Global Policy Forum

Thirstier World Likely to See More Violence


By Stephen Leahy

Inter Press Service
March 16, 2007

A strong link between droughts and violent civil conflicts in the developing world bodes ill for an increasingly thirsty world, say scientists, who warn that drought-related conflicts are expected to multiply with advancing climate change. "Severe, prolonged droughts are the strongest indicator of high-intensity conflicts," said Marc Levy of the Centre for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York. These are internal conflicts, not between countries, and involving more than 1,000 battle deaths, Levy said at a press briefing in Washington last week. Such conflicts tend to occur about a year after a "severe deviation in rainfall patterns", he said. Levy and colleagues used decades of detailed precipitation records, geospatial conflict information and other data in a complex computer model that overlays all this onto a fine-scale map of the world. "Major deviations from normal rainfall patterns were the strongest predictor of conflicts," he said. "I was surprised at how strong the correlation is."

Levy is careful to say that droughts don't directly cause conflicts but are more likely triggers in regions where there already tensions or low-level conflicts. For example, in the recent civil conflict in Nepal, the parts of the country where most of the fighting occurred experienced low rainfall for several years and then a severe drought in the late 1990s. Farmers may have simply given up hope of farming and joined the local rebellion as a way of sustaining themselves and their families, he hypothesised. And rainfall appears to have a pacifying affect. The wet areas of Africa, for instance, have far fewer years of violent internal conflict than the dry regions, he said. Areas with a high risk of conflict this year due to extremely dry conditions last year, according to his model, are Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, Bangladesh, Haiti, and Nagaland and Manipur in India. While the idea makes sense, "you can't predict how people will act", said Robert McLeman of the University of Ottawa, who studies the relationship between environmental extremes and human migration. "In Nigeria during periods of drought, the cattle herders and crop farmers usually work things out amongst themselves," McLeman told IPS.

Africans have been dealing with drought for thousands of years. Currently cities serve as an outlet so there is seasonal migration during the dry season. And more and more people are staying in cities where presumably they can meet their needs more easily than in the countryside, he said. That said, McLeman noted that much of Afghanistan has experienced a long drought and farmers might consider joining up with the Taliban if there are no other choices for them. Normal droughts can usually be accommodated, but significant and rapid environmental changes are more likely to lead to societal instability, forced migration and inter-group violence, says Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. "Drought in Hungry is not the same as drought in Ethiopia" in terms of the state being able to buffer the impacts, Gleditsch added at the briefing. While climate change will bring further environmental degradation -- increased flooding and drought, higher temperatures -- the far-reaching social impacts have yet to be assessed, he said.

About 1.5 billion people are estimated to be suffering from severe water stress around the world, and that number is expected to increase with population growth and climate change. "Climate change is likely to lead to a greater frequency of civil wars," Levy said. Inequity is at the heart of most conflicts, said Satish Kumar, director of programmes at Schumacher College International Centre for Ecological Studies in Britain. "There is growing anger that the rich are the cause of global warming but it's the poor who will suffer the most," Kumar told IPS. "I've heard people make this connection in regard to the unprecedented droughts in parts of India." The lifestyle of the average North American produces 12 times the amount of greenhouse gases compared to that of people in poor countries, according the U.N. statistics. And there are also very rich people with similar high-greenhouse-gas-emission lifestyles in poor countries, Kumar points out.

Increased conflict, violence and social unrest is inevitable as global warming makes life even more difficult for many of the world's poor and they become aware that the rich of the world are responsible, Kumar added. Only urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to address economic and social inequities can stave off the worst. And he warns against neo-liberal solutions: "Capitalism is shrewd enough to use shortages of resources like water to make even more money for the rich." Researchers and activists around the planet will highlight other impacts of water scarcity on development and politics next week on "World Water Day", celebrated every Mar. 22.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Water in Conflict
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