By Farah Hegazi and Caroline Delgado
STOCKHOLM, Oct 13 2021 – Hunger, violent conflict and the visible impacts of climate change are all on the rise. World Food Day, October 16, is a reminder that we need to talk about the intricate ways that these challenges are connected—and how to tackle them together.
Despite steadily increasing global harvests, more than 150 million people were acutely food-insecure in 2020, and 41 million people were reportedly on the edge of famine this summer. The main drivers of this food insecurity were violent conflict and extreme weather events.
With the number of active armed conflicts at an historic high, the impacts of climate change intensifying rapidly, and the world economy reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to find sustainable solutions to the dangerous interactions between hunger, conflict and climate change impacts could not be more pressing.
Hunger, conflict and climate change: a lethal cocktail
Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Zimbabwe together accounted for the 10 worst hunger crises in 2020. In the preceding decade, they accounted for over 72 per cent of all conflict deaths globally. Most of these countries are also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
This is no mere coincidence. Both conflict and climate change impact people’s ability to produce, trade and access food, often through complex interactions.
Attacks on food production are a regular feature of war, whether it is placing landmines in fields, burning crops, looting or killing livestock, or forcing farmers to switch away from food crops to more lucrative illicit crops such as coca leaves.
Disruption of transport routes makes it harder to distribute and store food, especially more perishable types. And when food is short and formal markets fail to deliver, black markets can thrive, with profits often going to one conflict party or another and thus helping to prolong the fighting. Not surprisingly, lasting food insecurity is among the principal legacies of war.
Climate change can also disrupt food production—from the immediate damage from floods and droughts, to slower impacts such changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures that make it harder to grow current crop varieties.
These impacts can devastate the livelihoods of farmers and herders. The risk of conflict breaking out increases as they compete over viable land and water resources or migrate. They may also be courted by armed groups promising security and brighter prospects.
In Mali, for example, nearly a fifth of the population is food-insecure because of greater variability in rainfall and more frequent and severe droughts linked to climate change. Extremist groups have been quick to use this to their advantage, providing people with food in exchange for support and thereby further fueling conflict.
South Sudan is facing a similar situation. In flood-affected pastoral regions such as Jonglei, cattle raiding has become more frequent and more violent.
On the positive side, these links between hunger, climate and conflict provide entry points for action that addresses all three—and does so more effectively than programmes trying to tackle them separately.
As an example, in a region of East Africa known as the Greater Karamoja Cluster—spanning parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda—there have been violent clashes between groups of migratory herders during protracted drought.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have managed to reduce these conflicts, and boost the herders’ livelihoods and food security, by helping them negotiate deals on the use of pasture and water resources.
Even small-scale, highly localized programmes can catalyse wider change. In Colombia, a country highly vulnerable to climate change and scarred by the legacy of a long-running armed conflict, the revival of traditional indigenous knowledge is gaining momentum.
This includes using natural early warning signs like the appearance of certain migratory birds, which can help locals to prepare themselves for climate impacts, as well as reviving sustainable farming, fishing and hunting practices. In the process, it brings together communities fragmented by the fighting.
The rise of hunger and conflict—reversing decades of progress—along with intensifying impacts of climate change all call for urgent action, from the United Nations down. But they are connected issues, compounding each other at dire cost to people and nature.
Although it recognized that conflict and climate are linked to food insecurity, the recent UN Food Systems Summit missed the chance to discuss in depth how these connections work or how to address them.
Another chance for real progress is coming with the imminent UN climate summit in Glasgow, COP26. It is to be hoped that the discussions on climate change adaptation and loss and damage will explicitly look at how to decouple hunger, conflict and climate change.
Dr Farah Hegazi is a Researcher on the Climate Change and Risk programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), where she specializes on environmental peacebuilding. She is part of the research team for the SIPRI initiative Environment of Peace (https://www.sipri.org/research/peace-and-development/environment-peace).
Dr Caroline Delgado is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI. Her areas of expertise include conflict, human security and peacebuilding. She is one of the focal points for the Global Registry of Violent Deaths (GReVD).