Climate change is worsening the misery of those in conflict zones

War and threats to the environment go hand in hand

Climate change is greatly exacerbating the suffering of those living in conflict zones. Getty / The National
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Herders in the northwestern African country of Mali used to travel far and wide to find scarce water and land for grazing. But years of conflict and insecurity mean herders must now stay closer to home, near water sources they know. This in turn causes tensions with farmers and fishermen.

With dwindling access to good land and water, and with no government support available to intervene and mediate, herders can only watch as their cattle become weaker. They are forced to sell them at steeply discounted prices, and an already poor population becomes poorer.

“The rains of my childhood were different. They came at the right moment and pasture was of good quality. Nowadays, water sources are filled with sand. Rain never comes at the right time and grass is scarce,” according to Issa, a 61-year-old community leader from northern Mali.

Recent research that we at the International Committee of the Red Cross carried out found that people living in conflict zones are disproportionately affected by climate change. Of the 25 countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, 60 per cent are mired in conflict.

This month I visited Niger. There, I met with communities who said weather has become more unreliable, with unpredictable droughts and floods. They talked of dramatic impacts on their health and their food and economic security.

People living in conflict zones already face extreme stress and hardship. Climate variability and shocks further worsen their predicament. Assets that should help them cope with change, such as state institutions, essential services, social cohesion or even freedom of movement are profoundly disrupted.

Environmental harm stemming from conflict can further limit people’s ability to adapt to climate change. Too often, the natural environment is directly attacked or damaged by warfare. Attacks can lead to water, soil and land contamination, or release pollutants into the air. Explosive remnants of war can contaminate soil and water sources, and harm wildlife.

In Al Faw, south of Basra, Iraq, people blame their water and farming problems on the felling of date palms for military purposes during the Iran-Iraq war. They have not grown back. This environmental damage has been compounded by rising temperatures, droughts, desertification and soil salinisation.

Today, there is a marked increase in sand and dust storms in Iraq – from fewer than 25 days of local dust storms a year between 1951 and 1990, to around 300 in 2013. This has contributed to transforming fertile soil into desert areas.

And women are at the forefront. This is not because they are intrinsically vulnerable, but because people with a lower socioeconomic status are often more vulnerable to shock, as they tend to lack savings and social assets to cope with change.

Mothers we met in southern Iraq spoke of their hopes that their children would find a more reliable livelihood than farming. “We advise our children to continue studying and to do something else,” explained one. “There is no future for agriculture.”

Climate change is cruel. While it will be felt everywhere, these examples from Iraq and Mali illustrate how its most crippling effects will be borne by the world’s most vulnerable. Violence and instability rob communities and institutions of the chance to adapt, including through mobility.

Too often, the natural environment is directly attacked or damaged by warfare

The International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has warned that the number of people in need of international humanitarian aid due to climate change could double by 2050, compared to 2018 figures, while funding requirements could rise from between $3.5 billion and 12bn to $20bn per year by 2030. Moreover, international climate finance needs to be equitably balanced between mitigation and adaptation, to ensure that populations receive the support needed to strengthen their resilience to a changing climate.

Earlier this year, the ICRC, the IFRC and Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies adopted the Climate and Environmental Charter for Humanitarian Organisations, a commitment to fighting climate change. The Charter, open for signature by all humanitarian organisations, intends to steer collective action responding to climate and environmental crises through actions like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stepping up the humanitarian response to meet growing needs of impacted people. Since this action must also be led by people who have been affected by conflict, the ICRC is embracing the leadership of local agencies and communities to drive action, ensuring meaningful and inclusive participation.

The ICRC also launched the ICRC Climate and Environment Transition Fund earlier this year to mobilise additional funding from public, private and philanthropic sources in order to meet the organisation’s commitments related to climate change and environmental sustainability. This is an important first step, yet so much more needs to be done.

Major efforts – in the form of significant systemic and structural changes, political will, good governance, investment, technical knowledge and a shift in mindsets – are needed to ensure that communities hit hardest get the support they need to cope and adapt.

People living in conflict zones are the most neglected by climate action. We urgently need to work together across the humanitarian sector and beyond to reverse this trend. We need to skill up and strengthen anticipatory responses. Reducing risks and exposure go a long way to protecting people. A greater share of climate finance also needs to be allocated to climate adaptation. There is a gap in funding for climate action between stable and fragile countries. At present, the bulk of climate finance is used to support efforts to reduce carbon emissions, which is essential. But such efforts must be complemented by activities to help communities adapt to a changing climate.

Major global efforts are essential to limit climate change and avoid the most disastrous consequences. But this will only limit, not halt, the climate crisis. We urgently need to find ways to help people cope and adapt by developing programmes addressing short and longer-term risks. We must join forces, across the humanitarian sector and beyond. And we also need to bring on board those who are best placed to ensure that climate action and finance reach communities enduring conflict – from State governments to local authorities, international financial institutions, academia and the private sector.

This is all urgent. The crisis is already costing lives.

Published: February 25, 2022, 6:00 PM