How climate change could affect conflict in Africa and the Middle East?


Published by: Radwa Ramadan Abdel Fatah Sherif

There is no doubt that the issue of climate change in particular has become a preoccupation for many decision-makers, and has been on the agenda of many countries of the world during the past period. In addition, this rising interest came in conjunction with the start of the United Nations Climate Conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, with the participation of about 200 countries, at the beginning of this November, and the attention of the entire world is directed towards the decisions and recommendations that will emerge from this global climate summit, to limit the effects of catastrophic climate changes on the planet and its inhabitants.

There are many areas where climate-related issues are already posing problems for countries around the world. Due to pre-existing warming, the Middle East and Africa region are particularly sensitive to the consequences of climate change as these issues indirectly cause friction between countries with each other.

The most prominent risks of climate change

Rising temperatures, which pose significant threats, especially in the Arab region, which may see an average temperature, rise of 4 degrees Celsius (or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the twenty-first century. In July 2019, Baghdad recorded the highest temperature ever recorded in the world, reaching 55.6 degrees Celsius.

Drought and wildfire, which are extreme weather phenomena caused by changing weather dynamics exacerbated by climate change. Forest fires were the most prevalent event in the Arab region, followed by droughts, storms (including electrical storms, sandstorms and windstorms) and flash floods.

Food insecurity, Environmental conditions in the Middle East and North Africa, make the region among the most dependent on food imports in the world, and rapid population growth nearly twice the global average along with shifts towards urbanization (particularly in the Gulf and Levant countries) will lead to increasing this dependence, as changes in climate patterns lead to droughts and higher temperatures, the region’s ability to grow the required food will be further limited.

The repercussions of climate change on conflict

The catastrophic phenomena resulting from climate change and global warming negatively affect development, stability and food security in various countries of the world, especially the regions fueled by conflicts. Therefore, there is an indirect relation between climate change and conflict as the following:

  • Internal violence and the escalation of civil wars

According to Robert McClellman of Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, “countries that are already experiencing political fragility are the most important potential future centers for climate-related violence and forced migration events.”

The risks appear higher in the Middle East, where there is a direct relationship between the escalation of civil wars and rising temperatures. Years of high rates of warming have seen significant increases in the likelihood of civil wars. In Syria, climate change and rising temperatures have caused droughts that preceding the civil war, this drought pushed rural farmers into urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo, preparing the population for concentrated and widespread political unrest. From 2002 to 2010, the country’s total urban population increased by 50%. While climate change certainly did not directly trigger the Syrian civil war, it did trigger a confrontation that may not have happened, as climate-induced economic desperation and immigration reinforced other prominent drivers of the conflict.

  • Creating an incubating environment for terrorism

Climate change contributes to increasing the fragility of states, which is reinforced by conflicts surrounding natural resources and insecurity in access to livelihoods. In this context, terrorist organizations multiply, and it is easy for them to exercise their influence in fragile and conflict-affected environments, where the state has no influence and lacks legitimacy. Sometimes terrorist organizations try to bridge the gap left by the state by providing basic services in order to gain legitimacy and secure trust and support among the local population.

Water scarcity contributes to a state of instability, and ISIS has exploited it in the context of (weaponization) i.e.; the use of water as a strategic weapon in Syria and Iraq. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, terrorist organizations, especially ISIS, have resorted to controlling water resources and strategic dams on the Tigris and Euphrates and the infrastructure. The Euphrates is under its control, as it has controlled the Tishreen, Euphrates and Baath dams since 2012, and extended its control to the upper valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. They took control of the Fayhaa springs in Wadi Barda in 2015, which is the main source of water used by the residents of Greater Damascus, with about 5.5 million Syrians. Endemic diseases such as typhoid and cholera on the other hand, or the destruction of the infrastructure of the water flow or the pollution of the water.

  • The increased danger of armed groups

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program frequently warn in their reports that armed conflict and lack of funding are preventing famine relief from reaching, while food insecurity is reaching new heights.

Expectations indicate that conflicts, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 and the climate crisis will lead to high levels of acute food insecurity in several hunger hotspots during the coming period.

Among those hotspots are: Afghanistan, Angola, Central African Republic, Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras), Central Sahel region (Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger), Ethiopia, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Colombia, Kenya, Bibigo, Liberia, Liberia, and Lebanon and Yemen.

FAO and WFP have already warned that 41 million people are at risk of starvation unless they receive immediate food and livelihood assistance, and in 2020, 155 million people faced acute or crisis-level food insecurity in 55 countries (Phase 3 or above) from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification/Harmonized Framework) according to the Global Report on Food Crises, an increase of more than 20 million compared to 2019 – and projections only indicate a further exacerbation of this trend this year.

To conclude, although there is no direct link between climate change and violence and conflict related to organizations, terrorist operations and armed conflicts, environmental and climate change on a large scale contributes to creating an environment in which terrorist operations and armed groups can flourish and fuel conflicts further.

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