By Saima Raza

It has been suggested the effects of climate change (namely natural disasters, sea-level rise, and increasing resource scarcity) will lead to loss of livelihood, economic decline, and increased insecurity either directly or through forced migration. Interacting with poor governance and societal inequalities, these factors may promote political and economic volatility, social fragmentation, migration, and unfortunate responses from governments[1] in Africa. The scarcity (or neo-malthusian) model of conflict assumes that if climate change results in a reduction in essential resources for livelihood, such as food or water, those affected by the increasing scarcity may start fighting over the remaining resources. Alternatively, people may be forced to leave the area, and create new scarcities when they encroach on the territory of other people who may also be resource-constrained[2]. Homer-Dixon (1991) controversially claimed we were on the threshold of an era in which armed conflicts would arise due to environmental alterations[3] and Africa has widely been cited as a potential hotbed for such confrontations.

Natural disasters may exacerbate conflict risk primarily through economic loss and a weakening of government authority yet Slettebak & de Soysa (2010), drawing on a long tradition in disaster sociology; argue that disasters are just as likely to unite those who are adversely affected, at least in the short run. It must be noted the climate-conflict discourse is easily exploited by cynical governments and ruthless rebels who would like to evade any direct responsibility for atrocities[4]. Many publications including the Toronto Project[5] have produced largely abstract conceptions of the environment-conflict nexus, with actual cases presented only as anecdotal evidence or as illustrative examples[6]. Hauge maintains that deforestation, land degradation and freshwater availability did correlate with the occurrence of civil conflict – but their impact only raised the probability of civil/ethnic conflict between 0.5-1.5%[7]. Moreover, where conflict has arisen due to resources in Africa and elsewhere, it has done so due to abundance not paucity.

The 2005 World Summit Outcome also expressly linked poverty, environmental problems, and security[8].Many parts of Africa have the history of violent conflict both inter-state and internal; it has been the locus of contests for hegemonic control among external powers, both in the wider region and globally[9]. North Africa is regularly cited as the regional hotspots for future water conflicts[10]. Gleick outlines over 50 recent conflicts related to water concerns alluding to the importance of water to life means providing for water needs and demands will never be free of politics[11]. Leon Fuerth based on his severe climate change scenario predicts North Africa will collapse as water problems become unmanageable exacerbated by population growth, he cities intense drought in Morocco may destroy the irrigation agriculture and its hydropower power generation. Further east alleged potential water ‘conflicts’ between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia may brew over attempts to divert the waters of the Nile and its tributaries for upstream irrigation projects, the Nile Delta is also at risk from storm surges[12]. Within states, water scarcity can assume an increasingly contentious and violent role when, for example, water-dependent sectors such as irrigated agriculture can no longer sustain farming livelihoods, leading to destabilizing migration flows[13]. While rarely (if ever) starting a war between states, water allocation is often a key sticking point in ending conflict and undertaking national and regional reconstruction and development for instance cooperative incidents outnumbered conflicts by more than two to one from 1945-1999[14]. Predictions of ‘water wars’ have generally been incorrect, despite increasing water shortages; this is not due to cooperation among the countries, as many low-intensity conflicts have illustrated. Rather, the stronger countries in a region manage water for their own benefit, often at the expense of weaker countries, ‘hydro-hegemony’[15].

Environmental factors emerge as less significant in determining the incidence of civil conflicts than economic and political factors[16]. Further research indicates long-term environmental degradation (linked to development) does not play a crucial role in generation ethnic/civil wars[17]. Halvard Buhaug (Political scientist with the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway) published a paper whereby he concludes he was unable to find a correlation between climate change indicators (temperature, rain-fall variability) and the frequency of civil wars over the past 50 years (in sub-Saharan Africa)[18]. Goldstone argues war cannot resolve an issue of environmental degradation or depletion and neither is it an economically efficient way to redistribute the resource[19]. For instance if two nations have a conflict over river water – India and Bangladesh over the Ganges or Israel and Jordan over the River Jordan – they may threaten violence but are likely to produce a non-violent resolution (via negotiation and arbitration)[20]. Because for one party to insist on all water is casus belli, and to risk war to increase access is economically foolhardy[21].

