Climate change: A catalyst for conflict | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 06.11.2017
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Climate change: A catalyst for conflict

African ranchers are forced to seek new pastures after traditional grazing lands have dried up, putting them on a collision course with local farmers. In some areas, lands previously herded are being used for farming.

In mid-October, people in the central Nigerian village of Nkyie Doghwro desperately sought shelter in a schoolhouse. Yet they did so in vain. Ultimately, 29 of them lost their lives, as they were the victims of an ongoing conflict between ranchers and farmers in the region. Over the last 15 years more than 60,000 people have died in this forgotten conflict – almost four times as many as have been killed by the terror group Boko Haram.

Conflict between ranchers and farmers is a classic motif in Hollywood westerns. But conflict is also very much part of everyday life in many African nations – and the reality of it is far more brutal than that which is portrayed on the silver screen. Such conflict becomes unavoidable when ranchers seek new pastures after traditional grazing lands dry up, just as it does when climate change forces farmers to plant in areas where cattle had previously been herded. Such conflicts feature in this year's edition of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) annual report.

Read more: Climate change burden unfairly borne by world's poorest countries

A dry landscape with a herd of cattle and a farmer walking in front of them.

Farmers in Nigeria are having increasing difficulty finding enough land to graze cattle

In an interview with DW, SIPRI director Dan Smith stressed the link between climate change and security: "The effects of climate change, alongside other social, economic and political components, contribute to the violence with which conflicts are resolved."  

In 2012, several agencies within the United States' intelligence community prepared a report that predicted: "Many countries that are of strategic importance to the USA will suffer water shortages or flooding over the next 10 years." The report added that such situations would increase the risk of instability or even lead to failed state status as well as contributing to regional conflict.

Climate change as a threat magnifier

That said, one cannot draw a direct connection between climate change and violent conflict, as the causes that lead to bloody conflict are often too complex to allow such mapping. Therefore, it is perhaps more helpful to think of climate change as a threat amplifier. That is how Rob van Riet of the World Future Council describes the relationship between climate and conflict. Van Riet expanded on that thought when speaking with DW: "Existing threats – like resource shortages, poverty, famine, terrorism or extreme ideology – are only amplified by climate change."

Read more: 'Climate change allows terrorists to thrive'

A Syrian neighborhood of flat-roofed houses that have been heavily bombed.

Water scarcity and food expense in Syria added to social chaos and fulled the conflict

SIPRI's Dan Smith also warns that the effects of climate change – from droughts to floods – are not simply local phenomena. He points out that extreme weather situations affect global food prices, and that those rising prices also fuel conflict. "Whenever global food prices go up we see demonstrations, rioting and ultimately lasting social and political instability in 30 or 40 countries at the same time," the SIPRI director observed.

When asked which regions most clearly illustrated that relationship, Smith pointed to North Africa and the Middle East: "Climate change can be clearly recognized within the complex mosaic of causes of conflict in Syria, Egypt and Yemen." Rob van Riet also sees Syria as a prime example of climate change as a driver of conflict. In the mid-2000s, large numbers of farmers were forced to give up their livelihood and move to already hopelessly overpopulated cities as a result of the worst droughts the country had ever seen. "Water became scarce and food expensive. The resulting suffering and social chaos added to ongoing conflicts that eventually spun out of control and ultimately led to the conflict that we are witnessing today," says the World Future Council climate expert.

A street scene in the Pakistan capital, Karachi, showing flooding and cars driving through water.

Flooding in Karachi, Pakistan

Rob van Riet is also gravely concerned about how nuclear powers like Pakistan will deal with the effects of climate change. He says that Pakistan is especially vulnerable, which can be seen in the massive flooding that takes place there annually. "Beyond the fact that such floods immediately deprive people of their livelihoods, they also have a direct influence on nuclear security," emphasized van Riet in a DW interview.

Fleeing from a changing environment

An aerial view of the Dadaab refugee camp on what looks like never-ending desert.

The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya houses almost 250,000 people

It is clear that the economic effects of climate change are dramatic, and that social effects are as well. The Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Climate Change (MCC) is currently analyzing the scope of economic damages caused by climate change. Matthias Kalkuhl, who heads MCC's working group on economic growth and human change, is closely studying 1,400 regions around the world, and told DW: "On average, about 10 percent of a region's economic output – and up to 20 percent in tropical counties – is lost to sinking agricultural and labor productivity caused by climate change – those are substantial numbers!" And Kalkuhl did not factor damages from extreme weather catastrophes such as hurricanes or long-term issues such as rising sea levels into the equation.

Read more: Conflict as Lake Chad vanishes

When entire regions become impoverished it can lead to mass migration, which can, in turn, lead to increased tensions within a country or even beyond its borders. Speaking with DW, Kalkuhl points back to the discussions that accompanied the refugee debate in Germany when "roughly a million people arrived here within a relatively short period of time, throwing the political system into chaos. Therefore, it is very hard to predict how societies will cope with mass population movements."

A group of German right-wing extremists wearing black hoodies

Right-wing extremism in Germany has risen since the influx of refugees in 2015

So what can be done? The question grows even more complex due to the fact that, in a best case scenario, it would take decades to asses the effects of intelligent climate policy. Will we even see such measures enacted? SIPRI director Dan Smith thinks that an institution serving under the aegis of the United Nations is what is needed. The institution, he says, would be tasked with assessing security risks. It would then pass its findings on to other UN organizations such as the Security Council, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs or the World Food Program. "In one way or another, these organizations will all be affected by climate change related security risks over the next several years," says Smith.     

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