Getting Specific About Climate Conflict: Case Studies Show Need for Participatory Approaches to AdaptationMay 28, 2014 By Moses Jackson
Will climate change cause conflict? That question, which has sparked heated debates in academia and the media, resists simple answers. But is climate change already contributing to conflict in some places? If so, how exactly? And more importantly, what should be done about it? These questions were the focus of a 2013 preliminary report produced for USAID by international development firm Tetra Tech ARD, which examines the climate-conflict nexus in Uganda, Ethiopia, and Peru.
Author Jeffrey Stark writes that previous studies were either speculative and empirically weak; grounded in hard data but lacking explanatory power; or focused on geospatial analysis that offers little actionable guidance for development practitioners.Is climate change already contributing to conflict ? If so, how?
This study, he claims, breaks from convention, bringing empirical evidence to bear on the more salient questions of how climate change and conflict interact in key locations, and how contextualizing those interactions can improve conflict mitigation and climate adaptation efforts moving forward. According to Stark, this allows for “a more substantive, qualitative analysis that goes beyond general references to climate change as a threat multiplier, stressor, or potential trigger for conflict.”
In Uganda, Old Tensions, New Pressures
In Karamoja, a deeply impoverished region of Uganda’s semi-arid “cattle corridor,” tensions simmer as climate and social changes converge. Traditional pastoral livelihoods are becoming less tenable as land and water availability decline due to drought, rapid population growth, and rural development. But pastoralists also face structural marginalization through Uganda’s state-led transition from herding to farming.
Uganda’s impressive economic growth and relative stability at the national level is much less apparent in this part of the country, where 82 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and “conflict is severe and chronic, with a constellation of contributing factors,” writes Stark. Armed clashes are not uncommon, both among pastoralist tribes and between locals and government forces. The government sees pastoralism as an “archaic and outdated livelihood” – a stance that perpetuates a “legacy of severe mistrust” and taints state efforts to promote agriculture. The origins of the conflict run deep and the increasing frequency of drought in the area makes it all the more difficult to address.
Inclusive climate adaptation programs could help reduce tensions, however:
The key task is to empower Karamojong communities to participate actively in the design and implementation of alternative livelihood, food security, and climate adaptation programs in collaboration with both the Ugandan government and donors. Without their direct involvement and the actual incorporation of some of their ideas, conflict in Karamoja is likely to continue unresolved.
Overturning Ethiopia’s Zero-Sum Game
Similar challenges are prevalent in drought-prone Ethiopia, where pastoralists – comprising 13 percent of the population – struggle to maintain a way of life disconnected from state development priorities. Stark notes that pastoralism is “perhaps the most efficient land use system for Ethiopia’s extensive dry rangelands,” but, like in Uganda, is increasingly threatened by climate change and development.
The Ethiopian government has prioritized irrigated farmland over pastureland in its ambitious plan to reach middle-income status by 2023. The strategy fuels macroeconomic growth but limits herders’ mobility, undermining their adaptive capacity. Livestock is fundamental to pastoralist identities and livelihoods, but over the past decade some communities have lost as much as 80 percent of their peak holdings, writes Stark. Population growth, invasive plant species, and border disputes have further intensified competition over scarce resources.
Edna Wangui on East Africa’s changing pastoralists
In the Borana Zone, near the southern border with Kenya, climate change increases the potential for conflict by impacting water and food security and disrupting traditional coping strategies, he writes. “Traditionally, Boran systems of social solidarity and support provided clans with crucial resiliency in relation to the sharing of natural resources, livestock holdings, essential daily needs, and conflict.” Customary cattle redistribution arrangements intended to assist herders in need are threatened by shrinking livestock surpluses and a growing number of pastoral drop-outs – many of whom are forced to sell their holdings in the face of drought-induced food insecurity.
Stark’s findings suggest greater cooperation between government and customary institutions can facilitate the peaceful sharing of natural resources. But with current conditions “even more urgent than has been realized to date,” there is “a danger of international assistance programming falling behind the real curve of the pastoralist transition that is underway.”
Conflict Across Scales in Peru
Climate change exacerbates existing tensions in all three of Peru’s distinct geographic zones, writes Stark, primarily through water. Diverse populations in the Andean highlands, coastal plains, and tropical jungles are confronting both growing water scarcity and deteriorating water quality, raising the specter of a “proliferation of local social explosions, whose cumulative effects could have ramifications for national stability.”Local social explosions could have ramifications for national stability
The most immediate challenge is not absolute water scarcity, but rather poor water management and weak environmental governance. According to the report, “existing water rights are inefficient and inequitable, and those who benefit are resistant to change.” Peru’s controversial but lucrative mining sector, for example, enjoys privileged access while at the same time polluting shared water supplies, fueling civil unrest, and sparking occasionally violent encounters between communities and companies.
The country’s glaciers, which provide 95 percent of its fresh water, have shrunk by 22 percent since 1980, affecting upstream and downstream users alike. But the “highly publicized risks” of glacier melt may be “somewhat exaggerated or misplaced,” writes Stark. Other long-term effects may be underappreciated, he says, including “warmer temperatures, more erratic and intense weather events (e.g., droughts, rains, frosts), significant changes in seasonal precipitation patterns, deteriorating highland ecosystems, increasing water scarcity, water contamination (e.g., acid rock drainage), and more frequent natural hazards (e.g., floods, landslides, and glacier lake outbursts).”
Improved water policies and participatory water management can help mitigate conflict and build resilience. But responses must be designed “with extreme sensitivity and an acute awareness of how they may affect social, political, and economic interests and unintentionally generate conflict,” writes Stark. Currently, he warns, “the clear trend is toward increasing conflict linked to the accumulating effects of climate change coupled with weak environmental governance.”
Adaptation Efforts Must Be Participatory
So what’s to be done? Recognizing that climate-related conflict is as much a product of weak or ineffective governance as it is environmental change, the report urges greater inclusivity and increased cooperation between and among formal and informal institutions.“Unlike ethnic tensions, religious schisms, economic trends, or political upheavals, we know where the trajectory of climate change is headed”
The report also emphasizes the growing need for conflict-sensitive development interventions from USAID and others. “A global USAID analysis found that 81 percent of countries considered fragile also were projected to experience significant climate change impacts,” writes Stark. The adaptation measures favored by climate change specialists, like drought-resistant seeds and small-scale irrigation, are critical, but their implementation may be very difficult or wasted in places riven with conflict.
Integration and cross-sectoral collaboration between the climate and conflict communities is therefore crucial. “Conflict specialists can no longer do their job without asking about the possible implications of climate change, and climate adaptation specialists cannot do their job without seriously considering conflict sensitivities.”
Though climate change may not drive conflict directly, it clearly plays an important role, the report confirms. “The complexity of interactions of climate change with non-climate factors in relation to conflict is merely to be expected,” writes Stark. In fact, he identifies climate change as one of the few certainties in an otherwise complex and relatively ill-understand conflict equation: “Unlike ethnic tensions, religious schisms, economic trends, or political upheavals, we know where the trajectory of climate change is headed.” The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which specifically addresses human security, reinforces this message.
“Climate change adaptation programs address crucial natural resource use and livelihood issues,” concludes Stark. “To be successful, they must be participatory; and by engaging marginalized communities, they address the perceived lack of participation and representation that is one of the main sources of instability in all three countries.”
Sources: Discover Magazine, The Economist, Journal of Peace Research, The New York Times, Peruvian Times, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, USAID.
Photo Credit: A Peruvian woman in a shelter after a landslide destroyed her home in 2012, courtesy of Vicente Raimundo/European Commission.