Julian Borger, diplomatic editor / The Guardian – 2007-06-25 22:53:24
(June 23, 2007) — The conflict in Darfur has been driven by climate change and environmental degradation, which threaten to trigger a succession of new wars across Africa unless more is done to contain the damage, according to a UN report published yesterday.
“Darfur … holds grim lessons for other countries at risk,” an 18-month study of Sudan by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) concludes.
With rainfall down by up to 30% over 40 years and the Sahara advancing by well over a mile every year, tensions between farmers and herders over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes threaten to reignite the half-century war between north and south Sudan, held at bay by a precarious 2005 peace accord.
The southern Nuba tribe, for example, have warned they could “restart the war” because Arab nomads – pushed southwards into their territory by drought – are cutting down trees to feed their camels.
The UNEP investigation into links between climate and conflict in Sudan predicts that the impact of climate change on stability is likely to go far beyond its borders. It found there could be a drop of up to 70% in crop yields in the most vulnerable areas of the Sahel, an ecologically fragile belt stretching from Senegal to Sudan.
“It illustrates and demonstrates what is increasingly becoming a global concern,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director. “It doesn’t take a genius to work out that as the desert moves southwards there is a physical limit to what [ecological] systems can sustain, and so you get one group displacing another.”
He also pointed to incipient conflicts in Chad “at least in part associated with environmental changes”, and to growing tensions in southern Africa fuelled by droughts and flooding.
Estimates of the dead from the Darfur conflict, which broke out in 2003, range from 200,000 to 500,000. The immediate cause was a regional rebellion, to which Khartoum responded by recruiting Arab militias, the janjaweed, to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing against African civilians. The UNEP study suggests the true genesis of the conflict pre-dates 2003 and is to be found in failing rains and creeping desertification. It found that:
• The desert in northern Sudan has advanced southwards by 60 miles over the past 40 years;
• Rainfall has dropped by 16%-30%;
• Climate models for the region suggest a rise of between 0.5C and 1.5C between 2030 and 2060;
• Yields in the local staple, sorghum, could drop by 70%.
In the Washington Post, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, argued: “Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand – an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers. Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”
In turn, the Darfur conflict has exacerbated Sudan’s environmental degradation, forcing more than two million people into refugee camps. Deforestation has been accelerated while underground aquifers are being drained.
A peace deal signed last year by rebels and the Khartoum government broke down, but this month President Omar al-Bashir said he would accept the deployment of a joint UN and African Union force. He has reneged on similar pledges, but UN diplomats are hopeful this one will stick.
However, the UNEP report warns that no peace will last without sustained investment in containing environmental damage and adapting to climate change. Mr Steiner said: “Simply to return people to the situation there were in before is a high-risk strategy.”
The G8 summit ended in Germany with consensus over the severity of the climate change problem but no agreement on how it should be contained. A common approach is supposed to be negotiated under UN auspices at the end of the year.
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