Environmental Impacts on Human Security and the Potential of Conflict

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Author Adriana Miljkovic

Exploring the linkages between the environment, security and conflict is not a novelty. Theoretically backed up, scientifically evidenced, media embellished, nevertheless…existing and real. Climate change is likely to lead to resource scarcity and environmental degradation - not just in the short term, but over the long term. “This is especially true in vulnerable regions that face multiple stresses at the same time -- pre-existing conflict, poverty and unequal access to resources, weak institutions, food insecurity and incidence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS” [1] But how important are resources and more specifically scarcity of renewable resources in accounting for conflict?

This article will not imply a causal or deterministic pathway. Rather, it will focus on the interplay between environmental factors, human security, and conflict. It will examine how climate change driven environmental degradation can negatively effect human security, consequently and in conjunction with other factors, contributing to or increasing the potential of violent conflict in already fragile states (i.e.: intra-state conflict).



A general consensus seems to exist by now that the concept of security has moved beyond its traditional definition focussed on defending borders from external military threats, to a more holistic concept, one that has evolved to include human and environmental issues.

The human dimension

The people centred view and concern with the security of “individuals”, which underlines the concept of human security, gained momentum in the 1990s following the Cold War. The United Nations Development Programme’s flagship publications, the 1994 Human Development Report, called attention to the ‘freedom from fear’ alongside the ‘freedom from want’.[2] More specifically, it expanded the notion of security to comprise threats in seven undoubtedly intertwined areas:

a)economic security; b) food security; c) health security; d) political security;
e) community security; f) personal security; and g)environmental security.

The Commission on Human Security (CHS) further defended the importance of safeguarding the fundamental core of human life and intrinsically also that of peace: survival, livelihood and basic dignity.

“As we look ahead, we can see real risks that resource depletion, especially fresh water scarcities, as well as severe forms of environmental degradation, may increase social and political tensions in unpredictable but potentially dangerous ways. These new security challenges require us to think creatively, and to adapt our traditional approaches to better meet the needs of our new era.” (Kofi A. Annan, Millennium Report 2000) [3]

The environmental dimension and the gloom of climate change

"Environmental changes: drought, desertification, land degradation, failing water supplies; deforestation, fisheries depletion, or ozone depletion are just some of the environmental changes that have been branded in recent decades as having the capacity to undermine human security".[4] Climate change is the latest of these and also the one to have gotten the most attention as a potential destabilizer and threat to “international peace and security”. On April 17 of 2007, the United Nations Security Council held an unprecedented debate, during which Margaret Beckett, then British Foreign Secretary, affirmed that climate change was a security issue, but it was not a matter of narrow national security - it was about “our collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world”.[5]

Scientific evaluation on the current state of the climate and its projections for the future seem to support such claims. While the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest Assessment Report highlighted the unequivocal and historically high rate of global warming and climate change, the Stern review emphasized the economic costs of these phenomena.[6] Alongside the environmental impacts of climate change, its impacts on key sectors like water supply, agriculture, health and industry were analyzed, and the consequences for specific regions were assessed. Both reports affirmed that developing countries will be the hardest hit by climate change due to lack of financial, technical, and institutional capacity.

This ‘securitization’ of the environment, notably climate change, has progressively gotten its foothold in academia, policy circles, and in humanitarian discourse. A number of reports have attempted to identify so called “hot spots”; regions of the world where climate change is likely to interact with existing conditions to the extent of being deemed a security threat. As societies’ adaptive capacities are overstretched, risk can attain the dimension of conflict. The WBGU identified four key “conflict constellations” that are conditioned by the anticipated impacts of climate change and may culminate in the outbreak of violence. [7]

In another recent report, International Alert identified 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, where climate change and water-related crises create a high risk of violent conflict. An additional 56 countries, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability, according to the study.[8]

A succession of new wars?

While a certain amount of negative consequences is bound to remain regardless of the international community’s future failures or successes in tackling climate change, the climate change-as-a-security-threat chorus has somewhat infiltrated political imagination.[9] Although, scholarly writings and the media have occasionally exploited the term “water-wars”, this alarmist scenario is rather unlikely. In fact, the historical record shows more examples of cooperation than conflict on transboundary waters issues.[10] Even in the troublesome and water-scarce region of the Middle East, water albeit a political issue, has been a recurring subject of negotiation.[11] (See Conflict and Water)

Thus, the environment-security nexus of relevance here, puts emphasis on the locality of the conflicts concerned, predominately ‘intra-state’ or regionally limited at sub-national level.


