over a mile every year, tensions between farmers and herders over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes threaten to reignite the half-century war between north and south Sudan, held at bay by a precarious 2005 peace accord. The southern Nuba tribe, for example, has warned they could “restart the war” because Arab nomads – pushed southwards into their territory by drought – are cutting down trees to feed their camels.[17] 

Estimates of the dead from the Darfur conflict, which broke out in 2003, range from 200,000 to 500,000. The immediate cause was a regional rebellion, to which Khartoum responded by recruiting Arab militias, the janjaweed, to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing against African civilians. The UNEP study suggests the true genesis of the conflict pre-dates 2003 and is to be found in failing rains and creeping desertification. It found that: the desert in northern Sudan has advanced southwards by 60 miles over the past 40 years; rainfall has dropped by 16%-30%; climate models for the region suggest a rise of between 0.5C and 1.5C between 2030 and 2060; and yields in the local staple, sorghum, could drop by 70%.[18]

Sudan, along with other countries in the Sahel belt, has suffered several long and devastating droughts in the few decades. The most severe drought occurred in 1980 – 1984, and was accompanied by widespread displacement and localized famine. The scale of historical climate change, as recorded in northern Darfur, is almost unprecedented. The reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The impact of climate change is considered to be directly related to the conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move south to find pasture.[19] 

Fighting in Darfur has occurred intermittently for at least thirty years. Until 2003, it was mostly confined to a series of partly connected tribal and local conflicts. Even then, the great drought and famine of 1984-1985 led to localized conflicts that generally pitted Arab pastoralists against Black African farmers in a struggle for diminishing resources, culminating in the Fur-Arab war of 1987 – 1989. But, since 2003, these hostilities escalated into a full-scale military confrontation, which also spills into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic.[20]

The conflict has taken its toll on the environment. The fighting in Darfur has been characterized by a scorched earth campaign, carried out by militias over large areas, which not only resulted in a significant number of civilian deaths, but the widespread destruction of villages and forests, and the displacement of victims fleeing to camps for protection, food and water. The environmental impact of a refugee or displacement camp is often high. Extensive deforestation could be found as far as ten kilometers from a camp; in some the situation has been aggravated by brick-making. Thus, for example, in the Um Chelluta region of southern Darfur, rain-fed agricultural land increased by 138 percent between 1973 and 2000, while rangeland decreased by 56 percent and closed woodland shrank by 32 percent. Therefore, the historical, ongoing, and forecast shrinkage and degradation of remaining rangelands in the northern part of the Sahel belt is set to further exacerbate the situation and the conflict in Darfur.[21]

Indeed, in Niger, the government halted in October 2006 its planned expulsion of nearly 150,000 refugees from neighboring Chad. The refugees, many of them Arab cattle herders, had fled fighting in Chad, but their encroachment on the farmlands and water resources in Niger has increased tensions and led to sporadic fighting with natives.[22]   

It must be stressed that throughout Sudan’s recorded history, pastoralists resisting the shrinkage and degradation of rangelands have been at the center of local conflicts, competing with other groups for choice grazing lands, moving and grazing livestock on cropland without consent, and reducing competition by forcing other pastoralists and agriculturalists off previously shared land.

However, most conflicts evolving from climate-related factors tend to be local and not to develop into international conflicts. Most of the time, the local government has been in control of the situation. Conflicts evolving from climate-related factors have emerged throughout Africa during the last years. In Ghana, clashes between Fulani cattle herdsmen and local farmers over water and land have become more widespread in the past two years, as climate change expands the Sahara desert. Herders are reportedly arming themselves and a bigger confrontation might be brewing. In the Mount Elgon region in Kenya, more than 40,000 people have been displaced as rival clans and ethnic groups fight over access to land. The conflict flared up in the second half of 2006 and politicians have been accused of stocking the violence by awarding land to their own tribes.   

