New research has identified a range of factors and policies that influence the dynamic between climate change and violent conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Tània Ferré

Our climate is changing at a rising rate than ever before. Climate change heaps additional burdens onto countries already experiencing political instability and security risks. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the world’s most water-stressed region, hosting 13 of the world’s 20 most water-stressed countries. While global warming predictions indicate a 1.5 °C increase, temperatures in the region are estimated to increase up to 4 °C.  

The impacts of soaring temperatures are already being borne by local populations in the form of extreme weather events, water and food insecurity, and declined livelihoods. Understanding the climate and environmental challenges experienced in the region is intrinsic to peacebuilding efforts and development efforts to strengthen local resilience, as well as to advancing the green transition in the region.  

The countries’ vulnerability to climate impact stems from its limited capacity to adapt to the resulting extreme temperatures, heatwaves, and water shortages. When combined with other factors leading to insecurity, including weak governance, loss of livelihoods, elite’s exploitation and migration, the risk of competition over scarce resources increases, consequently increasing the risk of conflict.  

Climate change heaps additional burdens onto countries already experiencing political instability and security risks

Understanding the complex relationships at play and how they interplay within local contexts is essential to inform debate and shape policy, according to a systematic literature review by Tània Ferré Garcia (Esade) and Kyungmee Kim (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Their findings shed light into these relationships, indicating that they primarily operate through indirect and diverse pathways, emphasizing the importance of steering clear of oversimplified assumptions.  

Their research, recently published in the International Studies Review, provides important evidence for the basis of climate adaptation and natural disaster mitigation policies.  

The role of governance in climate adaptation

Governance plays a crucial role in preventing, anticipating, and adapting to risks. Vulnerability to climate change impacts is intrinsically interconnected with the socioeconomic policies previously undertaken and the climate adaptation capacity that each country has.  

The researchers identified substantial differences in the impact that droughts had in the Fertile Crescent region. While Jordan, Palestine and Syria experienced significant reductions in agricultural production, regions with stronger water governance such as the northwest Iraq and southeast Turkey demonstrated having stronger resilience to climate shocks. Groundwater depletion, driven by over-exploitation, is also indicated to have a significant effect on increasing drought’s vulnerability.  

Governance plays a crucial role in preventing, anticipating, and adapting to risks

The depletion of groundwater in parts of the MENA region is largely attributed to governments' unsustainable agricultural and water policies. Groundwater offers an important source of reserve during droughts and the unsustainable use of groundwater adversely affects farmers' vulnerability to droughts. 

In some situations, political elites use subsidies to ensure support from farmers at the expense of the environment. These unsustainable water and agricultural policies are not just technical mismanagement but embedded in a much larger political context and ideology. Considering political factors in climate vulnerability is an important aspect to understand climate-conflict nexus in the MENA region. 

Overall, the patterns identified by the researchers suggest that, while climate change does have an impact on food security, this is exacerbated by poor governmental capacity and existing structural inequality. This suggests that the social, political, and ecological vulnerabilities can be mitigated with public policies and strong natural resources governance decisions.  

Impact on livelihoods

Previous research has established that a dependence on agriculture for livelihoods is one of the best predictors of violent conflict. In the MENA region, agriculture, fisheries, and livestock account for around 15 percent of livelihoods. Over the last three decades, the increasing severity of droughts has exacerbated food insecurity and the loss of livelihoods.  

Jordan and the West Bank in Palestine, for example, experienced a reduction in agricultural production after the 2007–2008 drought, and in 2008-2009, annual wheat production in Iraq declined by 35 percent. Yet, the impact was felt most severely in Syria, where the drought that preceded the civil conflict by two years was deemed the worst on record.  

Dependence on agriculture for livelihoods is a major predictor of violent conflict

Livestock populations were decimated, crops failed and the agriculture sector all but collapsed. Farmers in Turkey, however, where substantial investments into water infrastructure were made during the 1990s and 2000s, experienced significantly fewer consequences.  