The link between environmental change, seen as a destabilizing interference in the ecosystems’ equilibrium, and the outbreak of violent conflict remains ambiguous. None of the prognoses of the reports mentioned above claim that its most acute manifestation, climate change, can or is likely to be the main driver of conflict. Rather, all stress the multicausality of conflicts, the fact that the environmental element is never in isolation, but in interaction with other socio-politico-economic and historical factors.

Environmental conflicts” are characterized by the principal importance of degradation in one or more of the following fields: overuse of natural resources, overstrain of the environment’s sink capacity, or impoverishment of the space of living.[12]

Environment and conflict theories

Although scientific research into so-called environmental conflicts can be traced back to the early 1970s, it was not until the 1990s that scholars entered into serious debate and systematic study of what had previously been vague assumptions.

The causal links between environmental degradation and conflict escalation can be categorized into what has been coined as the “resource scarcity” vs. “resource abundance” debate (i.e. also known as the “grievances vs. greed” debate). In “Climate Conflict: Common Sense or Nonsense?”, Nordås and Gleditsch ask: Do people fight as a result of marginalization, frustration, or relative deprivation? Or do they fight about a 'honey-pot' which gives them a financial motive and an opportunity to mobilize? [13] Studies by Collier and Hoeffler took on the challenge to answer, concluding that greed (opportunity) had greater explanatory power than grievance (motivation) in the onset of civil war. The latter view emphasizes resource abundance as a factor in conflict, mainly by providing economic opportunity for the contending parties. [14]

In reality, the distinction between motivation and opportunity is seldom clear. A context-specific analysis of the interaction of the two, is more fruitful than an ‘either’ and ‘or’ lens. Resource scarcity as well as resource abundance can generate conflict. However, in light of the case study chosen, the Karamoja region of Uganda, resource scarcity theory will be further elaborated.

“Environmental degradation of natural resources has impacts across horizontal and vertical levels. Environmental degradation may cause countless often subtle changes in developing societies… If the state cannot respond to the environmental degradation, either through markets, adaptation, or mitigation policies, then any existing social/economic/political cleavages can erupt into conflict." [15]

Resource scarcity

“Resource scarcity” theories, also known as the neo-Malthusian model, are built on ideas of resource constraints together with the scepticism of human rationality under such conditions of stress. The forefather of this theory, Thomas Homer-Dixon, identified three forms of resource scarcity: (i) supply induced scarcity, concerned with the absolute supply of a resource, the ways of extracting it, and its vulnerability; (ii) demand-induced scarcity, being the product of resource availability per capita multiplied with consumption per capita; and (iii) structural scarcity, the distribution of a resource.[16] The resources in question are land, freshwater, and food, which all risk becoming scarcer with increasing population pressures and climate change. As overexploitation, degradation, or depletion reduces the availability of these already limited resources; competition mounts; along with the potential of it taking the form of armed conflict.[17]


Resource scarcity is considered to produce the following four principal social effects which have the capacity to increase the probability of conflict in developing countries: i) decreased agricultural, production, ii) economic decline, iii) population displacement, and iv) disruption of legitimized and authoritative institutions and social relations.[18]

The role of ‘poverty’ within the theory of resource scarcity deserves some additional attention. Another leading scholar in the field, Ohlsson, explains the occurrence of “livelihood conflicts” as the consequence of the rapid falling into poverty, one increasingly caused by environmental scarcities of arable land and water (“lost livelihoods” as he calls them).[19] Similarly, Goodhand insists on the ‘transient’ aspect of poverty as having a more significant influence on war and peace than ‘chronic’ poverty. He highlights the importance of the perception of future insecurity, this looming threat and danger as a factor leading to the outbreak of violence.[20] Kahl, on the other hand, focuses on the role of institutions and governance, specifically state failure or state exploitation as the intervening variables in the mitigation or exacerbation of civil conflict.[21] Perspectives on the different causes of conflict as linked to resource scarcity therefore include, but are not limited to: lost livelihoods, transient poverty, and state failure.

Link to ‘vulnerability’ and ‘adaptive capacity’

As mentioned above, environmental degradation is never a factor in isolation. The extent of its negative effects, threat to human security, and contribution to the risk of violent conflict depends on the vulnerability and the adaptive capacity of affected societies.

The IPCC defines vulnerability as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes”.[22] The vulnerability concept thus captures both the risk and degree of exposure and the ability to handle the challenges imposed by the environment. The more a society is dependent on natural resources and ecosystems for sustaining its livelihoods, the more vulnerable they consequently are.

