Climate Change and Conflict: lessons learnt from Sudan

Anastasia is a third year International Relations student with an interest in conflict and security issues. specifically in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In this article she discusses the interplay between climate change, conflict and human agency in her examination of the war in Darfur.


Climate change is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity today. The debate surrounding it, however, is driven by topics such as the significance of oil and the actions of great powers within the international arena; its relevance for developing states, meanwhile, is often pushed to the side-lines.

This appears to be paradoxical. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that extreme weather events and climate disruption would severely impact agriculture through flooding, uncertainty, or damage from extreme heat[1]. The primary sufferers of global warming will undoubtedly be those living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, often heavily reliant upon agricultural yields for food and income. With climate change being discussed as a security threat to the state as well as a recognised threat to human security, more effort is being made to address vulnerability.  Vulnerability, however, does not only depend on regional specifics, but on adaptability. Climate change has been labelled a ‘threat multiplier’ in the sense that it will exacerbate pre-existing social and governmental issues such as ‘conflict, poverty…weak institutions, food insecurity and the incidence of disease’[2]. For the well-equipped and economically stable state, such problems would be a challenge on their own. For some developing states, the multiplier effect caused by climate change may prove to be the difference between poor countries and fragile states, or fragile states and failed states, carrying further regional consequences[3].

A region that is often cited as being particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change is the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Categorised as arid or semi-arid, it encompasses states often dependent on rainfall patterns for the success of agricultural yield[4]. Despite the MENA region also encompassing an area particularly vulnerable to conflict, there is a tendency for scholars to either disregard broader environmental trends in favour of immediate triggers or, on the other hand, to simply attribute conflicts with longstanding and pre-existing tensions to extreme climate variations. The particular challenge facing the Middle East then, in the context of climate change’s consequences regarding rainfall and agricultural yield, is potentially not its physical implications. Rather, it may lie with the ability of developing countries to sufficiently adapt to unforeseen and extreme circumstances without channelling important resources and funds for development away from their intended sectors[5]. This article will provide a measured analysis of the relationship between climate change and conflict and will address some causal pathways through which we can understand risks posed to states and societies. Multiple causal pathways can be identified to demonstrate the ways in which ecological changes may lead to various types of conflict, both between and within states. The 2009 Secretary-General Report Climate Change and its possible security implications outlines some potential ways in which climate change may link to issues of security, for example, by limiting the effectiveness of development plans, threatening food security, increasing regional migration and potentially causing domestic conflict over scarce resources[6]. The classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument sees a world where groups battle for scarce resources such as land or water, whilst inter-state issues may arise when groups migrating to flee from conflict compete with the resources of communities in neighbouring countries[7].

Although we can theorise about the future of the climate-conflict relationship, examples may seem hard to come by. A notable internal conflict with dramatic regional implications in the MENA region has been that in Darfur, an area in Western Sudan. In 2003, headlines reported that tensions along ethnic fault lines had erupted into a crisis, with further violence continuing up until the present day. Upon first examination, the Darfur conflict appears to have been born out of ethnic tensions between the Arab and non-Arab population, and headlines have maintained a focus upon the atrocities committed against Darfurians by Arab militias. As the Darfur conflict progressed, the underlying debate turned towards the causal relationship between climate variations and conflict. In 2007, Ban Ki Moon labelled the war as rooted in an ‘ecological crisis’, partially due to climate change and drought conditions at the time[8]. Others are more sceptical, with Kevane and Gray’s study arguing that in fact an examination of rainfall patterns produced no signs of a ‘short-term drought’ preceding the conflict[9]. This does not mean however, that climate change is not relevant in analysis. Despite perhaps the lack of obvious short-term drought conditions, the UN’s 2007 report highlighted the 40% decrease in precipitation since the 1980s and noted the worrying acceleration of desertification in Sudan[10]. Indeed, one can see that the issue of food and water scarcity played an important role in inciting violence in a country already facing ethnic fractionalisation, developmental issues and a struggling economy reliant upon agriculture. Whilst there was a history of land disputes in Sudan between nomadic herders and local farmers, tensions had been heightened by decades of desertification in Sudan reducing arable land. The conflict has led to forced displacement of communities away from their crops and herds as well as failed harvests for the past two consecutive years. These factors have contributed to 180,000 deaths from hunger in only the past 18 months in the Darfur region. Meanwhile, the neighbouring states of Chad and the Central African Republic experienced infrastructural stress due to inflows of refugees which contributed to the outbreak of internal political crises. Not only, therefore, has climate change been instrumental to the outbreak of conflict, but it has contributed to immense human suffering. 

