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Iraq and Sudan show how climate change fuels war Open in fullscreen

Austin Bodetti

Iraq and Sudan show how climate change fuels war

Droughts in Iraq contributed to the isolation of communities vulnerable to IS recruitment [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 March, 2019

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Analysis: Desertification and water scarcity help fuel the social desperation necessary for armed insurgencies, reports Austin Bodetti.
The interconnected environmental issues caused by desertification and water scarcity have long haunted the Arab world.

Few countries know these challenges better than Iraq and Sudan, where perennial conflicts tend to intersect with environmental degradation.

Devastating droughts contributed to the Iraqi civil war and the war in Darfur, two of the most notorious examples of sectarian violence in recent memory. In both cases, deep-rooted environmental issues fueled insurgencies that began at the peripheries of regions struggling with a combination of social marginalisation and water scarcity.

In the Sudanese region of Darfur, ethnic groups have had to compete over a limited supply of arable land since the 1980s, when a lengthy decline in rainfall induced by climate change began. Desertification, overpopulation, and water scarcity led to skirmishes over natural resources, intensifying social conflict in rural areas where well-armed tribes such as the Fur and the Rizeigat used to lived in peace.

"In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the rains returned to Darfur, but the government neglected the upkeep of local wells and reservoirs, and failed to settle the disputes that arose among pastoralist groups making use of those resources," said Dr Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at Tufts University.

"Also, on many occasions, local government officials actually supported one group against another - often Arabs against Zaghawa. This further fueled local grievances."

The turn of the century saw the environmental issues plaguing Darfur grow even worse. In 2001, what the World Food Program would term a "serious drought" struck much of the region. That January, the United Nations called for an influx of humanitarian aid, warning the drought could lead to the starvation of up to one million Darfuris.

By September, however, the UN had received only 36 percent of the requested funds, later deeming water scarcity "one of the reasons of the conflict".

"I lived in Khartoum from 1983 to 1986 and have a vivid recollection of the severe droughts in the west of Sudan, when the United States contributed massive aid," said Dr David H Shinn, a former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and an adjunct professor of international affairs at the George Washington University.

"While the droughts undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent political problems in Darfur, the continued concentration of political power in Khartoum and surrounding area along the Nile was a more important factor in the alienation of the people of Darfur."

As Darfur's peoples battled one another for farmland, the Sudanese government opted to arm and train the region's Arab tribes while neglecting the needs of non-Arabs.
Mitigating water scarcity will contribute to scaling down conflicts where it is a problem
The non-Arab tribes rose in rebellion in the early 2000s, arguing that the Sudanese government had ignored them for too long. Officials in Khartoum responded by mobilising the Janjaweed, a brutal militia of Arab Darfuris assembled to crush the non-Arab forces of the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army.

By 2004, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell was describing the ensuing conflict to the international community as nothing less than genocide.

"The 1980s drought contributed to conflicts in Darfur," said Dr Munzoul Assal, a professor of anthropology at the University of Khartoum and director of the Peace Research Institute there. "Certainly, mitigating water scarcity will contribute to scaling down conflicts where it is a problem."

Though the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq seems to have little in common with ethnic conflict in Sudan at first glance, the environmental issues that facilitated the Iraqi civil war parallel what happened in Darfur a decade earlier.

Water scarcity played a central role in both conflicts, serving the goals of insurgents intent on recruiting disaffected ethnic groups and religious communities.

IS enjoyed its greatest success in Iraq's driest regions, such as the western, Sunni-majority province of Anbar. In 2007, 60 percent of Anbar's residents had to rely on polluted rivers for drinking water because the province lacked enough potable water, leading to the spread of waterborne diseases. Concurrent droughts restricted the productivity of arable land there as the amount of water carried by the Euphrates, along which 90 percent of Anbar's population lived in 2010, continued to decrease.

"By gutting agriculture, water scarcity and poor water quality have contributed to the slow collapse of the rural economy, which has had enormous security ramifications and fueled all sorts of different inter-communal tensions across the country," said Peter Schwartzstein, a fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. "Desperate, jobless young men are a dangerous thing wherever they might be."

