Politics and poverty caused past conflicts in East Africa – not climate change

Women looking for water in Sudan. Climate change can play a role in forcing people to migrate.

It seems obvious that climate change has – and will – cause human conflict and the mass movement of people. Look at the effects of the droughts in Syria, Darfur and Ethiopia. The former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon even described the ongoing war in Darfur as one of the “first climate wars”.

Various media have even started using terms such as “climate refugees” and “environmental migrants” to describe people fleeing their homes from these climate-driven conflicts. But is there any evidence for this link between climate change and conflict? There certainly isn’t any consensus in academic literature.

Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to the effects of climate change. The UN Refugee Agency reported that over 20 million people were displaced in Africa in 2016 – a third of the world’s total. The World Bank predicts that this could rise to 86 million by 2050 because of climate change.

East Africa in particular is predicted to experience a dramatic increase in unpredictability of seasonal and inter-annual rainfall. This is particularly challenging given that the region is heavily dependent on agriculture which is highly sensitive to climate changes. In some countries, like Ethiopia and Sudan, agriculture accounts for more than 50% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Agriculture is a sector which has high climate sensitivity.

East Africa is also a region with a long history of conflict and displacement. Sudan and Somalia are current day examples. This makes it a good test case for the climate-conflict hypothesis.

In our recent paper, my student Erin Owain and I tested this link using East Africa as our focus.

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