Water Wars

In the spirit of the Copenhagen climate negotiations I thought it would be appropriate to discuss Darfur in the context of climate change. Darfur is perhaps the first armed conflict sparked by environmental erosion –particularly drought- and judging by the severity of the fighting it is rather disturbing to imagine how resource conflicts between major armed powers (for example, competition for water between Pakistan, India and China) might unfold in the near future. Indeed, professional militaries around the world have already commissioned studies into the potential for climate change-induced warfare. For these reasons Darfur is more than another example of civil war, of which it is not even the latest, but a dark omen for a future that may well materialize around the world if the Copenhagen talks fail to decisively address climate change.

Darfur activists have been accused of ignoring the environmental roots of the conflict, arguing that such attention absolves the Sudanese government of any wrong-doing despite its brutal military response to the region’s suffering. However, it is critical that we recognize desertification as the crucial element of the conflict’s outbreak, and acknowledge that without an alternative source of water no lasting peace can be sustained in the region.

In recent years climate scientists have plugged historical records of sea-surface temperatures into atmospheric computer models and concluded that African monsoons will decline still further, leaving the continent with less water. As the Sahara desert maintains its relentless march southward nomadic herders from northern Darfur are becoming increasingly dependent on the more plentiful water supplies of southern farmers. Where historically cultivated water agreements once governed the peaceful distribution of the precious resource, northern arrivals are now finding themselves forced to pay for access to wells. With a 40 percent decline in annual rainfall over the past 25-30 years, sedentary farmers feel obligated to guard their water against outsiders.

The competition for water does not end in Darfur, however, but reaches across the border into Chad where countless refugees queue up every day for miserable rations of water from humanitarian agencies. Water is no more plentiful in Chad than it is in Darfur with Lake Chad, that great inland sea that once sustained twenty million people in west-central Africa, losing 90 percent of its surface area over the past three decades. With Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger heavily dependent on the fast disappearing reservoir, a far broader conflict threatens to erupt on the very doorstep of Darfur.

Underground reservoirs may offer an alternative, though temporary, source of water. A more permanent supply of water may be provided by artificial catchment basins, a system that is simple enough to be built at the community level and therefore easier to repair and maintain in the absence of technical experts from humanitarian agencies. Whatever the response, without arable land Darfur refugees can never return to their homes, and without land local authorities cannot build political alliances, conclude land deals or buy-off other tribes. In short, without land the social fabric of Darfur unravels. Darfur, Sudan and the entirety of central Africa can expect no permanent peace without water. The world should take heed, for what were problems once considered exclusive to Africa are fast becoming global.

Relief Web, “Sudan: Climate change escalates Darfur crisis,” http://www.reliefweb.int/rwarchive/rwb.nsf/db900sid/EKOI-75H3R9?OpenDocument&Click=

Global Policy Forum, “Shrinking of Lake Chad,” http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40377.html

Stephen Faris, “The Real Roots of Darfur,” The Atlantic Monthly April 2007.

Also see Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer.

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