Climate Migration & Conflict

Furthermore, there is little evidence that migration will exacerbate already volatile situations in Africa and the developing world. While resources influence the risk and patterns of conflict, the direct and indirect effects of climate change do not appear to, the people most affected by climate change are typically the poorest and least powerful within Africa, they are less capable of waging significant conflicts[22].Even in places that get less rain, conflict is not likely, as the number of drying regions are adapting to the change by building new dams and reservoirs or embarking on collaborative projects to ensure those affected secure the water they need[23].The climate-conflict-migration discourse is easily exploited by cynical governments and ruthless rebels who would like to evade any direct responsibility for atrocities and violence and prefer to put the blame on developed countries and their greenhouse gas emissions[24]. Conflict is complex and multi-causal. A further postulated cause of ‘environmental refugees’, and a link back to the literature on ‘political refugees’, is the notion that environmental degradation is increasingly at the root of conflicts that feed back into refugee movements[25]. A review of major conflicts that have caused large-scale forced migration during the 1990s provides little evidence of the generation of environmental ‘hotspots’ that have developed into war[26]. Castles (2002) affirms there does not appear to be a convincing case that environmental factors cause major violent conflicts which in turn lead to massive flows of forced migrants – political divisions, ethnic rivalries and economic interests are of greater significance[27]. Environmental issues ought to be understood as being part of a much broader process of societal change.

While resources and resource distribution do heavily influence the risk and patterns of conflict, the direct and indirect effects of climate change do not appear to. As the people most affected by climate change are typically the poorest and least powerful within a country, they are less capable of waging significant conflicts to redress grievances against neighbours or governments[28]. Ingenuity and adaptation will play a key role in how people cope with the effects of climate change and across the African there is evidence to suggest this. Renowned academic Michael Klare has dismissed fears that vicious battles will erupt between water-rich and water-poor nations, particularly in major river basins where upstream nations control the flow of water to those downstream such as the Nile. He maintains adaptation via by building new dams and reservoirs or embarking on collaborative projects to mitigate the effects of scarcity[29]. Much of the literature has a tendency to learn towards conjecture and exaggeration in terms of using climate change as a catalyst of conflict or potential conflict. It must be kept in mind climate projections are uncertain and this remains so for Africa, thereby a cautious approach to impending apocalyptic episodes ought to be undertaken.

[1] Gleditsch, N. P., (2011), ‘Regional Conflict & Climate Change’, p.11 at$file/EE-0566-122.pdf

[2] Gleditsch, N. P., (2011), ‘Regional Conflict & Climate Change’, Paper prepared for the workshop on Research on Climate Change Impacts and Associated Economic Damages, p.6, at:$file/EE-0566-122.pdf

[3] See Homer-Dixon, T., (1991), ‘On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict’, 16 International Security, p.76-15

[4] Gleditsch, N. P., (2011), ‘Regional Conflict & Climate Change’, p.11, 17

[5] At - accessed 23/07/2009

[6]Diehl, P., (1998), ‘Environmental Conflict: An Introduction’, 35 Journal of Peace Research, p.275

[7] Hauge, W., (1998), ‘Causal Pathways to Conflict’ 35 Journal of Peace Research, p.311

[8]World Summit (2005), Outcome, VNDoc.a/60/L1, paras.72 and 79.

[9]Tadesse, M., (2011) ‘The Future of African Sovereignty: Danger and promise’ available at

[10] See Swain, A., (2004), ‘Managing Water Conflict: Asia, Africa and the Middle East’, Psychology Press, Kliot, N., (1994), ‘Water resources and conflict in the Middle East’, Routledge, DFID, (2007) ‘Transboundary water conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa’ at and The Guardian ‘What does the Arab world do when its water runs out?’ (2011), at

[11]Gleick, P.H., et al (2009), ‘The World’s Water 2008-2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources’, Island Press, p.152

[12] Dyer, G., (2010) ‘Climate Wars’, One World, p.18-9

[13]Carius, A., et al (2004) ‘Water, Conflict, and Cooperation’, at

[14]Ibid p.60

[15]Transboundary water conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (March 2007),

[16] Hauge, W., (1998), p.314

[17] See Deudney, D., (1990), ‘The Case against Linking Environmental Degradation and National Security’, 19 Millennium, p.461

[18]Schiermeier, Q., (Sept. 2010), ‘Climate Change not linked to African wars’, Nature at - A study in 2009 led by Marshall Burke, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues, reported a strong historical relationship between temperature and the incidence of civil war.

[19] Goldstone, J.A., (2002), ‘Population & Security: How Demographic Change Can Lead to Violent Conflict’, 56(1), Journal of International Affairs, p.7

[20] Ibid p.7

[21] Ibid p.7-8

[22]Raleigh, C., Jordan, L. & Salehyan, I.(2008), ‘Climate Change, Migration and Conflict’,World Bank Social Development Group, p.2 available at

[23]Klare, M., (2007), ‘Wars For Water?’,

[24] Gleditsch, N. P., (2011), p.17

[25] Black, R., (2001), p.8

[26] Ibid p.8-9

[27] Castles, S., (2002), p.6

[28]Raleigh, C., Jordan, L. & Salehyan, I.(2008), ‘Climate Change, Migration and Conflict’,World Bank Social Development Group, p.2 available at

[29]Klare, M. (2007)., ‘Wars For Water?’, at

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