The role of drought and water in conflict
The Middle East and many parts of Africa are arid regions with long experience of drought. However, anthropogenic climate change threatens to significantly exacerbate these challenges. In 2017, the World Bank noted that, “while population and economic growth will increase water demands, climate change will be the primary driver for the most pronounced changes in surface water stress across” the Middle East. The UN has projected that temperature increases in the Sahel will be 1.5 times higher than the global average. Multiple studies indicate that the risks of prolonged, severe drought will be higher as the global climate shifts. Climate change is not the only problem: Population growth, economic development, unsustainable agricultural policies, poor infrastructure, and other factors contribute. Nonetheless, climate change will intensify all of these factors.
Increased drought conditions and more variable rainfall patterns will present many challenges to the Middle East and Africa. One of those challenges will be the way that water stress intersects with conflict and violent extremist groups. While there is statistical evidence that climate change increases the risk of conflict, it is often difficult to draw clear causal links between drought and conflict. In any conflict, there are multiple factors that contribute to violence. Drought puts stress on existing fractures in a society and increases the risk of conflict by exacerbating problems such as inequality, unemployment, migration, food shortages and governance failures. Drought diminishes a society’s overall resilience.
Conflict over water in the Middle East and Africa is as old as civilization, but climate change and population growth are compounding age-old problems. In some cases, water shortages lead to direct forms of conflict. Tribes, local communities and even countries can dispute and contest access to water sources. On a national level, upstream states can take steps that threaten downstream states’ basic access to water, leading to disputes that increase the risk of war — reflected in recent concerns about potential conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt.
More often, drought and water shortages contribute to conflict indirectly by weakening societal and governing structures and putting more stress on existing divisions. Drought can increase competition for food and push food prices higher, with destabilizing effects. Water shortages undermine faith in governments, putting strain on societies that are already struggling with weak governance and benefiting insurgent or extremist groups. War can damage water infrastructure — as it has in Yemen and Syria, for example — which puts further pressures on vulnerable populations. These factors contribute to feedback loops that erode a country’s or a community’s stability.
In many cases, prolonged droughts so badly damage agricultural communities that they lead to migration to urban areas, as has happened in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Jordan. Such migration from an unusually severe and prolonged drought clearly contributed to the factors behind the Syrian civil war.
Water shortages provide violent extremist organizations with opportunities to expand their influence.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Another negative impact of the increased risk of drought is that water shortages provide violent extremist organizations with opportunities to expand their influence. At the most basic level, there are examples of extremist groups attacking farmers and stealing their food supplies in the midst of drought or famine, as Al-Shabaab reportedly did in Somalia during the 2011 famine. Such actions contribute to humanitarian disaster and conflict cycles.
In other cases, violent extremist organizations take somewhat more sophisticated approaches to exploiting water shortages. They can benefit from a sense that governments are unable to meet people’s basic needs. There are examples from countries such as Iraq and Mali of extremist groups recruiting boys and men who can no longer survive from farming or herding due to severe drought. Daesh used control of limited water resources to charge taxes to fund its operations and try to present itself as a governing authority. Extremist groups have exploited migrants who have been forced to move due to drought and have used control over water resources to reward allies and punish enemies.
Throughout history, many actors have weaponized water, but Daesh took such actions to a new level. Its brief control of the Mosul Dam threatened many communities as well as opposing forces. Both Daesh and Al-Shabaab used water tactically, diverting it to block opposing forces. They have also attempted to use water to reward allies and punish opponents.
The intersections of climate change, drought, and conflict and violent extremism are complex and vary from country to country. Therefore, solutions to these problems must also be both multifaceted and tailored to the specific conditions in a country or locale. Recognizing that there are links between climate change, drought and floods, and conflict and violent extremist groups is an important start.
Solutions could include shaping aid policies and counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies to take water scarcity into account. Ensuring access to water for displaced populations is an important step. Aid programs can help provide farmers with more efficient farming techniques and tools, such as drip irrigation, and can help build infrastructure that wastes less water. All governments should work to mitigate global climate change.
Governments can also take steps to enforce norms against weaponizing water. There are some international agreements, such as Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, which can be used to hold actors who weaponize water accountable. Military operations should seek to avoid any direct or collateral damage to water infrastructure, thereby reinforcing a norm against weaponizing water and helping prevent conditions that feed into the conflict cycle. Access to water is a basic human need that should not be a part of warfare.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch