Climate change will fuel terrorism in the Middle East

There is growing unease at the UN about the link between environmental issues and radicalisation

Smoke from fighting in Yemen's deserts. AFP
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Last year, hundreds of millions of desert locusts swarmed East Africa. They devastated the region's food supply, eating their own weight in crops each day. This year, Lebanon dispatched military helicopters to spray pesticides after a swarm crossed into the country. In October, the UN warned that the insects could further endanger food shortages in Ethiopia's war-torn Tigray region.

It is hard to imagine a situation more dire for some of the world's most vulnerable communities. Much is still unknown about the phenomenon, which has literally plagued our species since we discovered agriculture many thousands of years ago. But scientists are increasingly concerned about mounting evidence of an interaction between locust swarms and climate change, one sign among many of how uncertain the region's environmental future will be in the decades to come.

With the climate crisis set to become one of the most challenging issues of our times, the UAE, France and Niger are currently trying to raise awareness at the UN Security Council of another threat it poses. Environmental issues could aggravate another major global challenge: terrorism. In the words of Mohamed Abushahab, the UAE's deputy ambassador to the UN: “Even if indirect, there is a connection between climate impacts from migration to unemployment, and the feelings of helplessness, resentment and loss of faith in governance systems that contribute to terrorist recruitment.”

The subject needs more advocacy at the global level. A number of countries have opposed a recent draft UN resolution that recognises the issue. Experience from the Middle East and East Africa, which as we have seen are both at the forefront of some of climate change's worst effects, can help strengthen the case. Take Iraq, Syria and Yemen. All have had and continue to contend with a severe terrorism problem. They also are home to millions struggling – particularly farmers – to cope with the burden of rising temperatures, drought and desertification. It is little surprise that both ISIS and Houthi extremists have exploited grievances over water shortages.

An Afghan boy on his way to collect water. AP

The traditional causes of terrorism are well known and studied, from social disaffection to conflict and strife. Dealing with the problem once it manifests, however, is a lot harder. That is why the world cannot afford to stand by while climate change becomes a significant and, most importantly, new risk factor.

Long-term solutions for protecting the communities most at risk of radicalisation due to the climate crisis are complex and far off, but on a local level, there are plenty of short-term measures that can relieve some of the burden. The World Bank, for example, has helped communities in the Sahel, a region with a significant terror problem, install simple but modern irrigation systems, providing an important safety net for farmers.

This ultimately boils down to one goal: building resilience. This is a priority that the UAE has set for its upcoming two-year tenure at the UN Security Council. With its early partners on the issue, it can build the case that two of the most destabilising global problems are en route to becoming dangerously intertwined.

Time is of the essence, because when it comes to terrorism, prevention has consistently proved more effective than elusive, often ineffective cures.

Published: December 13, 2021, 3:00 AM
EDITORIAL