Environmental peacebuilding may resolve tensions over water, land or extraction, and helps prevent conflict in a resource-challenged world.
Climate and conflict: A look at environmental peacebuilding
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has focused on global conflict and peacemaking strategies for more than 50 years, but over time the focus has increasingly turned to climate-related issues. Several new SIPRI offerings provide a look at how environmental peacebuilding – meant to reduce tensions over water rights, land use or mineral extraction – can help to prevent conflict in a resource-challenged world.
Rarely is it the case that climate change is the only trigger in creating conflict. Studies have delivered mixed reviews on exactly how clashes over resources contribute to violent outbreaks, or shape the tensions within communities as they respond to new arrivals because of forced migration and internal displacement.
“Scientists generally agree that climate change does not directly cause armed conflict, but that it may indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating existing social, economic and environmental factors,” says the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “For example, when cattle herders and agricultural farmers are pushed to share diminishing resources due to a changing climate, this can stir tensions in places that lack strong governance and inclusive institutions.”
The ICRC, citing the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-Gain) Index, noted last year that of the 20 countries considered the most vulnerable to climate change, 12 of them, including Mali, Afghanistan and Somalia, also are conflict zones. The data doesn’t draw a direct link between climate change and conflict, but it does suggest that these nations are less able to adapt and cope with mounting climate challenges.
Mali and the wider Sahel region already experience droughts that alternate with flooding, along with higher temperatures. The changes add another layer of complexity in a region plagued by violence and extremism.
“Dependence on livestock and agriculture makes about 50 million people in the Sahel highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” says SIPRI. “In the Lake Chad region, 90 percent of livelihoods rely on lake water and rainfall. There is evidence that economic development and degraded environmental conditions have increased north–south and rural–urban migration, especially in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.”
Yet some environmental peacebuilding efforts have proven successful when they engage all stakeholders in the mission to protect resources and build a sustainable future. The latest paper from SIPRI experts, published in the August 2021 issue of World Development, discusses how these techniques have worked in post-conflict zones as far-flung as Nepal, South Sudan and Colombia.
Even in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where fighting that began as civil war in 2003 still continues in pockets today, the environmental peacebuilding efforts introduced by the Near East Foundation were able to reduce ethnic and communal tensions in at least 240 instances.
The SIPRI authors identify three mechanisms that contribute to whether these peacebuilding efforts have the potential for success. First is the contact hypothesis, which basically allows that different and even historically hostile groups can work together to resolve climate issues while learning to understand each other at the same time.
Next is the diffusion of transnational norms, which facilitates development centered on resources through good governance and strong civil society actors. And third is state service provision, which builds trust in government when it protects resources and delivers services, with an even and competent hand that advances cooperation.
“Recent innovative work makes clear that the environment and natural resources have never been divorced from violent conflict, or state formation and operation—or in fact from local or global politics,” said the SIPRI authors, led by Florian Krampe. What’s important moving forward is the ability to better understand these mechanisms, and to draw on the insights of a broad range of academic disciplines in order to do so.