Adaptive capacity is understood as “the ability of a natural or human system to adjust to climate change, to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences”.[23] This process of adjustment, adaptation, can occur on any scale- from the individual to the international level. A lack of adaptive capacity can contribute to the risk of conflict, in the event of which, adaptive capacity is undermined even further.



Recent conflict data demonstrates a slight decline in the total number of armed conflicts and combat deaths around the world. As reported by the Human Security Report Project, between 2002 and 2006, “non-state” conflicts had fallen by a third - from 36 to 24.[24] The same period saw a 60 percent decline in associated battle-deaths.[25]

In spite of the reduction of both these conflict indicators, armed violence remains a crucial component of human insecurity.[26] While armed conflicts are for the most part concentrated in the poorest and most vulnerable regions of the world, scientific predictions emphasize that those same countries are the most threatened by future environmental change. Subsequently, it is primarily developing countries, notably in Africa, who face the double predicament of conflict and environmental change- presently and in the future.

Africa in focus

Most of Africa’s counting states are characterized by poorly performing state institutions, weak economies, and demographic pressures, and carry with them the weight of past histories of international and internal conflict. Human security is thus already undermined. Primarily climate driven environmental change only risks heightening existing social and political tensions or leading to new ones- not excluding the resolution of these by violent means. As an observable result of conflict, the surrounding environment perils and a vicious circle risks embedding itself.

Expected impacts of climate change

African countries are especially affected by climate change because of their geographical exposure, low income, and greater reliance on sensitive sectors such as agriculture.[27]

  • The regional increase in temperature will be higher in Africa than the global mean – in some cases up to 50% (IPCC 2007a: 867). Research findings on the country specific or sub regional impacts of climate change, however, are not entirely clear-cut. For example, contradictory findings exist in relation to changes in precipitation patterns (IPCC 2007a: 867).
  • Desertification will advance significantly, especially along the Sahel zone, which stretches from Senegal in the West to Somalia in the East, as well as in southern Africa (WBGU 2007: 136, 138).
  • These trends will lead to a decrease in the availability of water resources and agricultural land even as population increases and economic growth expands (cf. IPCC 2007b: 8).
  • This development will especially affect those states in which agriculture plays a significant role. The same goes for electricity generation from hydroelectric power stations (WWF et al. 2006: 4; UNDP 2006: 376 et seq.)

Societal vulnerability and low adaptive capacity

  • IPCC emphasises the fact that Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate stress (IPCC 2007b: 827). This is attributed to climatic context on the one hand, and to the continent’s weakened adaptive capacity due to the destructive impacts of war, extreme poverty and deficient governance structures on the other (WBGU 2007: 95, 138 et seq.). Africa’s raw materials are increasingly becoming the focus of geostrategic interests. The “War on Terror” is also shifting increasingly towards this region (CNA 2007: 20).[28]
  • An additional 250-550 million people could be affected by hunger if there is a temperature increase of 3°C (Stern 2006: 104); it is likely that, by 2050, 75% of all undernourished people will be concentrated in Africa (IPCC 2007b).
  • Agriculture remains a key sector of the economy, with an average share of 21% (IPCC 2007b: 439; WBGU 2007:100). However, in some countries' agricultural yields could decline by more than 50% by 2020 and incomes by more than 90% by 2100 (IPCC 2007b: 435). There is also the possibility that some grain varieties, such as wheat, will not even be able to be grown anymore by 2080 (IPCC 2007b: 448).
  • Many […] are already struggling to cope with their current climate. For low-income countries, major natural disasters today can cost an average of 5 % GDP. (Stern 2006).
  • Urbanisation is constantly on the increase. Furthermore, six of the ten largest African cities are located near coasts (CNA 2007: 22). In West Africa, a roughly 500 km long metropolitan belt is developing between Accra and the Niger Delta, which will be highly vulnerable in the face of any rise in sea level (IPCC 2007b: 450).
  • Severe deterioration in the local climate could lea […] to mass migration and conflict, especially as another 2-3 billion people are added to the developing world’s population in the next few decades. (Stern 2006).


Violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa are a particularly frequent occurrence and will thus be looked at more closely.

