Dr. Moshe Terdiman
(Director of Green Compass Research & expert on Islam in Africa, the Caribbean Basin, Islamic social issues and the environmental policy in the Middle East)
As a result of climate change and global warming, the Middle East and North Africa, including the Sahel, face five main environmental security challenges: water security, food security, energy security, land degradation, and desertification. Combined with huge population growth and other political, economic and social stresses, the impacts of climate change and global warming may exacerbate existent issues and, thus, undermine the survival of longstanding regimes all over the region and cause the breakout of conflicts within several countries, such as Syria, Sudan, and Mali.
Indeed, one of the immediate causes of the sudden breakout of the Arab Spring events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere was the rising basic foodstuff prices throughout the Arab world as a result of droughts in Russia and the US. .
Another immediate cause for the sudden breakout of the Arab Spring events in Yemen, which brought to the downfall of its ruler, Ali Abdallah Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years, was the issue of water security. The water situation in Yemen is so catastrophic that it is expected to be the first country in the world to completely run out of water. Thus, there is no wonder that these events were spurred by a list of grievances against the government, on top of which was the accusation that top officials were digging water wells in their own backyards while the rest of the population suffered from lack of water and the government’s mission was to prevent these kinds of things.
Yet, Syria is another case in point. Civil war has been raging in Syria during the last two years. The rebellion against Bashar al-Asad started in Dar’aa, which is located in the southern part of the country, where farmers demanded the right to buy and sell land near the border with Jordan without having to get permission from corrupt security officials.
The other main focus of the rebellion at its outset was Dir az-Zur, which is located in the northeastern part of the country. This part of Syria has been suffering from an incessant drought as from 2005, which has resulted in severe set of crop failures and has forced more than 500,000 Syrian farmers to flee from their homes, due to the drying up of the wells and the death of their herds, to the cities. They felt that the Syrian government could have done much more to take care of them, but hadn’t done enough.
The same is true to Darfur. The Darfur crisis cannot be seen only from a political, ethnic or military point of view, but also as deriving from an ecological crisis arising from climate change. Although the Darfur crisis’ immediate cause was a regional rebellion against the central Sudanese government, to which Khartoum responded by recruiting Arab militias to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing against African civilians, according to a UNEP report published on June 22, 2007, the true causes for the conflict are failing rains and creeping desertification.
That report found that the desert in northern Sudan has advanced southwards by 60 miles over the past 40 years and that the rainfall has dropped by 16%-30%. The reduction of rainfall has turned millions of hectares of marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The rapid desertification process has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move southward to find pasture. Hence, tensions between farmers and herders over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes have brought about the breakout of the Darfur crisis in 2003, which caused the death of about 500,000 people.
The current conflict in Mali is also derived not only from political, social, religious and ethnic causes, but also from the changing ecology caused by climate change. Although the foreign military intervention may be able to restore stability in Mali, climate change will continue to play a major role and increase instability among the country’s poor as agricultural yields decrease and water shortages become the norm.
Although in the first seven decades of the twentieth century Mali got enough rainfall to sustain livestock and agriculture, it could not sustain the ever-growing population when the droughts started to hit it as from the 1970s. Nearly all Mali’s population is farmers or herders whose livelihoods have been threatened as rivers shrink, desert expands into fertile land and insect infestations become more prevalent. As a result, thousands of people have moved out of their villages towards urban centers, squeezing natural resources to its limits. The droughts also caused hundreds of thousands of Malians to immigrate to other countries and, as a result, the agricultural productivity and tax base of the more fertile south was devastated.
Climate change has also exacerbated existing feelings of anger and resentment in Mali, especially among the Tuareg. The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic group of herders who rely heavily on the land for their livelihood, has been calling for separation from the south for over two decades but have not been successful until recently. They have been deeply affected by the changing climate and were forced to go to Libya, where Qaddafi organized them as a mercenary unit and gave them sanctuary. Following the fall of the Qaddafi regime, these Tuareg returned to Mali equipped with a lot of arms. Climate change has strengthened, multiplied and accelerated this already existing tension.
The Malian government’s inability to confront the underlying issues led to greater threats and instability. The flow of heavy weapons from Libya into Mali was the most likely proximate cause of the successful Tuareg uprising, but the roots of the tension come from the endemic poverty caused by a changing climate and the government’s lack of action. The al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb has been taking advantage of the situation and has been offering the hope of stability to those looking for something more than poverty and hunger.
To sum up, the conflicts which have erupted in the region during the last decade -- such as the Darfur crisis, the Arab Spring events, the civil war in Syria, and the current conflict in Mali – were driven not only by political, economic and ethnic tensions, but also by environmental and population stresses, which exacerbated existent problems to a boiling point. Therefore, there is a need to focus on environment and resource dimensions of actual and potential conflict situations as a resource in helping stabilize these countries.