Climate change doesn't just cause ecological disasters. A new book by one of our correspondents shows how it is also behind some of the world's nastiest conflicts
In 2007, I flew to Chad and drove east to the 21st century's first war over water. Darfur, a barren, mountainous land just below the Sahara in western Sudan, is one of the world's worst man-made disasters. Four years of fighting has killed 200,000 people and made refugees of 2.5 million more. The immediate cause is well known: the Arab supremacist janjaweed and their backers in the Sudanese government are waging a campaign to exterminate African and Arab settler farmers in Darfur by slaughter, rape and pillage, burning thousands of villages to the ground.
But it was easy to forget that before man added his own catastrophe, life in Darfur was already a gathering natural disaster. To live on the arid soil of the Sahel is an eternal struggle for water, food and shelter. In the past, nomad Arab herders and settled farmers (Arabs and Africans) worked together: the farmers allowed the herders' livestock on their land in exchange for milk and meat. But as good land became scarcer, the two sides began to fight over it. "You might laugh if I say that the main reason of this issue is a camel," said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at his failed attempt at Darfur peace talks in October 2007. "But Africa has thousands of such issues. They are about water, about grass."
Competition is intensifying. The Sahara is advancing steadily south, smothering soil with sand. Added to that or perhaps explaining it is global warming. In November 2006, the United Nations Climate Change Conference heard a warmer earth will put at risk the lives of 65 to 95 million Africans over the next quarter of a century, most of them in and around the Sahara. The U.N.'s predictions prompted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to declare Africa "the continent most vulnerable" to global warming.
It's not hard to start a fight in a place like that. As the Sudanese government did, you just find a divide racial, political, cultural, religious and promise one side as much land as they can steal. But the immediate spark shouldn't be allowed to detract from the war's underlying cause. Says Michael Klare, director of the Peace and World Security Program at Hampshire College in Massachusetts: "In Darfur, global warming exacerbates divisions along ethnic lines and produces ethnic wars that are, at root, resource conflicts."
Many of Africa's conflicts can be explained as tinderboxes that had long been waiting for a spark. In northern Kenya, Turkana tribes and armed gangs murder and rob each other in a cycle of violence fuelled by eight years of drought. In Rwanda, there is an increasing consensus that Africa's other recent genocide is at least partly understood as a contest between too many people on too little cultivable land. The U.N. Development Program predicted as long ago as November 1999 that one in two Africans would face water shortages by 2025, and said it expected violent flashpoints to erupt along the Nile, and in the Niger Volta and Zambezi deltas.
Around the world, the U.N. is eyeing other ecological disasters for their conflict potential. There is the loss of half the Aral Sea to Soviet-era irrigation, and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers (which feed rivers from which 500 million people draw water); and there are Chinese plans to dam the upper Mekong, halving water flow to 65 million Southeast Asians. In a 2003 report, the U.N. Environment Program said water shortages already affected 400 million people and predicted that number would multiply tenfold by 2050. At that time, more than a sixth of the world's population, 1.1 billion people, had erratic supplies of clean water or none at all. UNEP chief Klaus Toepfer warned in an accompanying statement that "the next war could be a war [over] water."
The notion of weather as war maker has influential backers. On April 16, 2007, 11 former U.S. admirals and generals published a report for the Center for Naval Analyses Corporation that described climate change as a "threat multiplier" in volatile parts of the world. The next day, then British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett hosted a debate on climate change and conflict at the U.N. Security Council in New York City. "What makes wars start?" asked Beckett. "Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use. There are few greater potential threats to our economies, too, but also to peace and security itself." Speaking outside the debate, Philip E. Clapp, former president of the New York City-based National Environmental Trust (who died this year), warned: "Global warming is no longer just an environmental issue. It is a rapidly advancing human crisis threatening millions of people, which could undermine the shaky political stability of countries from Southern Africa to the Middle East and South East Asia."