The high profile case of Sudan is often cited when looking at environment and conflict dynamics. There is no doubt that there are many factors that contribute to the conflict in Sudan that have little or no link to the environment or natural resources: from political, religious, ethnic, tribal and clan divisions to economic factors, land tenure deficiencies and historical feuds.[29] Moreover, climate change alone neither explains the outbreak nor the extent of violence "...the other 16 countries in the Sahelan belt have felt more impact from global warming but not experienced such magnitude in violence".[30]

Nevertheless and in spite of the occasional media embellishments, analyses expose “very strong” linkages between the environment and conflict, notably in the region of Darfur. A 2003 study on the causes of conflict in Darfur from 1930 to 2000, for example, indicates that competition for pastoral land and water has been a driving force behind the majority of local confrontations for the last 70 years.[31] A June 2007 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) identified drought cycles, desertification, and land degradation as important contributing factors to the current crisis. In a highly publicized statement, General Ban Ki-Moon affirmed: “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising in part from climate change”.[32]

Even through this brief mention, Sudan’s Darfur region is a striking example of a vicious cycle where environmental sources are being fought over and at the same time being destroyed as a result of violence- one that highlights that peace is not possible unless underlying and closely linked environmental and livelihood issues are resolved.[33].

A perhaps less known, yet neighbouring and equally pertinent case will be subsequently elaborated: Uganda’s Karamoja region.

Uganda- Karamoja: the forgotten region?

Introduction to the Karamoja region

Today, the region is plagued by insecurity: under humanitarian watch, in the probability of future climate change driven environmental stress, and not immune from the risk of further conflict. A 2008 OXFAM report identified the following primary hazards: “Drought, conflict, ethnic violence, and cattle rustling. Seven droughts between 1991 and 2000 have increased food insecurity, and prompted animal losses. Increased conflict over water. Tick-borne diseases increase, tsetse belt expansion, dust storms increase, and increase of chest and eye infections”.[34] Another study equally concluded, “Life in Karamoja…. is defined by periodic and extended droughts, sporadic and often brutal violence, cyclical cattle raiding, and chronic food insecurity”.[35]

