Conflict-affected communities will be hit hard by the climate crisis – we can’t forget that

·4 min read
‘As water and good grasslands get scarcer, as harvests are lost and food prices surge, conflicts over scarce resources are on the rise’  (Getty)
‘As water and good grasslands get scarcer, as harvests are lost and food prices surge, conflicts over scarce resources are on the rise’ (Getty)

Leaders gathering for Cop26 from the end of this month know that climate change threatens us all. But the biggest impact of the decisions taken in Glasgow will be felt thousands of miles away.

Not only does climate change pose huge risks to people living in the world’s most conflict-affected regions, but the global response to climate change poses a risk, too, unless we all put more thought into getting that right.

The links between the climate crisis and security are already clear. As water and good grasslands get scarcer, as harvests are lost and food prices surge, conflicts over scarce resources are on the rise.

As Ethiopia completes its Grand Renaissance Dam – a huge renewable energy initiative – President Sisi of Egypt has described the project’s impact on downstream Nile waters as a “grave threat to the security and stability of the entire region”.

In central Nigeria, fighting between settled farmers and herders looking for new pastures has been deadly. Some 15,000 people have died in farmer-herder conflicts in west and central Africa since 2010. Half of these deaths have occured since 2018.

Local peacebuilders are working across these regions, often village by village, to broker new agreements on sharing shrinking resources – though climate change means they are always playing catch-up.

These farmers’ and herders’ livelihoods, and often their lives, will depend on the action taken at Cop26 to slow climate change. But that action holds huge risks for millions of people in fragile and conflict-affected regions, unless we work harder to get it right.

Countries across the Sahel – where Africa’s pastures meet the Sahara – are planting an 8,000km “wall of trees” to slow the desert’s spread. But in Senegal, the tree wall has forced the nomadic Fulani population into long detours in their grazing routes, with livestock dying before they reach good pasture.

Tensions are being fuelled in already unstable local communities. Foreseeing such consequences, and acting on them, must be front and centre in the minds of those making plans to invest the $100bn of climate finance that Cop26 intends to deliver.

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The move away from fossil fuels is – rightly – at the heart of the Cop26 agenda. But many of the world’s most fragile countries rely heavily on hydrocarbon revenues, and on the jobs these industries help to sustain. The move away from oil needs careful handling to avoid further instability.

To make the batteries and renewable technology we need to reach net zero, the world of 2050 will need five times as much cobalt and lithium as we extract today. But many key sources of those minerals are in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mines are vulnerable to takeover by armed groups seeking funds to pursue their campaigns. Afghanistan and Zimbabwe are also key lithium sources.

Thankfully there are answers to all this, or at least, helpful principles and approaches that can be adopted. We must think about conflict and instability right across the climate response: in making plans to adapt to and mitigate climate change, when setting up new investments in fragile states, and when planning economic transitions. This requires new ways of working across divides between and within governments, the private sector and development organisations.

Local communities and those most directly affected must be involved in the way that plans, investments and interventions are designed and delivered. We are used to this in countries like the UK, where rules and regulations oblige renewable energy investors, for example, to thrash through planning, land access and so on with local communities and their representatives. These processes can be time-consuming, but they allow different voices to be heard and conflicting interests to be reconciled peacefully.

In the world’s most fragile regions, however, such frameworks may not exist at all. If they do, they are often more contested and more vulnerable to corruption. Local people may not be able to speak up without repercussions. 

The answer is to find ways to involve and work with communities despite these obstacles. That requires time, focus and good partnerships, but it’s vital – both for building peace and for the long-term success of the climate projects themselves.

It may be tempting to argue that the climate emergency is so urgent, and already so complex, that such concerns should take a back seat. But that would be a grave mistake.

It is within our power, as a global community, to build both a greener and a safer world. We can do that by recognising the connections between climate and conflict, breaking down barriers and silos in our thinking and our response, and working more closely with communities in the world’s most insecure places. And we must, because for them, the world’s response to the climate emergency may literally be a matter of life or death.

Watch: What is COP26 and how will it affect the future of climate change?

Nic Hailey is the executive director of International Alert

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