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​Climate change will lead to competition for resources and drive ethnic violence

Climate change in this century will break down people’s ability to adapt to sudden disasters, and also create more of those environmental disasters. Droughts will wipe out dams and dust storms will tear away topsoil. In areas where societies are on the verge of breaking – where ethnic tensions already lead to simmering tensions – the abrupt changes in the climate will lead to outright violence.

That conclusion is a contentious one – debated fiercely by researchers across the world. The UN’s climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, mentioned it in passing in its 2014 report into the climate this century.

This drew a politically unpalatable view of a world where little action is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their report said that in large parts of Africa and Central Asia – where people are already vulnerable to climate shocks – changes in the climate would gradually erode food and water security. Short-term climate disasters – such as flood or the current El Niño drought – will force people to migrate in search of new resources.

That migration will inevitably take people who have nothing to places where people have something. The resulting competition for resources will play up on existing boundaries, such as countries or ethnic groups.

The UN panel concluded: “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of armed conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts, such as poverty and economic shocks.”

Research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute backed this up, by looking at the conflict over water resources in East Africa. Its April 2016 report Climate change and violent conflict in East Africa concluded: “Environmental changes, such as changing rainfall patterns, droughts, changes in vegetation cover and increasing resource scarcity, have contributed to various types of violent conflict.”

This conflict was most evident with livestock herders, who killed each other for access to resources for their animals.

Research out at the end of July has said that this sort of conflict has already been happening, and will happen more often in a climate-constrained future. Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalised countries was published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team – from places such as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – compared data for armed conflict and natural disasters between 1980 and 2010.

Their findings led them to conclude that 21 armed conflicts had broken out in that time period as a result of natural disasters, such as drought and heat waves. This equates to 9% of armed conflict in the three decades.

These conflicts had mostly happened in countries that had a great number of competing ethnic groups, the team said: “Ethnicity appears to play a dominant and almost ubiquitous role in many [conflicts].” The inverse also held true – that ethnically homogenous countries tended to have fewer instances of armed conflict after natural disasters.

This means that societies with pre-existing factions are the most at risk of falling apart when the climate does change.

When this was factored in, the research team found that 23% of all conflicts in countries with many competing ethnicities came in the wake of natural disasters. This was as a result of people scrambling to get access to a dwindling pool of resources.

They then fed this conclusion into projections of what climate change will do to the Earth in this century. Even a slight increase in global temperatures will not only undermines people’s ability to survive shocks, but will also create more of those shocks in the form of natural disasters.

For Central Asia and most of Africa this means a serious risk of climate-induced ethnic violence in this century, according to the team. “Both [areas] are exceptionally vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change and can be characterised by deep ethnic divides.”

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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