Read more


  1. Ki Moon, Ban (16 June 2007). “A Climate Culprit in Darfur,” The Washington Post. Editorial. 16 June 2007. Pg. A15. Available at : <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/15/AR2007061501857.html>
  2. UNDP (1994). Human Development Report 1994: New Dimensions of Human Security. Available at: <http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1994>
  3. Oberthür, Sebastian, Dennis Tänzler, Alexander Carius, and Hans-Günther Brauch. (2002). “Climate Change and Conflict”. Environmental Policy. Study commissioned by the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Protection and Nuclear Safety.
  4. Brown, Oli, Anne Hammill and Robert McLeman. (2007). “Climate change as the 'new' security threat: implications for Africa”. International Affairs, 83(6), 1141-1154
  5. United Nations News (2007). “Security Council holds first-ever debate on impact of climate change on peace, security, hearing over 50 speakers”. Security Council 5663rd Meeting April 17, 2007. Available at: <http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/sc9000.doc.htm>
  6. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Fourth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers. <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf. Stern, Nicholas et al. (2006). The Economics of Climate Change (The Stern Review). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Available at: <http://www.hm.treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm>
  7. German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) (2007). “World in transition: climate change as a security risk”. Berlin, Germany.
  8. Smith, Dan and Janani Vivekanada, (2007). “A Climate of Conflict: The links between climate change, peace and war”, International Alert. Available at: <http://www.international-alert.org/climate_change/index.php>
  9. Brown, Oli, Anne Hammill and Robert McLeman. (2007)
  10. Wolf, Aaron T, Annika Kramer, Alexander Carius, and Geoffrey D. Dabelko (2005) “Managing Water Conflict and Cooperation”. State of the World 2005: Redefining Global Security. (Ch.5). WorldWatch Institute.
  11. Jägerskog, Anders (2008). “Water and Conflict in the Middle East”. Viewpoints. No 7 June 2008, The Middle East Institute. Available at: <http://www.mideast.org>
  12. Definition by Libiszewski, Stephan (1992) “What is an Environmental Conflict? ” ENCOP Occasional Paper. Environment and Conflicts Project.
  13. Nordås, Ragnhild and Nils Petter Gleditsch (2005). “Climate Conflict: Common Sense or Nonsense?”. paper presented at the workshop on ‘Human Security and Climate Change’, Holmen Fjord Hotel, Asker, 22–23 June, Available at: <http://www.cicero.uio.no/humsec>
  14. See Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler (2002). “Greed and Grievance in civil war” Washington, D.C. World Bank.
  15. Homer-Dixon, Thomas (1991). “On the Threshold: Environmental Change as Causes of Acute Conflict”, International Security, Vol. 16, No2, pp76-116. Available at: <http://www.library.utoronto.ca/pcs/thresh/thresh1.htm>
  16. Gleditsch, Nils Petter and Ole Magnus Theisen (2006). “Resources, the Environment, and Conflict”, PRIO Working Paper, Centre for the Study of Civil War. PRIO. Available at: <http://www.prio.no/files/file48356_gleditsch_theisen_160906.doc>
  17. According to Homer-Dixon, a resulting two main patterns of conflict may arise: resource capture and ecological marginalization.
  18. Homer-Dixon, Thomas (1991).
  19. Ohlsson, Leif. (2000). “Livelihood conflicts: Linking poverty and environment as causes of conflict”. Environmental Policy Unit, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
  20. Goodhand, Jonathan. (2003). “Enduring disorder and persistent poverty: A review of linkages between war and chronic poverty”, World Development, 31, pp629-646.
  21. Kahl. Colin H. (2006). “States, Scarcity, and Civil Strife in the Developing World”. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  22. Definitions taken from IPCC (2007). “Glossary of Terms” Annex B of IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2007.. <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf
  23. Ibid.
  24. “Non-state” conflicts refer to those fought between commu¬nal or rebel groups or warlords, yet in which the government is not a warring party.
  25. Five years of data, based on the Uppsala conflict data program (UCDP), Human Security Brief 2007, Human Security Report Project, School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University. <http://www.hsrgroup.org/>
  26. Note: much of this global reduction in the number of non-state conflicts and associated fatalities is namely due to the improvements in sub-Saharan Africa. Ibid.
  27. Adapted from Carius Alexander, Dennis Tanzler, Achim Maas. (2008). “Climate Change and Security: Challenges for German Development Cooperation”, study commissioned for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. GTZ
  28. Ibid.
  29. In Sudan, four categories of natural resources are particularly linked to conflict as contributing causes: 1. Oil and gas reserves, 2. Nile waters, 3. Hardwood timber, 4. Rangeland and rain-fed agricultural land (and associated water points). From United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) (2007) Sudan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment. Nairobi, Kenya: June 2007. Available at: <http://www.unep.org/sudan/>.
  30. Smith, Dan and Janani Vivekanada, (2007). “A Climate of Conflict: The links between climate change, peace and war”, International Alert. Available at: <http://www.international-alert.org/climate_change/index.php>
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ki Moon, Ban (16 June 2007). “A Climate Culprit in Darfur,” The Washington Post. Editorial. 16 June 2007. Pg. A15. Available at : <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/15/AR2007061501857.html>
  33. UNEP 2007
  34. Magrath, John (2008). “Turning Up the Heat: Climate change and poverty in Uganda”. OXFAM GB.
  35. Statement by the Feinstein International Centre at Tufs University study in December of 2007. From “Uganda: Food concerns grow in Karamoja” IRIN. 14 May 2008. Available at: <http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=78204>

See also

  • ENCOP - CSS Environment and Conflicts Project [1]


  • Hershkowitz, Ann The Tuareg in Mali and Niger: The Role of Desertification in Violent Conflict, ICE Case Studies Number 151, August 2005.[2]
  • Mbonile, Milline J. Population, Migration and Water Conflicts in the Pangani River Basin, Tanzania, ECSP Report, Issue 12, 2006- 2007 [3]
  • Meier, Patrick & Bond, Doug Environmental Influences on Pastoral Conflict in the Horn of Africa, Center for the Study of Civil War, December 2007. [4]
  • Milani, Kathryn Darfur: Drought and Civil War, ICE Case Studies Number 196, Fall, 2006.[5]
  • Drought and Conflict in the West African Sahel: Developing Conflict Management Strategies. Event summary. [6]
Anthony Nyong of the University of Jos, Nigeria, discusses the relationship between drought and conflict in the West African Sahel at a Wilson Center event co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Africa Program. October 18 2005.
  • Nyung, Anthony Climate Related Conflicts in West Africa, ECSP Report, Issue 12, 2006-2007[7]
  • University for Peace, Environmental Degredation as a cause of conflict in Darfur [8], Conference Report, December 2004.

External Resources

This article is based on a internship report prepared for Sciences Po Lille, France (2008), following a placement within the Environment and Energy Practice team at the UNDP Bratislava Regional Centre (BRC) for Europe and the CIS.


 Miljkovic A Karamoja case study.pdf

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