Drought’s con­tri­bu­tion to grow­ing risks of con­flict


Con­sid­ered a ma­jor fac­tor in the spread of ex­trem­ism in coun­tries like Syria, Nige­ria and Mali, it’s high time the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity found ways to mit­i­gate drought’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ef­fects.

Are­port re­leased ear­lier this month by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Foun­da­tion adds to a grow­ing body of re­search that sug­gests a his­tor­i­cally se­vere drought in Syria was an im­por­tant — though cer­tainly not the sole — fac­tor con­tribut­ing to the con­flict there, and that drought poses an in­creas­ing risk to con­flict world­wide.

Through­out hu­man his­tory, there has been a clear link be­tween com­pe­ti­tion over scarce wa­ter re­sources and con­flict. In the 20th cen­tury, it be­came clear that drought can ex­ac­er­bate con­flict, and that in turn con­flict cre­ates con­di­tions that can turn drought into famine.

In the 21st cen­tury, grow­ing re­search demon­strates the di­rect con­tri­bu­tions that drought can make to in­sta­bil­ity and con­flict. Fur­ther­more, it is be­com­ing clearer that cli­mate change due to green­house gas emis­sions is in­creas­ing the preva­lence and sever­ity of drought, and thus con­tribut­ing to con­flict.

To be clear, few re­searchers have ar­gued that drought alone causes con­flict; rather, the ev­i­dence sug­gests that drought is one of mul­ti­ple fac­tors that in­crease the risk of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, con­flict and war — in other words, drought is a “threat mul­ti­plier.”

Fur­ther­more, few re­searchers ar­gue that cli­mate change alone causes drought; rather, the ev­i­dence sug­gests that cli­mate change is in­creas­ing the fre­quency, du­ra­tion and de­gree of drought. As cli­mate change con­tin­ues, the de­gree to which se­vere weather con­trib­utes to con­flict is likely to in­crease un­less peo­ple and lead­ers rec­og­nize the risk and try to mit­i­gate it.

While drought can in­crease risks of con­flict be­tween coun­tries, most of the re­search to date fo­cuses on drought’s con­tri­bu­tion to sub-state con­flict. Var­i­ous stud­ies have iden­ti­fied drought as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to con­flicts in Syria, Ye­men, So­ma­lia, South Su­dan, Mali, Nige­ria and other places. In some cases, drought con­trib­utes to the fac­tors that start a con­flict. In some cases, drought plays a role in length­en­ing or ex­pand­ing a con­flict, and ex­ac­er­bat­ing the suf­fer­ing of civil­ians caught up in war.

Stud­ies by mul­ti­ple aca­demics, think tanks and jour­nal­ists have con­sid­ered the role that cli­mate change and drought played in the run-up to the Syr­ian civil war. From 2007-2010, Syria ex­pe­ri­enced the area’s worst drought “in the in­stru­men­tal record,” ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in the March 2015 edi­tion of the US jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The au­thors wrote that cli­mate change due to green­house gas emis­sions “in­creased the prob­a­bil­ity of se­vere and per­sis­tent droughts in this re­gion, and made the oc­cur­rence of a 3-year drought as se­vere as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by nat­u­ral vari­abil­ity alone.”

Even more shock­ing, a NASA study pub­lished in 2016 found that “the re­cent drought that be­gan in 1998 in the eastern Mediter­ranean Le­vant re­gion, which com­prises Cyprus, Is­rael, Jor­dan, Le­banon, Pales­tine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine cen­turies.”

The drought caused largescale mi­gra­tion from ru­ral ar­eas to Syria’s cities. An At­lantic Coun­cil ar­ti­cle pub­lished in Septem­ber said more than 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple in Syria “moved from ru­ral or ur­ban ar­eas” dur­ing the drought, and con­trib­uted to a sig­nif­i­cant drop in Syria’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) per capita. Many cities were al­ready un­der strain from a pre­vi­ous in­flux of Iraqi refugees and gov­ern­ment mis­man­age­ment.

The re­sult­ing in­crease in poverty and so­cial ten­sions, and the ap­par­ent fail­ure of the gov­ern­ment to ad­dress the prob­lem, likely con­trib­uted to the 2011 protests that pre­ceded the civil war. It is im­por­tant to again note that drought was not the only or even pri­mary cause of the Syr­ian con­flict, but rather a fac­tor that in­creased the risk of in­sta­bil­ity.

In some cases, drought plays a less di­rect role in rais­ing the risks of in­sta­bil­ity. A 2013 study by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, the Stim­son Cen­ter and the Cen­ter for Cli­mate and Se­cu­rity ex­am­ined the ways in which weather events in other parts of the world, in­clud­ing drought in China, con­trib­uted to very high global wheat prices in 2010 and 2011, creat­ing a sig­nif­i­cant bur­den for Egypt, the world’s big­gest wheat im­porter. High food prices were likely one of sev­eral fac­tors that con­trib­uted to the 2011 protests in Egypt.

In places where wa­ter scarcity com­bines with con­flict, wa­ter is some­times weaponized by states or groups. Daesh was par­tic­u­larly adept at weaponiz­ing wa­ter; a study in June by the Cen­ter for Cli­mate and Se­cu­rity found that Daesh “was re­spon­si­ble for 21 of the 44 (wa­ter) weaponiza­tion in­ci­dents we cat­a­logued from 2012-2015.” Mul­ti­ple me­dia re­ports also at­test to its use of wa­ter in war.

The con­tri­bu­tion that drought can make to con­flict has im­por­tance far be­yond the im­me­di­ate lo­cales af­fected by con­flict. Drought has in­di­rect but im­por­tant links to mi­gra­tion from the eastern Mediter­ranean and North Africa to Eu­rope, with sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal and hu­man­i­tar­ian con­se­quences. Drought has been a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in the spread of ex­trem­ism in coun­tries such as Syria, Nige­ria and Mali, which can also have con­se­quences far be­yond them.

Un­der­stand­ing the role that cli­mate change plays in mak­ing drought more preva­lent and ex­treme, and un­der­stand­ing how drought con­trib­utes to con­flict, is im­por­tant for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, as is con­sid­er­ing ways to mit­i­gate drought’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ef­fects.

Kerry Boyd An­der­son is a writer and po­lit­i­cal risk con­sul­tant with more than 14 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence as a pro­fes­sional an­a­lyst of in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues and Mid­dle East po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness risks. Twit­ter: @KBAre­search


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