​Climate change brings failed states and violent conflict

The Tabqa Dam in northern Syria brings green and life to an area that would otherwise be a desert. Its water supplies about five million people and 20% of that country’s electricity. Six times the size of the Vaal Dam, Tabqa is also at the heart of a new type of warfare.

With states struggling to respond to rapid changes in climate, capturing ever more scarce resources such as Tabqa is becoming a powerful weapon for their enemies. This is according to a new report, Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate, by the German think-tank, Adelphi.

The report looks at how “non-state armed groups” are capitalising on the rapidly shifting climate to exercise more control over parts of the world.

The report comes as Islamic State and Kurdish forces fight over control of the dam, which has been central to the Islamic State’s control of northern Syria for much of this decade. It goes back to the outbreak of civil war in the country in 2011.

In part, the civil war itself has been attributed to changes in Syria’s climate. Ten of the 12 driest years in the area have been in the past 20 years. By 2007, water use in Syria exceeded supply by 20%. Then came a five-year drought, the worst in recorded history. Crops failed. Herders lost 85% of their livestock. More than a million people moved to cities.

The combination of social pressure and political repression led to civil war. The Adelphi report says this can be attributed to “climatic changes and the way they contributed to eroding the social contract in Syria”.

Since then, water has played a key role in the way the different sides have fought the war.

In 2014, many reports said both the regime and opposition forces were cutting water to Aleppo to weaken each other. Adelphi says: “In other cases, rebel groups diverted water to supply only those neighbourhoods that they controlled, causing severe harm [to] civilians and farmers dependent on irrigation.”

The Islamic State, which controlled territory along Syria’s major rivers, used water to both harm and control communities. In 2015, the group closed the gates of the Ramadi Dam to dry up land for an offensive. In other cases, it has flooded areas to force people to move out. In 2014, when it was pushed out of Iraqi towns, it poisoned drinking water with crude oil.

When the group does control areas, it uses water to raise income. Adelphi’s research says: “Control over and effective distribution of water can also help Islamic State gain legitimacy and work towards its goal of establishing a caliphate.”

Syria and its Tabqa Dam is just one example of how armed groups are using the control of water — a resource becoming ever more scarce because of climate change — to gain power.

These groups have also grown in number since the end of the Cold War. The United Nations says, since 2004, the number of non-state armed groups involved in civil conflicts has increased fourfold.

Several different groups have linked this rise to the inability of states to respond to changing climate and the collapse of ecosystems that people rely on.

The United States department of defence, in its 2014 climate change adaptation road map, referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier”.

The department says this is because climate change “has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

The G7 group of countries has made similar statements, as has the UN. Its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said climate change will add pressure to existing problems, with dire consequences for communities who are close to breaking point.

States that are already weak are most at risk but nowhere is safe. “Seemingly stable states can be overburdened by the combined pressures of climate change, population growth, urbanisation, environmental degradation and rising socioeconomic inequalities”, the Adelphi report says.

And when states are overburdened, it is non-state armed groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram that have tended to benefit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the five African countries, containing about 38-million people, that rely on the clean waters of Lake Chad, around which Boko Haram is active.

Nigeria’s environment ministry says its northeastern provinces, which experience frequent drought and rely on the lake to act as a buffer, used to get rain for 150 days a year in the 1970s. They only now get 120 days of rain. The average temperature in those provinces has increased by 0.8˚C, and the Sahara is moving south at between one kilometre and 10km a year. The annual fish catch from the lake has also dropped from 140 000 tonnes a year in 1970 to just 80 000 tonnes.

Lake Chad is now 10% of the size that it was five decades ago, which, Adelphi’s research says, has resulted in fewer resources and has made livelihoods less secure. It has “exacerbated tensions between pastoralists, farmers and fishers”. These groups have all crowded in on each other in an attempt to get to the lake’s dwindling water.

Traditional authorities, which used to resolve disputes over access to land and water, have fallen apart with the creation of local government in countries such as Nigeria. But, Adelphi says, these new authorities have not stepped in to resolve the crisis.

Instead, Boko Haram has moved into the vacuum, creating local governance structures to replace the failing state. When this doesn’t work, it has — like the Islamic State in Syria — resorted to a stranglehold on natural resources “as a weapon”.

In Niger, this has been catastrophic. Fishing communities are going hungry because they cannot get food from Lake Chad, because Boko Haram uses the lake as a base from which to launch attacks. Farmers have also been affected, with the group cutting off their access to water and fertiliser. When the government sends forces to an area, Boko Haram has poisoned wells and streams, according to reports.

Acts such as this are projected to become the new normal. Adelphi says climate change is creating “vicious cycles of increasing climate impacts, vulnerability, violence, conflict and fragility”. 

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

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