S ix months before the outbreak of mass protests in Damascus and the regime crackdown that would eventually spiral into the hell of the Syrian Civil War, Olivier de Schutter, the then UN special rapporteur on the right to food, warned of the devastating effects of a series of droughts on hundreds of thousands of people in the region. The droughts, which had pushed 2-3 million people into “extreme poverty”, hit small scale farmers hardest, with many unable to grow enough food to feed their own families, let alone to sell, while herders had lost 80-85% of their livestock since 2005. The result: thousands leaving their homes in the northeast to live in informal settlements near Damascus just as the country was filling up with refugees from the Iraq War.
It would be impossible to reduce the civil war that has gripped Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring to a single factor, but scientists now believe that the drought, and the Assad regime’s failure to respond effectively to it, exacerbated other tensions arising from corruption and lack of democracy, as well as unemployment, the strain of urban migration, food shortages, massive population growth and poverty, ultimately leading to civil unrest. What’s more, for their report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University examined meteorological data which led them to conclude that natural variability alone was unlikely to account for the trends in wind, rain, and heat that led to the drought. The implication is clear: climate change was one of the causes of the Syrian Civil War.
The report states: “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest... Precipitation changes in Syria are linked to rising mean sea-level pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, which also shows a long-term trend. There has been also a long-term warming trend in the Eastern Mediterranean, adding to the drawdown of soil moisture. No natural cause is apparent for these trends, whereas the observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, model studies show an increasingly drier and hotter future mean climate for the Eastern Mediterranean. Analyses of observations and model simulations indicate that a drought of the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought, which is implicated in the current conflict, has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system.”
Climate scientist Richard Seager, co-author of the report, is keen to point out that climate change is not the sole factor behind the Syrian Civil War and that all conflicts have multiple causes. “Some people predicted that Syria would collapse as a result of the 1.5 million refugees from Iraq and that may have done it on its own - or not, we will never know,” Professor Seager tells The World Weekly. “What we are saying is that, with 1.5 million additional internal refugees from the agricultural area, the way Syria unravelled and then war broke out was influenced by the drought. What is important is the combination of the drought, migration, the existing stress in Syria from the Iraqi refugees, and the government response, or lack thereof.”
Almost everyone agrees that climate change is occurring and the mainstream scientific consensus is that humans are behind it. It is widely accepted on current models that climate change will have devastating effects on the environment and severe consequences for people, particularly in poorer countries where crop failures and vanishing glaciers are a matter of life and death. The idea that climate change threatens human populations as a catalyst for war is a relatively new one, however. Syria may not be the first recent conflict caused, in part, by climate change. It is unlikely to be the last.
The Arab Spring would likely have come one way or another, but the context in which it did is not inconsequential. Global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier.”
Africa under pressure
In 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, reflecting on progress made on both climate change and the conflict in Darfur, took the unusual step of explicitly linking the two.
“Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand - an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers,” Mr. Ban wrote in an article for the Washington Post. “Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”
Two decades ago, Mr. Ban points out, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail. According to UN statistics, between the early 1980s and 2007, average precipitation declined by 40%. This was no quirk of nature as scientists first suspected, the secretary-general contends; rather subsequent investigation found that it coincided with a rise in temperatures of the Indian Ocean, disrupting seasonal monsoons. This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming.
“It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought,” he argues. “Until then, Arab nomadic herders had lived amicably with settled farmers. A recent Atlantic Monthly article by Stephan Faris describes how black farmers would welcome herders as they crisscrossed the land, grazing their camels and sharing wells. But once the rains stopped, farmers fenced their land for fear it would be ruined by the passing herds. For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out. By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today.”
The role of climate change in the Darfur conflict remains contentious among scientists. Professor Seager himself is unconvinced. “Our work there appears to suggest the drought there for the last decade or more (on and off) is due to natural variability. Models project east Africa to get wetter, not drier, under climate change.”
Professor Seager admits that models simulate east Africa's climate badly, so it is not clear they are right. He believes the Syrian case is the only one so far in which researchers have been able to pull all the facts together to make the case that a climate event occurred and that climate change helped set off conflict. But if Syria is the neatest example of a conflict being caused or exacerbated by climate change, there are many other cases out there that warrant further investigation, not least the myriad much smaller conflicts over scarce resources taking place at the community level.
