Climate change and a declining availability of resources have disrupted the environment of many regions. These changes have led to competition for resources and land, fueling conflict and amplifying preexisting conflict. Yet, environmental degradation can also be a result of conflict. Despite this, environmental changes are not the sole cause of conflict, at least today. In the future, the potential for dramatic climate change can become the sole factor in the cause of conflict as competition for resources becomes dire. In the Sahel region of Africa, climatic changes over the past few decades have prompted the intensification of conflict within the Darfur region of Sudan.
The Link between Environment and Conflict
Climate change, environmental degradation, and resource limitations all have varying effects on the ecology and demography of a region. Currently, an uptake in disastrous environmental events, including floods, droughts, and the effects of invasive plant and animal species , has raised concerns over the planet’s health and potential for conflict fueled solely by environmental change. With a world population that may surpass 9 billion within the next five decades , demand for resources will increase and stress the environment to the point of conflict.
A larger population will result in a greater demand for potable water, and nations that already lack easy access to water will begin to encroach on other lands. Water scarcity will, in the future, require nations to pursue the massive economic undertaking of desalination efforts in line with those that Israel has been practicing for years – likely leaving poorer nations behind.
If environmental deficit combines with preexisting religious, social, political, or economic divides, conflict can be catalyzed or amplified, and efforts towards resolution will be difficult . The devastating effects of desertification, deforestation, and drought can spur mass movement and spread the effects of environmental catastrophe, pushing the problems of scarcity onto others.
Darfur, a region in Western Sudan, has experienced what seems to be perpetual violence over the past decades, some attributable to environmental change and resource scarcity. Over forty years, average rainfall in Darfur declined by 30 percent , and forest cover by 33 percent . As a result, the Sahara continues to move southward through the region, swallowing fertile land and sources of water for people and animals.
The link between conflict and environmental change in Darfur has been undeniable for decades, though it is only one cause in a list of many that have spurred aggression within the region. These other factors, including migration, impoverishment, and religious or ethnic feuds, have been compounded and amplified by the decline in availability of resources to Darfur’s growing population. Local clashes have increased in recent history, and over the past eighty years conflict has been largely borne from competition for essentials of everyday life: land and water . Following Sudanese independence in 1956, proxy wars amongst Sudan, Libya, and Chad seemed to be relatively unrelated to environmental demands and resource competition, yet worsening episodes of drought in the 1980s – especially profound in Darfur – began the occurrence of more significant conflicts.
During the 1980s, declining rainfall led to widespread famine in Darfur. Nomadic groups, known as ‘Arabs,’ began to move in search of new land, ultimately intruding on land already settled by ‘Fur’ tribe farmers . As a result, confrontation was unavoidable on a small, local scale, eventually escalating into war once compounded by differences in ethnicities and religions .
The conflicts stemming from the famine and migration remained minor for about fifteen years, with major war beginning in 2003 after its evolution into a political- and ethnic-based conflict . Despite its current political nature, innumerable sources continue to describe competition for natural resources as one of the root causes of the Darfur conflict, resultant of the aforementioned deforestation, desertification, droughts, and population movement. Furthermore, the ensuing conflict itself in turn played a role in further environmental degradation of Darfur. The armed forces of Sudan and Darfurian nomadic groups targeted natural resources – both through deforestation (tree-felling) and “unsustainable resource exploitation” . The reasons for tree-felling are threefold: first, to support the war’s “construction industry” ; second, to provide animals necessary to the war effort with an adequate food source ; and third, to prevent sedentary farmers from returning to their land .
Armed forces in Darfur utilize the practice of ‘scorched earth’ , where natural resources, housing, and other necessities are destroyed to establish dominance and cripple the opposition. Without food security or a stable source of income, incidents of famine, death, and mass migration will increase. Understandably, a state embroiled in conflict is unlikely to devote much of its attention to environmental conservation. But natural resources will continue to go unprotected, and those who inflict severe destruction upon these resources will go unpunished  without environmental stabilization through the implementation of national laws and regulations.
As we see in Darfur, the incapacity of the Sudanese government to counter targeted environmental destruction, as well as the degradation of the environment associated with migration and refugee camps, has allowed natural resources to become increasingly scarce. Until the conflict ends or a third-party mediator is brought in to formulate an agreement between the two sides, environmental protection will not be a high priority for the state. The state will need to establish social services programs that will work to find land or housing for migrants forced out of their homes by war, or the concentrated consumption of natural resources at refugee sites will continue to drain key areas within Darfur at unsustainable rates. Without a plan to accommodate migrants, mediate conflict, and enact environmental preservation, this web of causality will continue its loop with impunity.
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