Part 4 of 5: Drought and Violence

The second installment of the IPCC’s 4th Assessment on Climate Change, titled “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, was released on April 6, 2007. In recognition of this report, I’m doing a weekly series called “Climate Dangers You May Not Know About“.

1. More Acidic Oceans
2. Drinking Water and Disease
3. Shifts in Lifecycle Timing
4. Drought and Violence
5. Melting of the North Pole

What happens when there isn’t enough food and water for the people who need it? Fighting can ensue. And when drought and famine extend over a wide area, the fighting can escalate to civil war. This is what’s happening today in Darfur, a country in the sub-Saharan (or "Sahel") region of Africa.

We can’t say for sure that the Darfur droughts were caused by global warming, but there’s evidence it was a significant factor (for example, see this recent study of the Sahel drought [PDF] by NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory). But whether those past droughts were caused by global warming is not the main issue. We know that global warming will cause more and more severe droughts in the future, especially in the Sahel region of Africa.

The story of Darfur cautions that events triggered by global warming can lead to a human tragedy of global proportions.

How did the drought lead to civil war? Darfur is a region characterized by disparity. The south is fertile and temperate, while the north is dominated by desert and scrubland. The southerners, who call themselves Africans, rely on farming to meet their needs. The Arabs in the north live a nomadic lifestyle based on herd grazing.

The Arabs and Africans in Darfur have always competed for water, but until the 1980s, these disputes were resolved by tribal councils. Then the government replaced the tribal councils with ineffective government programs and – simultaneously – Darfur was hit by a severe drought. In the ethnic conflict that ensued, hundreds of thousands of Darfurians have been murdered, and even more left starving and homeless, fearing for their lives in dangerous refugee camps.

And the problem is not just in Darfur. In 2004, the peer-reviewed Journal of Political Economy published a study called "Economic Shocks and Civil Conflict [PDF]". It found lack of rainfall was strongly associated with civil war in African countries whose economies depend largely on rain-fed agriculture. Industrial economies like our own may not depend on rainfall for survival, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about.

We live in a global community. When there’s an environmental catastrophe half-way around the world, it can affect us, too. And even here at home, conflicts can arise as a result of environmental crises. Just look at what happened after Hurricane Katrina.

The crisis in Darfur is a warning – climate change can destabilize an entire region in just a few years.

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One Comment

  1. chipparkhurst
    Posted May 11, 2007 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The only reason our troops are in Iraq is OIL. If those 145,000 were removed and placed shoulder to shoulder, they would form a circle 26 miles in diameter. No problem providing security for the Darfur refugees

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