To sum up, climate change will increase experience of heat stress, injury and death from natural disasters (such as floods and windstorms), vector-borne diseases (such as malaria, dengue, schistosmiasis), water-borne and food-borne diseases, and conflict. Yet, it should be stressed that, climate change factors inevitably interact with others – such as governance, political stability and ethnic issues – making it difficult to predict whether and if so how violence will break out in any particular situation. While climate change can certainly play a role in deadly conflicts, it is highly unlikely to be the sole or primary cause. The key therefore is to reduce risks as much as possible and to focus on environment and resource dimensions of actual and potential conflict situations.  

More importantly, climate and environmental stress may also play a role in producing collaboration instead of violence. Water is an important example. Historically, water scarcity has often – though certainly not always – worked to favor cooperation between states. Interstate dialogue prompted by diminished water supplies, particularly, can build trust, institutionalize cooperation on a broader range of issues and create common regional identities.

[1]Zinyowera, Marufu. C., Bubu P. Jallow, R. Shakespeare Maya and H.W.O. Okoth-Ogendo (eds.),  IPCC Special Report on the Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability. See on-line at:


[2]Energy Information Administration, Office of Integrated Analysis and Forecasting, U.S. Department of Energy, International Energy Outlook 2002, March 2002. See on-line at:  


[3] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:


[4] Dai, Aiguo, Peter J. Lamb, Kevin E. Trenberth, Mike Hulme, Philip D. Jones and Pinping Xie, “Comment: The Recent Sahel Drought Is Real”, International Journal of Climatology, 24 (2004), pp. 1323 – 1331. See on-line at:


[5] McCarthy, James J., Osvaldo F. Canziani, Neil A. Leary, David J. Dokken and Kasey S. White (eds.), Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. See on-line at:

[6] Baldauf, Scott, “Africans Are Already Facing Climate Change”, The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2006. See on-line at:


[7] “Climate Change Impacts in Africa”, Social Impacts of Climate Change, A Project by the Myer Foundation, Climate Action Network Australia, and Friends of the Earth Australia. See on-line at:


[8] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:; Baldauf, Scott, “Africans Are Already Facing Climate Change”, The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2006. See on-line at:


[9] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:  


[10] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:  

[11] O’Reilly, Catherine M., Simone R. Alin, Pierre-Denis Plisnier, Andrew S. Cohen and Brent A. McKee, “Climate Change Decreases Aquatic Ecosystem Productivity of Lake Tanganyika, Africa”, Nature, Vol. 424, No. 6950 (August 14, 2003), pp. 766 – 768.


[12] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:

[13] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:; “Climate Change Impacts in Africa”, Social Impacts of Climate Change, A Project by the Myer Foundation, Climate Action Network Australia, and Friends of the Earth Australia. See on-line at:

[14] Fields, Scott, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden Is Greater”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 8 (August 2005). See on-line at:


[15] “Climate Change Impacts in Africa”, Social Impacts of Climate Change, A Project by the Myer Foundation, Climate Action Network Australia, and Friends of the Earth Australia. See on-line at:

[16] Myers, Norman, “Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue”, Thirteenth Economic Forum, Prague, 23 – 27 May 2005. See on-line at:   

[17] United Nations Environment Programme, Sudan: Post Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007. See on-line at:


[18] United Nations Environment Programme, Sudan: Post Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007. See on-line at:


[19] United Nations Environment Programme, Sudan: Post Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007. See on-line at:


[20] United Nations Environment Programme, Sudan: Post Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007.  See on-line at:


[21] United Nations Environment Programme, Sudan: Post Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007. See on-line at:


[22] Baldauf, Scott, “Africans Are Already Facing Climate Change”, The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2006. See on-line at:


This article was translated into French and was first published under the title:

“Securite Environnementale, Changements Climatiques et Conflits: Le Cas du Darfour”,  Outre-terre 2007/3 – no. 20, pp. 141 – 150.

See on-line at: 




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