Climate change as a trigger for armed conflicts in Africa

The deterioration of living conditions due to climate change is the trigger for a vicious circle that endangers individual well-being and, ultimately, the social order.

In the case of Africa, the increase in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns threaten agricultural activity and put the livelihood of the population at risk. One of the main concerns on the continent is that the acceleration of climate change could exacerbate social instability and lead to armed conflicts or massive migratory movements.

Two complex phenomena

Climate change is a global phenomenon with local manifestations. Climate vulnerability and propensity for conflict depend on the socioeconomic circumstances of each territory. It is therefore important to take into consideration those nuances that affect the connection between these two complex phenomena.

On the one hand, climate change manifests itself in each geographical area differently and with different intensity. For example, it can cause temperature rises and droughts, but also floods. Each of these phenomena has very specific consequences for the security and economic viability of the affected communities.

On the other hand, armed conflicts are not binary phenomena. His analysis cannot be limited, as is often done in existing empirical studies, to the two extreme circumstances: there is conflict or there is no conflict. The damage of an armed conflict to the community that suffers it depends on the time of gestation and duration, and the risk of propagation in contiguous territories.

Conflicts fueled by climate change

Our analysis of 2,653 territorial cells across the African continent from 1990 to 2016 shows that the probability of conflict breaking out is significantly higher if the drought lasts at least three years. This result is consistent with the empirical evidence that shows that the normalization time of agricultural activity after a long drought is almost two years. High food insecurity fosters instability.

On the contrary, excessive rainfall triggers conflicts in a very short period of time. This is due to the wide range of alterations that occur after a flood, which harms not only agricultural activity, but also the entire infrastructure of the affected territory.

The work also reflects that a prolonged increase in temperatures and rainfall implies a four to five times higher probability of conflicts beyond the directly affected area, specifically in communities located within a radius of up to 550 kilometers. In this case, the outbreak of violence is an indirect result of climate change and reflects the materialization of tensions due to long-term instability.

Adaptation and peace measures

Our results have far-reaching implications for the design and implementation of policies to build and strengthen resilience.

Climatic conditions influence the probability of conflict depending on the specific circumstances of each community. Therefore, it is necessary that the measures to counteract the adverse effects of climate change are adjusted to the socioeconomic situation of the territory, especially with regard to the prior identification of sources of instability that may facilitate the spread and aggravation of tensions.

The existence of a time gestation before the outbreak of conflicts in the case of droughts, for example, glimpses the possibility that there is a useful margin to monitor and, possibly, prevent a critical situation from triggering violence.

Likewise, the possibility of a spillover effect of the conflicts beyond the territory directly affected by abnormal temperatures or rainfall requires adaptation strategies to climate change designed in conjunction with measures that favor the maintenance of peace, especially in those areas more prone to to an armed conflict.

In short, the implementation of policies that do not take into account these nuances and these indirect effects can be not only inefficient with regard to the objective of building resilience, but also harmful, since it can increase existing inequalities and the risk of instability.

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