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Climate change threatens to exacerbate conflicts – future wars could be over water

Published on Monday, 10 December 2018

Climate change has a worse impact on societies already susceptible to conflicts. Besides cutting emissions, there needs to be a focus on how fragile states can adapt to the impacts of climate change as a cause of instability.

Communications Manager Antti Ämmälä.

The effects of climate change on violent conflicts should be one of the greatest sources of concern as humanity grapples with global warming.

This was pointed out by former US Vice-President Al Gore in a recent interview. Gore’s words carry weight as he’s spent most of his adult life warning the world about the dangers of climate change. In 2007 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his endeavours.

So what do we know about the linkages between climate change and conflicts? And how can we effectively address such conflicts?

To begin with, it has to be said that the subject is in dire need of study. The link between climate change and conflicts is exaggerated in some places. But the general view is that there is a connection.

Four ways that climate change can influence the outbreak of conflicts

According to a new report issued by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there are at least four ways in which climate change can be a factor affecting the outbreak of conflicts and their dynamics. The report collates research carried out on South Asia and South East Asia.

Firstly, it highlights the negative impact of climate change on people’s livelihoods. Fluctuations in rainfall and sea-level rise can hit agriculture and fishing, making criminal activity or joining armed groups more alluring. Secondly, climate change can offer armed groups the opportunity to increase their power. During droughts, for instance, armed groups may attack the civilian population so that their members can get enough food.

Thirdly, local elites can exploit the effects of climate change. Following sudden natural disasters, the elite may make use of disaster relief to shore up their own position or support a party to a conflict. Fourthly, climate change can increase refugee situations. Large-scale migrations can increase tensions locally, such as by intensifying the struggle for livelihoods and altering political power configurations.

To a growing extent, the impacts of climate change are also evident in those areas in which CMI works on conflict prevention and resolution. In the Lake Chad basin in West Africa, climate change and conflicts have created a perilous vicious circle, which, if left unbroken, will increase instability.

Climate change can be seen in the region in the form of declining rainfall and rising temperatures. Lake Chad’s water levels are falling, resulting in water shortages and crop losses. At the same time, terror spread by armed groups like Boko Haram reduces people’s chances of survival. Migration within and between countries has generated new conflicts and increased competition between refugees and local populations over diminishing natural resources.

Climate change is making the Middle East and North Africa, which suffer from heat and drought, particularly vulnerable. Water scarcity is one of the root causes of the conflicts in war-torn Yemen. In Iraq, climate change is further exacerbating many of the country’s most severe problems, as CMI Advisor Hussein Al-Taee has recently written in the Finnish magazine Ydin, rivers are running dry, arable land is shrinking, it is getting hotter, and habitable areas are dwindling.

According to a 2016 study, drought may render areas of the Middle East and North Africa uninhabitable by 2050. Millions of people would have to find themselves a new home.

Climate change further complicates conflicts

Countries, international organisations and independent organisations such as CMI working on conflict resolution need to deepen their understanding of climate change as a driver of conflicts. In so doing they could raise awareness of the subject and learn how to address these sorts of conflicts effectively.

The task is not straightforward. Conflicts have become increasingly complex, making their resolution more difficult. Climate change in this equation is a new addition among the root causes of conflicts such as weak governance, corruption and unemployment.

What compounds the difficulty coefficient is that in most cases conflicts afflict so-called fragile states, in which many of these root causes are intertwined. Climate change has the worst impact on societies that are already susceptible to conflicts.

Besides concentrating on cutting emissions, there needs to be a focus on how fragile states can adapt to the impacts of climate change as a cause of instability. This necessitates close collaboration between humanitarian assistance, development cooperation, and conflict resolution. The main emphasis must be on how conflicts can be prevented from flaring up. One of the starting points of CMI’s work too is that peace mediation must help states create the sorts of institutions that maintain stability.

It is possible, for instance, to alleviate and eliminate the tensions stemming from the use of natural resources through their more sustainable and fairer management. If this doesn’t happen, in the future wars may be fought – say – over water.

This article was originally published in Finnish in Vieraskynä section of Uusi Suomi. The article is part of a collaboration started by CMI and Uusi Suomi.