Lake Chad is a case in point. The lake, which provides water to over 68 million people living in the surrounding countries of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, historically received most of its water from the annual monsoon rains. But rainfall has been decreasing since the 1960s and the region experienced two major droughts from 1972 to 1974 and from 1983 to 1984, leading the UN to conclude that “the size of the region affected by this change and its duration are without precedent in hydro-climatic chronicles”. Fears now arise of an impending water scarcity crisis, while the climate change-related diminution of the lake, shrinking away from its Nigerien and Nigerian shorelines towards Chad and Cameroon is causing cross-border tensions, according to an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report.
“In the 1980s, for instance, there were allegations of serious infractions and dehumanising treatments meted out to Nigerian fishermen by Cameroonian and Chadian gendarmes,” Freedom Onuoha writes for the ISS. “Such tensions over territory and fishing rights still persist in the area. For instance, a Nigerian fisherman recently argued: ‘It is difficult to determine boundaries on [Lake Chad] water, yet the gendarme from Cameroon and Chad always come after us and seize our fishing nets and traps and we have to pay heavily to get them back.’”
The ISS reports that Lake Chad’s contraction has also resulted in an influx of Udawa nomadic cattle herders from Niger as well as the migration of citizens of Chad and Niger further south in search of better opportunities.
“These long-distance migrants, usually referred to as Udawa, have been well-armed since the mid-1990s and are willing to use violence to assure their grazing,” says Dr. Onuoha. “This has contributed to the violent conflicts between herders and farmers in the northern part of Nigeria. Furthermore, farmers and cattle herders have moved deeper southwards where they have ended up competing for the available scarce resources such as fresh water and arable or grazing lands with other economic groups or with host communities. Harsh environmental trends in the northern part of Nigeria, such as the shrinkage of Lake Chad and desertification, have made the seasonal movement of the Hausa and Fulani cattle rearers to the southern part of Nigeria more permanent. Previously, these pastoralists migrated to the southern part during the dry season and moved back to the north during the rainy season. Because of the deteriorating situation in the region, many of them are now settling down in some areas of southern Nigeria. This has contributed to resource conflicts in these areas with the potential to spill over into ethnic clashes.”
Fulani ethnic Mbororo cattle herders have also come into conflict with non-Mbororo subsistence farmers in Cameroon’s Northwest Region. The disputes - which have lasted decades, costing lives and immiserating communities on both sides - owe much to competition over land and water. This is something climate change may have served to exacerbate, with drought in Mali and Nigeria resulting in the southwards migration of Fulani herders. Some studies suggest that further conflicts have been provoked as low rainfall has caused the movement of cattle, pushing crop farmers away from their land. Farmers have acted to block cattle routes, while cattle have come to trample crops where farmers have encroached onto the routes.
Jess Street of Village Aid, a UK-based charity working with the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association to resolve the conflict in Cameroon tells The World Weekly: “In a survey of 840 households, the largest study of its kind ever conducted in the country, it was found that a staggering three-quarters of households have recently been involved in conflict, compromising education, health, income and food security. The crops of 85% of farmers have been damaged and almost 30% of herders have had their cattle killed, injured or stolen, resulting in a collective loss of XAF64,520,000 ($107,000) over the last three years.
This is around 700 times the average farmer’s annual income and 21 times a wealthy herder’s income. Many farmers have defaulted on loan repayments as cattle have destroyed their crops.”
The conflict, like the Syrian Civil War, cannot be reduced solely to environmental causes: social, political, religious and cultural factors all have their part to play. But it is highly likely that climate change is exacerbating such small-scale resource conflicts. And although these disputes are of a completely different order to the war in Syria, they can involve acts of great ferocity. In Cameroon there are reports of farmers poisoning cattle, herders destroying crops and sexual assaults on women farmers.
“Once my child was taken by a Mbororo man... and severely beaten and he was bleeding through his mouth,” one farmer says. Another reports: “A shepherd pierced my sister with a knife and the intestine came out”.
A precarious future
That the Syrian Civil War, one of the greatest tragedies of today, might have been sparked, in part, by one of the greatest tragedies of tomorrow throws it into even sharper relief. The worst impacts on society brought about by climate change are likely still to come: not necessarily in all-encompassing conflicts, but in many smaller ones in some of the world’s poorest countries, holding back development, retarding reform, exacerbating the pressures of inequality and contributing to instability in the world.
“Many developing countries face increasingly complex, fast moving and interacting environmental resources scarcities,” says Thomas Homer-Dixon, chief researcher on the Environmental Change and Acute Conflicts Project. “These scarcities can overwhelm efforts to produce constructive change and can actually reduce a country’s ability to advocate reform. Consequently, environmental scarcity sometimes helps to drive society into a self-reinforcing spiral of violence, institutional dysfunction and social fragmentation.”