As early as 2009, the insurgents who would form IS were using droughts as an opportunity to recruit followers from Iraq's ever-growing number of disaffected farmers. Offering salaries to replace the livelihoods that farmers had lost to drought, the militants claimed that Iraq's Shia-dominated government cared little about what happened to the countless Sunnis threatened by water scarcity.

"A large pool of unemployed men has always been a recruiting target of the insurgency," Joel Wing, an analyst who runs the well-known blog Musings on Iraq, told The New Arab.

Soon after IS declared its caliphate in 2014, the group seized much of Anbar, including the famous city of Fallujah. By 2015, IS had also captured Ramadi, Anbar's capital. These conquests built on the connections that IS had established by exploiting Iraq's environmental issues.

Despite the retaking of the "caliphate's" territory in Iraq and the dissipation of the war in Darfur, the many environmental issues that facilitated both conflicts remain as pernicious as ever.

The Iraqi Water Resources Ministry opted to outlaw certain crops in 2018 to preserve the water supply after further declines in the levels of the Euphrates and the Tigris, which had dropped by 60 percent in the past two decades. That year, water scarcity punished Iraq's south in particular.

"The drought was another burden on this sector of the economy, which lacks modern farming techniques, proper irrigation, and support from the government," said Wing, noting that IS had also taken advantage of social issues such as religious intolerance. "This has created hardscrabble lives in rural areas, disaffected farm people, and significant migration from the countryside to the urban areas of the country. [IS] is rebuilding in those very areas of Anbar, Diyala, Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Saladin."

In Sudan, droughts hit several populous states last year, extending all the way from the Red Sea in the east to North Darfur in the west. Even Khartoum, where the Blue and White Niles intersect to form the longest river in the world, had to deal with its fair share of water scarcity in 2018. Droughts are also undercutting agriculture, which employs as many as 80 percent of Sudanese.

"Water scarcity is a long-term problem for much of Sudan and may well become more serious as a result of climate change," Shinn told The New Arab. "Anything that can be done to mitigate water scarcity will help solve the problems in Blue Nile, Darfur, and South Kordofan."

If Iraq and Sudan want to prevent further conflict, they must accommodate the needs of minority groups by addressing social marginalisation and the environmental issues that exacerbate it.

"If anything, the fiercest inter-Iraqi tensions over water have arisen between tribes and governorates in the Shia-majority south, and Iraqis are, for the most part, blaming the state and outside powers for their water woes so far," Schwartzstein told The New Arab.

Water problems don't exist in a vacuum. They're more often than not at least partly victim to the same corruption, incompetence, and state paralysis that have created myriad other troubles

Last year, water scarcity sparked deadly protests that resulted in the destruction of the Iranian consulate in Basra, Iraq's third-largest city and one of the most stable in the country.

"A lot depends on whether states go for quick fixes, which do little to address the underlying roots of their water problems, like the Iraqi government response in Basra last year, or whether they revisit the longstanding policy failures that have often contributed to water crises," said Schwartzstein. "Water problems don't exist in a vacuum. They're more often than not at least partly victim to the same corruption, incompetence, and state paralysis that have created myriad other troubles."

Droughts persist not only in Darfur but also the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where water scarcity likewise finds itself intertwined with the perils of ethnic conflict.

"Despite paying lip service to the severity of their water problems, many states have yet to wake to the magnitude of these crises," Schwartzstein told The New Arab. "Water is still seen as a lesser priority at a time of conflict and economic crisis. It's still undervalued in much of the Middle East, the driest region in the world, which - nonsensically - also has some of the cheapest water pricing."

Sound environmental policies can contribute to stabilising Iraq and Sudan by addressing some of their minorities' grievances, forming part of broader peace processes that also account for the many economic, political, and social factors behind both insurgencies. In Iraq and Sudan, environmentalism and peacebuilding should go hand in hand. Otherwise, water scarcity and other environmental issues will likely magnify civil wars in the Iraqi and Sudanese countrysides for many years to come.

"Sectarian violence makes a mess of any serious effort to improve water security," Shinn told The New Arab. "The lesson is to step up efforts to prevent sectarian violence. Once it breaks out, there is not much anyone can do except bring it to an end as soon as possible."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. 

He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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