We must not make the mistake however, of speaking of climate change and food insecurity as issues outside the realm of human agency. Sudan’s desertification has been accelerated by unsustainable farming practices, while controversial transnational land acquisition deals with neighbouring states such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have contributed to food insecurity by reducing the amount of available land in Sudan available to local communities. Here the interplay of humanity and nature comes into the spotlight, and the acknowledgement of our own culpability must be reached in order to begin addressing such issues. The World Bank 2010 study concluded that in Sudan, nearly 4 million hectares of land was sold to foreign investors between 2004 to 2009 to be used to produce bio-fuel or crops for wealthier states[11]. It is not only opportunities for crop growth however, that the land-grab deals direct away from local farming communities, but freshwater supplies. The food and bio-fuel plantations have been argued to be contributing to increased water stress through the sheer amount of water required, and there are worries that these investments will put pressure on river systems in the broader region of North Africa. These examples go to show that human agency, environmental change, and conflict are interlinked in a complex process, and have all contributed to the current situation in Sudan.

Perhaps Darfur carries with it a warning for the future. With global warming predicted to bring higher average temperatures and more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, we must consider what this means for developing states with fewer resources to manage such challenges. With a lack of solid empirical evidence to prove the nature of the relationship between conflict and climate change, broad trends should be analysed instead, and climate change should be considered as one of the many risks to be mitigated to avoid adverse political, social and economic consequences. We must pay attention to seemingly unremarkable disputes regarding land, food, and water to deduct whether they are indeed commonplace, or whether they are symptomatic of a future environmental struggle which will claim many lives and livelihoods. A crucial aspect of study must be the issue of human agency. Without recognising and addressing our own complicity, we put ourselves at risk of running dangerously against the clock.



[1] Imed Drine. Climate variability and agricultural productivity in MENA region. No. 2011/96. WIDER Working Paper, 2011, p.1.

[2] Balgis Osman Elasha. “Mapping of climate change threats and human development impacts in the Arab region.” UNDP Arab Development Report–Research Paper Series, UNDP Regiona Bureau for the Arab States (2010), p.14, p.26.

[3] Oli Brown and Robert McLeman. “A recurring anarchy? The emergence of climate change as a threat to international peace and security: Analysis.” Conflict, security & development 9, no. 3 (2009), p.293

[4] Drine, Climate variability and agricultural productivity in the MENA region, p.1.

[5] Brown and McLeman, A recurring anarchy? The emergence of climate change as a threat to international peace and security: Analysis.”, p.294.

[6] Sabine Von Schorlemer and Sylvia Maus. “Reflections on Climate Change, Heritage and Peace.” In Climate Change as a Threat to Peace: Impacts on Cultural Heritage and Cultural Diversity, edited by Von Schorlemer Sabine and Maus Sylvia, 9-24. Frankfurt Am Main: Peter Lang AG, 2014., pp.11-12.

[7]Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243-248.


[9] Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray. “Darfur: rainfall and conflict.” Environmental Research Letters 3, no. 3 (2008): 034006, p. 2.


[11] Deng, David K. “‘Land belongs to the community’: Demystifying the ‘global land grab’in Southern Sudan.” (2011), p.2.

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