The review also revealed that gender, age, and ethnicity play a significant role in determining the disproportionate impact of climate change. Women, for instance, are disproportionally affected, compelling them to carry the burden of doing off-farm activities in addition to the regular farm and household activities.  

Changes in migrations and mobility patterns

Migration is one of the most common adaptation strategies for populations affected by climate-induced environmental changes. Climate change triggering mass migration of rural populations to urban areas and resulting in political instability is a popular and widespread narrative. Similarly, climate-induced migration has been perceived to be a source of increased competition over already scarce resources, insecurity, and conflict.  

This argument gained prominence when the 2010 collapse of the Syrian agricultural sector preceded the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that later evolved into the civil war. Nevertheless, the literature review identifies that rather than mass migration, it was political discontent, economic recession, youth unemployment, discrimination and social injustice the drivers of the Syrian uprising. 

The authors stress that there is an increased perception that an influx of climate-induced migration into Jordan from Palestine, Iraq, and Syria would worsen water scarcity and consequently security. Similarly, the analysis sheds light into how the perceive threat of so-called “climate refugees” has shaped Israeli government’s discriminatory practices against African refugees and Bedouin communities. 

Yet, the review contests this linkage and suggests rural-to-urban migration in the MENA region is influenced by pre-existing socio-economic conditions and political decisions, with the flow of asylum seekers more likely to be dependent on the political stability of the origin country. 

Weaponizing water

The literature review revealed evidence of the weaponization and control of water by armed groups. Attacks on water infrastructures have occurred in Syria, Libya, and Yemen during civil wars, as well as the protracted conflict situation between Israel and Palestine.  

Increasing water scarcity has influenced the strategies of armed groups and their decisions on when and where to deploy violence. Fighting intensifies during the growing season, when tax revenue from harvests is collected and the population reliant on farming is controlled. 

In the face of recurring droughts, armed groups are increasingly weaponizing water

Water has also been used by armed groups as a tool of governance. The Islamic State achieved credibility by providing water and electricity to the local population. Fighters can also restrict supplies to reduce the control and damage the legitimacy of governing bodies. 

Elite exploitation

Climate change may increase opportunities for elite classes to appropriate humanitarian aid for their own benefit. This dynamic can be exacerbated during times of climate-induced disasters and resulting relief funds, when local and central elites have a significant influence on the planning and distribution of aid.  

Elite exploitation and the political bias on display are linked to violent protests and escalating levels of conflict. After Syria’s 2007-2008 drought, the government directed UN relief efforts to focus exclusively on the Arab district of Al-Shaddadi, despite Kurdish communities being equally affected. 

Mismanagement and corruption in the public sector affect the population’s access to water and basic services

Public sector mismanagement, clientelism, and bureaucratic processes that facilitate the ability of officials to extort bribes, exacerbate climate-induced water scarcity and can trigger widespread protests. In the MENA region, elites have exploited climate change as leverage to explain away government failures that have resulted in declining access to water and failures in agricultural policy.  

Evaluating the pathways to climate insecurity 

Society’s ability to cope with climate change and extreme weather events is influenced by a varied and indirect range of factors. In the MENA region, mismanagement of land and water, elite competition and existing conflicts have exacerbated climate-based risk. 

The result is multiple climate insecurity pathways, with the risk of violent conflict contingent on pre-existing socio-political relationships and the vulnerabilities of local communities and groups.  

Future research that unravels the complexity of these relationships is crucial for the development of successful climate adaptation and mitigation. The impact of floods, heatwaves and dust storms are all under-researched areas and potential sources of great instability.  

The role of non-violent protest and how climate activism interacts with established political systems should also be explored, Ferré Garcia and Kim suggest. Developing an enhanced understanding of the complex and diverse relationship between climate and conflict can help stakeholders to better anticipate and respond to risk, they conclude. 

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