Did global warming cause a resource war in Darfur?

An aid helicopter takes off from Fina, Sudan. A confluence of ecology, poverty, politics and history has caused a war that’s killed about 180,000 people and created an estimated 2.5 million refugees so far.  Credit: AP Photo/VII/Ron Haviv

Though a sudden agreement gave hope for peace in Darfur, the lack of support from small anti-government groups, the spillover of refugees into Chad and the opposition of the central government to UN peacekeepers mean that the conflict drags on. Lost in discussions about ending the Sudanese government’s attacks on its people, however, is the acknowledgment of how the dispute began: Darfur may well be the first war influenced by climate change.

In recent years, increasing drought cycles and the Sahara’s southward expansion have created conflicts between nomadic and sedentary groups over shortages of water and land. This scarcity highlighted the central government’s gross neglect of the Darfur region—a trend stretching back to colonial rule. Forsaken, desperate and hungry, groups of Darfurians attacked government outposts in protest. The response was the Janjaweed and supporting air strikes.

The theory that current climate change will result in resource scarcity that could spark warfare has gained traction in the past decade, with research on the topic commissioned by organizations ranging from the United Nations to the Pentagon. In March, British Home Secretary John Reid publicly fingered global warming as a driving force behind the genocide in Darfur. “[Environmental] changes make the emergence of vio-lent conflict more rather than less likely,” he said. “The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur. We should see this as a warning sign.”

“The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor. We should see this as a warning sign.”

Desertification and increasingly regular drought cycles in Darfur have diminished the availability of water, livestock and arable land. “The effect of climate change on these resources has been a latent problem,” said Leslie Lefkow, an expert on Darfur with Human Rights Watch. “And instead of addressing the cause of that tension and putting money into development of water resources…the government has done nothing. So the tensions have grown. And these tensions are one of the reasons why the rebellion started.”

Chalking the Darfur conflict up to climate change alone would be an oversimplification, argues Eric Reeves, a leading advocate and a professor of English literature at Smith College. “The greater cause, by far, lies in the policies of the current National Islamic Front regime,” he said. Marc Lavergne, a researcher with the French National Center for Scientific Research and former head of the Centre D’Etudes et de Documentation Universitaire Scientifique et Technique at the University of Khartoum, agrees. “The problem is not water shortage as such, and water shortages don’t necessarily lead to war. The real problem is the lack of agricultural and other development policies to make the best use of available water resources since colonial times.”

Though global warming may fail to directly explain the conflict, some experts—like Michael Klare, a global security specialist at Hampshire College and author of the book Resource Wars—argue that Darfur is part of an emerging pattern of resource conflict: “I don’t think you can separate climate change from population growth, rising consumption patterns and globalization… It’s really one phenomenon… In a place like Africa, where the infrastructure and the government are weak, all these pressures are multiplying…and it’s creating conflict and schisms, which often arise along ethnic and religious lines, because that’s how communities are organized. But they’re really fighting over land or water or timber or diamonds.” And in Darfur, they’re fighting against the inexorable reach of an expanding desert.

Originally published August 1, 2006

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