Heated Arguments and Cold Feet: Climate Change, Conflict, and Migration

Climate change is caused by the excessive release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; its results are vast but include an increase in the growing period of warm weather crops, as well as droughts, heat waves, a change in precipitation patterns, stronger hurricanes, rising sea levels (1-4 feet by 2100), and the melting of glaciers.

Considering that climate change is happening in every ecosystem on earth, it will inevitably impact the lives of humans within them, in turn impacting the relationships between and within nations. Scientists have found a strong correlation between climate change and human migration. Moreover, within politically unstable countries, the implications of increasing temperatures have been stressors for civil conflict.

Some of today’s greatest climate-induced civil wars are unfolding in Darfur and Syria, according to a majority of researchers. In Darfur, a decrease in fertile land availability has led to conflict revolving around the question of equality amongst Africans and Arabs. In Syria, a long-lasting drought was the catalyst for a peaceful revolt turned violent. These wars, in combination with potential future conflicts between Middle Eastern countries over water, will likely spur further international tensions involving migration and resource availability.

The Syrian Civil War and Climate Change

The Syrian Civil War was inspired by the successful Arab Spring uprising in neighboring countries in 2011. The Arab Spring resulted in the overthrow of the oppressive Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, giving the people in Syria hope for a more democratic future. What began in 2011 as a peaceful protest against unemployment, government corruption, and a lack of political freedom quickly turned into a full-scale war of unjust and brutal death and destruction. Responsibility for the shift in the nature of the civil conflict rests on the shoulders of Syria’s authoritarian leader, President Bashar al-Assad. However, considering the ecological circumstances of the protest, scientists today are asking: could it be that 367,965 people died because a drought pushed them to rebel against authoritarian forces?

Colin Kelley, a research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, commented on the topic, stating, “we’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change, caused the uprising,” but that “the long term trend, of less rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor, because it made the drought so much more severe.”

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) has found that Syria is among the nations with the fastest depleting water supplies in the world.  In 2008, the absence of rain accounted for a 22% decrease in agricultural production. The drought, which lasted several years, caused numerous farmers to migrate towards the urban centers of Syria; between 2002 and 2009, the urban population increased by 50%. Meanwhile, between 2001 and 2007, employment in the agricultural sector decreased by 33%. Consequently, there were numerous financially challenged men and women struggling to survive in cities.

General consensus amongst researchers is that the drought did contribute to the uprising of 2011. As such, the second question to ask is whether the drought was a result of man-induced climate change. Researcher Colin P. Kelley has found that higher temperatures and decreasing rainfalls in the area were greatly affected by the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Additionally, it was recently found that human activities contributing to atmospheric CO2 levels, such as the burning of fossil fuels, made the drought two to three times more likely to occur. Although there is room to argue for other contributing factors, it can be assumed that human activities caused an increase in atmospheric CO2 levels and, as a result, the drought.

This phenomenon was also a result of irresponsible agricultural practices. Water had been greatly overused in previous years to grow crops like cotton, causing the land to become dry and infertile. Moreover, the government had cancelled finances for power irrigation pumps and  produce transportation. President Bashar al-Assad failed to respond accordingly or with appropriate speed, in turn affecting millions of Syrian citizens for the next decade, if not longer.

The Syrian Civil War, which began with a drought and developed into a full-scale conflict marked by Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless killings, resulted in massive migration towards European countries. In England, the influx of refugees has contributed to the British decision to leave the European Union. In Germany, Italy, and France, it has brought about racist and anti-immigrant activities and political parties. As temperatures increase, more people will migrate, furthering international tensions and questions regarding national security and moral politics.

The Civil War in Darfur and Climate Change

Civil war broke out in Darfur in 2003  when the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebelled against the Khartoum government in the name of equality. The violence with which the government responded escalated into a genocide that claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 people.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the war in Darfur as the first climate change war. A study conducted by Edward Miguel reported that conflicts in Africa are expected to increase by 54% by 2030, the equivalent of 393,000 battle deaths, due to rising temperatures. In the years leading up to war in Darfur, the Sahara desert expanded by a mile each year and rainfalls decreased between 15% and 30%. These changes impacted small farm owners and pastorians the most, creating conflict between the sedentary farmers, who identify as African, nomadic herders, who are for the most part Arab, and the government.

As a result of the global-warming induced war, 1.2 million people have been displaced, of whom only 30% are receiving assistance. Chad, a neighboring country, is currently hosting 200,000 refugees. However, Chad’s limited resources and scarce water supply prevent it from accommodating any more refugees in the future. Moreover, the entrance of foreign citizens into Chad has put great pressures on locals. It has also sparked cross-border raids by the Janjaweed, a terrorist group supported by the government of Sudan. In the future, the migration of foreign refugees from Darfur into Chad is likely to spark anti-immigration policies and terrorist-related brutality. To top it off, Western nations are hesitant to accommodate refugees for fear of disturbing oil trade relations with the Sudanese government. As such, Darfur is receiving less aid than it otherwise might have.

Today, men, women, and children continue to be plagued by violence in Darfur. The increasing impact of global warming on land productivity will remain the greatest challenge to peaceful social relations in Sudan. As nations wrestle with dwindling natural resources, racially inclined prejudice, and the desire for international peace, migration will become the chief problem facing politicians and foreign policy.

Israel–Palestine and Climate Change

By the year 2100, temperatures in the Middle East are expected to increase by 1.6 to 1.8 degrees while precipitation is expected to decrease by 50%. The effects of climate change will include water shortages, a decrease in agricultural productivity, migration, more refugees from areas facing land inundation due to rising sea levels, and other various financial difficulties. In Israel, the water shortage is especially critical considering the fact that the country can only drink from its own water sources to avoid poisoning by neighboring countries.

The obstacles of global warming will complicate Israel’s ability to comply with the Jordan River and Yarmouk River water-sharing arrangements. These agreements were created to allocate necessary amounts of water to Israel and its neighboring nations for the prevention of conflict. If Israel were to demand more water, the agreements would be impacted and would require revision. This necessity would be cause for conflict between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries sharing the same water sources.

Global warming has also impacted the quality of Israel’s water and its availability in the territory. 97% of the water in the Gaza strip is undrinkable. For example, the increasing salinity and pollution of the water available in the Gaza strip recently caused the death of a five year old. Israel’s attempts to fix the problem have been set back by bombings in the Gaza War. According to the UN, the Gaza War in 2014 alone resulted in 30 million dollars worth of damage to water infrastructure. The conflict for Israel has only heightened the uninhabitability of Gaza and, in turn, increased emigration from the territory.

What Does It All Boil Down To?

Climate change has lead to desertification, a decrease in drinkable water availability, and droughts. Within any affected country, increasing temperatures lead to unemployment, migration, urbanization, and hunger. In combination with politically repressive governments, these factors either have already resulted in civil war, as in Darfur and Syria, or are likely to lead to it in the future.

It is no secret that countries around the globe are failing to take seriously the biggest problem facing the 21st century. Climate change will not just affect the world tomorrow, its impact can be felt today. Yemen’s declining water availability and unequal distribution of the resource between social classes has sparked rebellions against government corruption. Similar issues have arisen in India about the Cauvery Basin, Egypt regarding the Nile, and Bolivia in the “Water War of Cochabamba.”

The conflict in Yemen and the Water War of Cochabamba, during which 9 people died trying to make drinkable water available to the public, indicate that water may become a commodity of the wealthy in developing countries. Meanwhile, until climate change gains the status of a first world pandemic, insignificant treaties and charters will continue to be drafted in place of substantive actions for change.

Stella Cavedon