Many African countries are facing numerous resource crises, from water scarcity and deforestation to desertification and environmental degradation, even without climate change. The ISS points out that with climate change, the situation is becoming worse as about 340 million people in Africa already lack access to safe drinking water, and as much as two-thirds of all arable land is estimated to be affected by degradation. “This is compounded by a variety of factors, including poor governance, population pressure, inadequate or ambiguous land tenure rights, and inappropriate farming technologies,” writes Bonnie Ayodele for the ISS.
Worryingly, as historical records show that the number of conflicts rises in warmer-than-average years, researchers from Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley, New York University and Harvard University predict that by 2030, Africa could see a 55% increase in civil wars (from 1990 levels), in which fighting alone could claim as many as 390,000 more lives.
“We were definitely surprised that the linkages between temperature and recent conflict were so strong," said Edward Miguel of the University of California-Berkeley after the study was published in 2009. "But the result makes sense. The large majority of the poor in most African countries depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and their crops are quite sensitive to small changes in temperature. So when temperatures rise, the livelihoods of many in Africa suffer greatly, and the disadvantaged become more likely to take up arms.”
Vesselin Popovski, head of the United Nations University Institute of Sustainability and Peace’s Peace and Security Section, is not convinced there is a direct link between climate change and conflict, even if there is an indirect one. Dr. Popovski argues: “The causes of conflict are primarily political and economic, not climatic. Warlords — who foster conflict — may exploit drought, flooding, starvation, agricultural or natural disasters in their strategies, like they did in Somalia and Darfur. But what will drive their fight is not the rain, the temperature, or the sea level — they will always fight for the same goals of power, territory, money, revenge, etc.”
It would of course be too simplistic to reduce conflicts over scarce resources to climate change alone. Discussing its role in inter-communal resource conflicts in northern Kenya, a 2009 report by the Conservation Development Centre, the International Institute for Sustainable Development and Saferworld calls climate change a “threat multiplier” that will compound other drivers of conflict. This is something the US Defense Department is taking seriously. It too sees climate change as a "threat multiplier” that will impact national security, a conclusion very much in line with Professor Seager’s assessment of the Syrian Civil War.
Professor Seager is concerned about a number of regions beyond Africa. “The first area of concern is the wider Middle East,” he says. “The whole region will dry because of human-driven climate change and water is scarce already and of course the region is prone to conflict. Rising sea levels causing migration in southeast Asia could also lead to conflict but sea levels rise slowly so this may not be an abrupt event though combinations of typhoons and rising sea levels could create mass migration events and social disruption.”
Such is the interconnectedness of modern society, it is more than possible that in future, we may see conflicts in one country being exacerbated by climate-change related events in other parts of the world. An increase in food prices brought about by a drought in China, for example, could see social unrest spreading in Africa. In fact, this is exactly what Troy Sternberg of Oxford University suggests happened before the Egyptian uprising of 2011.
If, as these case studies suggest, climate change is a cause of conflict, then the solution would seem obvious: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and row back from the brink of catastrophic global warming. This year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris provides perhaps the best hope yet to secure an internationally binding agreement on emissions, but negotiations are fraught and attempts to forge environmental agreements on an international level have in the past fallen far short of the mark.
Unless climate change is averted, it may well fall to richer nations to help developing countries adapt to its deleterious effects in order to avoid greater resource conflicts. One such course of action might be developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat.
In March, scientists at the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research announced they had bred new heat-beater beans that should be able to provide food security for hundreds of millions of people in the face of global warming.
Otherwise, conflict resolution as ever falls to addressing the often complex, divergent issues at stake in each individual situation. In the case of Lake Chad, the ISS points to the need for the adequate representation and participation of local people in the management of the lake, rather than leaving management to operate largely at the supranational level. It also calls on the Nigerian government to work with environmental groups to undertake a capacity-building programme for local people to help them contribute to safeguarding the lake. “Local communities should be empowered to protect both the shoreline of the lake and the adjacent areas by preserving or maintaining natural vegetation by planting new trees or replacing dead ones,” Dr. Onuoha says. “Tree planting is one of the most effective ways of controlling climate change because the growing of trees halts erosion and degradation, protects water resources, and reduces carbon emissions.”
As for the Syrian Civil War, few solutions seem obvious. The task now may be to prevent the next great humanitarian catastrophe. Napoleon once said an army marches on its stomach. He would have known. When his forces invaded Russia in 1812, starvation proved an even deadlier foe than the cossacks they met in battle. Unless climate change is brought under control, hunger, thirst and the scarcity of resources could well start more wars than they end.