Climate change causes wars in Africa

THE PUNCH Newspaper-Nnaemeka Meribe

If nothing is done soon to combat climate change, the number of armed conflicts raging in Africa is likely to increase, and this may swell the number of deaths from war, according to a new report.

Climate change, according to Wikipaedia, is a change in the statistical distribution of weather over periods of time that range from decades to millions of years. It can be a change in the average weather or a change in the distribution of weather events around an average (for example, greater or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change may be limited to a specific region, or may occur across the whole Earth.

In the study, the researchers from the University of California, United States, first combined historical data on civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa with rainfall and temperature records across the continent. They found that between 1980 and 2002, civil wars were significantly more likely in warmer-than-average years, with a 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature in a given year raising the incidence of conflict across the continent by nearly 50 per cent.

Building on this historical relationship between temperature and conflict, the researchers then used projections of future temperature and precipitation change to quantify future changes in the likelihood of African civil war. Based on climate projections from 20 global climate models, the researchers found that the incidence of African civil war could increase roughly 55 per cent by 2030, resulting in an additional 390,000 battle deaths if future wars are as deadly as recent wars.

Previous studies have shown an association between lack of rain and conflict, but the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is said to be the first quantitative evidence linking global warming to fighting. It is based on data from 20 global warming models and a historical examination of the links between climate and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Despite recent high-level statements suggesting that climate change could worsen the risk of civil conflict, until now we had little quantitative evidence linking the two,” says Dr. Marshall Burke, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment when the study was done. “Unfortunately, our study finds that climate change could increase the risk of African civil war by over 50 per cent in 2030 relative to 1990, with huge potential costs to human livelihoods.”

The study cites the example of the fighting in Darfur in Sudan, which according to the United Nations figures, has killed 200,000 people and forced two million more from their homes.

Millions of people have also died in Africa in civil wars in the last decade, including more than 5.4 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.

But while climatic factors may be cited as a reason for several recent communal conflicts, which may deteriorate into full-blown wars like the Dafur example, it may be difficult to push through the climate argument as the cause of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia where power play among the elite was the most likely cause.

Besides, social scientists are always not convinced by arguments that rely on data-mining historical patterns, since much of historical pattern is contingent and dependent on human agency.

The study, however, points out that higher temperatures cause declines in crop yields and ‘economic welfare’, which increases the risk of conflict, which in turn could lead to more deaths.

The study suggests that temperature rises could hit crop yields by between 10-30 per cent and affect entire communities that depend on agriculture for income.

Agriculture accounts for more than 50 per cent of gross domestic product and up to 90 per cent of employment across much of the continent.

According to the study, economic welfare is the single factor most consistently associated with conflict incidence in both cross-country and within-country studies. It appears likely that the variation in agricultural performance is the central mechanism linking warming to conflict in Africa, said the study.

The report says rising temperatures over the next 20 years are likely to outweigh any potentially offsetting effects of strong economic growth.

“Given the current and expected future importance of agriculture in African livelihoods, governments and aid donors could help reduce conflict risk in Africa by improving the ability of African agriculture to deal with extreme heat.

“Such efforts could include developing better-adapted crop varieties, giving farmers the knowledge and incentives to use them,” notes the study.

“Given the strong historical relationship between temperature rise and conflict, this expected future rise in temperature is enough to cause big increases in the likelihood of conflict,” it adds.

The study suggested that a one-degree rise could translate to a 55 per cent risk increase by 2030, which in turn would lead to 390,000 deaths in combat, assuming future wars are as deadly as recent ones.

The researchers have urged governments in Africa and worldwide to hasten and expand policies to help the continent adapt to the effects of climate change.

Burke says, “Our findings provide strong impetus to ramp up investments in African adaptation to climate change by such steps as developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat and promoting insurance plans to help protect farmers from adverse effects of the hotter climate.

“If the sub-Saharan climate continues to warm and little is done to help its countries better adapt to high temperatures, the human costs are likely to be staggering.”

A Professor of African Studies at the United Kingdom’s Bradford University, Nana Poku , suggests that the study also points up the need to improve mechanisms for avoiding and resolving conflict on the continent.

“I think it strengthens the argument for ensuring we compensate the developing world for climate change, especially Africa, and to begin looking at how we link environmental issues to governance,” he says.

“If the argument is that the trend towards rising temperatures will increase conflict, then yes we need to do something around climate change, but more fundamentally we need to resolve the conflicts in the first place.”

Similar study in China in 2007 also revealed that climate change sparked historical wars in China.

Researchers found that cool periods in China, and the resulting scarcity of resources, are closely linked with a higher frequency of wars over the past 1000 years.

The research, which compared variations in climate with data from 899 wars in eastern China between 1000 and 1911, was published in the July edition of Journal Human Ecology.

The finding that resource scarcity and shrinking agricultural output caused by changes in temperature is a major driver for war also applies to current society, says David Zhang, lead author from the Department of Geography at the University of Hong Kong.

Although Zhang did not analyse any warming periods, he believes extreme climate events ¯ both cold and hot ¯ could have a disastrous effect on the earth’s ecosystem.

Early last month, nations of the world gathered in Copenhagen where they took far-reaching decisions on how to mitigate the impact of climate change on the world.


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