Don’t wait for peace to fight climate change

  • By Laurie Goering
  • 12/11/2017

A tribal Fulani boy stands near cows at a local milk collecting centre in Dangwala Karfi village on the outskirts of Nigeria's northern city of Kano January 19, 2016. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye


To help farmers in parched northern Ghana boost their incomes in the face of worsening drought, the government and aid groups are supplying them with fast-growing seeds that allow them to harvest two crops over a season where they once grew just one.

But extending the growing season, even by a few weeks, means Fulani herders who have long driven their animals through the region’s fields after harvest now find crops still in the fields when they arrive. As the harvest is trampled, deadly fights break out between pastoralists and farmers.

Farmers, with added income from two crops, also are expanding the areas they cultivate, and investing in bigger cattle herds of their own – all of which can make life more precarious for the pastoralists who share the region in Africa’s Sahel.

Building resilience to climate change in areas beset by conflict and competition for land, water, grazing and jobs is a challenge – and not just because extreme weather and other climate pressures are making life harder for everyone.

The reality is that helping some communities cope more effectively with climate change can leave others worse off – and that can deepen conflict.

“These landscapes are complex,” said Sebastiaan Soeters, a Utrecht University researcher based in Accra, who has been studying the human impacts of climate change in northern Ghana.

What helps farmers cope better may hurt herders or fishermen, and even threaten to drive extremism if people already struggling to survive find themselves with shrinking options - apart from a paycheck from an extremist group, he said.

“Radicalisation is going to change the climate change discourse in West Africa and in other parts of the world,” Soeters predicted at Development and Climate Days, an event on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks in Bonn this week.

Around the world, deaths from wars between countries are falling. “These are safer times to live in than much of human history,” noted Bruce Currie-Alder, Cairo-based Middle East and North Africa regional director for Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

But other sorts of conflict are on the rise – whether the wars in fragile or failing states such as Yemen or Syria, or ethnic violence like that facing Myanmar’s Rohingya. In many cases, it is happening in places facing similar pressures: poverty, worsening weather disasters, growing competition for water, land and other resources, and governments that can’t cope.

By 2035, 80 percent of the world’s people living in extreme poverty are expected to be in fragile states, according to research published in 2016 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

That suggests governments, aid agencies and other groups trying to help those most vulnerable to climate change are going to need to work in some very tough places, where the right thing to do isn’t always clear.


“If we’re always pushing to target the most vulnerable, then we need to put our money where our mouth is,” said Katie Peters, a researcher on disaster risk, climate change and conflict at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

“We know enough about the dynamics of conflict to know that, unfortunately, it’s not possible to say we’re going to wait until there’s peace. In so many conflicts now it can last for generations. You can’t deny people support to deal with changes related to climate change because you’re waiting for the conflict to end,” she said.

Peters, in a report released last month, noted that between 2004 and 2014, nearly 60 percent of deaths from disasters happened in countries that are among the top 30 most fragile states. Tackling disaster risk in such countries “should therefore be a priority for national governments and the international community alike” – both on moral grounds and in an effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the report noted.

The problem, Peters said, is that people haven’t thought much yet about how to do it – although conflict resolution work and efforts to deliver basic services in tough places like Afghanistan could be a guide.

“We haven’t put nearly enough thinking into how to deal with this. The standard approaches that work in stable, peaceful contexts probably don’t work in fragile states. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything,” said Peters, who also works on the UK aid-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, which targets a range of conflict-hit countries in the Sahel.

Without assistance, conflict-hit places now facing climate change pressures too are likely to spiral into worsening problems, the experts warned.

Around Lake Chad, which has shrunk 90 percent in size since the 1960s, making life difficult for fishermen and farmers in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger, extremist group Boko Haram has sunk roots in recent years. That, in turn, makes it hard to secure funding to help the climate-hit region.

“Conflict areas get behind in accessing climate finance. It’s not a priority to work on this hard thing, so they get less money,” noted Julie Arrighi, who works on climate and disaster risk issues for the Red Cross.

Northern Ghana’s struggling Fulani pastoralists now have an added disadvantage. Besides battling to find pasture for their animals, methane emissions from their cattle are listed as a driver of climate change in national policies, Soeters said, whose work is supported by the Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) programme.

That has given the government “extra leverage” to marginalise them, he said.

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