Eye of the storm: Climate change and that small matter of security

PHOTO | JACOB OWITI Mary Atieno of Kanyango village crosses one of the water pans that used to serve residents within a radius of 5 kilometres that has since dried up in West Karachuonyo where drought has affected many villages.

What you need to know:

  • Why Kenya’s next war will be over water and grass if current climate change storms do not abate
  • A new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) says that rising temperatures, climate change-related conflicts, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are forcing people to flee their homes and settlements in their millions, and that the situation is likely to get worse in the near future.

Political and socio-economic upheavals have always been the main cause of conflict and displacement of people in many parts of the world, but climate change is now making millions more homeless.

A new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) says that rising temperatures, climate change-related conflicts, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are forcing people to flee their homes and settlements in their millions, and that the situation is likely to get worse in the near future.

The report, titled The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict and released on 31 March this year, states that those displaced are among the poorest and the most vulnerable. “These are the first victims of our failures to prevent climate change; people who, without international help and new binding agreements on assistance, have nowhere to go and no means to survive,” it notes.

Whether rain falls or not, or whether the lake near which you live swells or dries, have never been regarded as matters of international security concerns, but now these will become some of the most important issues of debate at the highest decision-making levels. The state of affairs is so dire that the United Nations Security Council has discussed it in two high-profile meetings in New York in the recent past.

The fear, at least for many developing countries, including Kenya, is that, because of their acute dependence on the ecosystem, any uneven distribution of resources may fuel tensions within societies, particularly where there is a history of specific marginalisation.

And, with millions of people being displaced every year by the rapid onset of climate-related hazards and an unknown number fleeing slow onset of environmental degradation, a changing climate presents “pressing operational and geopolitical challenges to a number of countries,” says the EJF report.

Fragile and post-conflict states are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, which could also aggravate or generate instability on an international scale by transmitting risk across borders.

As a result, the EJF observes that climate change is as much a human rights issue as it is an environmental matter and urges the United Nations Human Rights Council to instate a special rapporteur on human rights and climate change.

“The changing climate amplifies existing environmental, social, economic, and political pressures, and the result has been — and will continue to be — tangible and severe human impacts,” say the authors, who go on to warn that declining agricultural productivity and food insecurity, the collapse of livelihoods, increased poverty and hunger, deteriorating water security, public health crises, loss of assets, and lives at risk will obstruct development processes and threaten governance systems if nothing is done to reverse the trend.

This may sound a bit alarmist, but the fears of the authors are not misplaced. The impact of climate change is already being felt acutely in arid, mountainous, and low-lying coastal regions of less developed countries where there is limited capacity to adapt, and where exposure to hazards is more pronounced.

“These regions and countries are home to 98 per cent of the seriously affected people, over 90 per cent of the total economic losses, and 99 per cent of all deaths from climate and weather-related disasters alone,” states the report.


A 2013 World Bank research into the issue found that it is the world’s poorest who are the first and worst affected by climate change, yet many of the worst hit countries have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions on record.

Many of these impacts, the World Bank says, obstruct processes of development and undermine the viability of national and international governance systems. Consequently, climate change both directly and indirectly threatens the effective realisation of human rights.

Apollos Machira, the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR), concurs with the warnings of both the EJF and the World Bank, saying that climate change is bound to cause tensions among communities and between countries that share resources like water and forests.

Most conflicts in the North Rift (Turkana vs Pokot) and northern Kenya (Borana vs Samburu), he adds, are caused by changed climatic conditions, whose effects are seen in dwindling pastures and receding water masses.

Pastoral communities in arid and semi-arid areas depend on natural resources, yet it is these areas that will be most affected by the changing weather patterns.

Such areas account for 80 per cent of Kenya’s land mass and support nearly 50 per cent of the country’s livestock population and more than 30 per cent of its people.

Now they are the focus of a number of organisations as they are deemed the next major conflict hot-spots in the country.

The sporadic violence witnessed in the pastoralist areas of Kenya is always over scarce resources and Pragya, a non-governmental organisation that promotes development of vulnerable communities and sensitive ecosystems, says things are getting worse in the entire arid and semi arid lands region, particularly Baringo, Laikipia, Marsabit, Samburu, Turkana, worst hit and West Pokot.

A clear natural resources-climate-change-conflict nexus is evident here, which indicates a strong correlation between inadequacy of water, exacerbated by climate change, and increasing humanitarian crises and conflicts.

The Pragya report cites Turkana County as having witnessed the highest number of trans-national raids by the Tepeth, Jie, Dodoth, Matheniko, and Moroto tribes from Uganda.

It also recorded raids by the Merille, Dongiro, Dassenech and Toposa and Nyagatom groups from Ethiopia and Sudan respectively. Most of these raids occurred after spells of drought and were, thus, a coping strategy to restock depleted herds.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), climate change is aggravating the aridity, unreliable rainfall, and cyclical droughts of northern Kenya.

Drawing a clear link between climate change and conflict, OCHA states that acute water scarcity, lack of pasture, and massive and catastrophic losses of livestock have a direct bearing on household income, assets, and livelihood security, and contributes to frequent violent conflicts as a coping mechanism.

The biggest tragedy, observers say, is that even though, according to a 2013 report by the American Security Project (ASP), 71 per cent of countries view climate change as a key national security issue, Kenya is yet to confront the monster at its doorstep.

The ASP reports that the world’s top military spenders have begun to develop new strategic approaches to address climate change impacts. These countries include the UK, Russia, US, Japan, France, and Germany.

But China and a group of other countries, Kenya and the entire East Africa included, think a bit differently as far as climate change and security are concerned.

For instance, while recognising that climate could affect security, China, backed by Russia as well as some emerging economies and less developed countries, still feels that the UN Security Council is not the right forum to discuss emerging issues.

Beijing’s views seem to be informed by a 2012 study by the University of Colorado that discounted climate change as a global security concern. Researchers argued that socio-economic, political, and geographic factors played a much bigger role than climate change in the world’s conflicts.

“It is well established that climate change affects availability of resources like water and food,” they pointed out, “but this fact has led to often alarmist stories and studies on the potential rise of conflicts over these resources.”

The EJF report, however, states that the clearest link between the environment and conflict is through natural resources, particularly water. “At least 40 per cent of all intra-state conflicts in the past 60 years have a link to natural resources and more than 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by their exploitation since 1990,” it says.

Environmental experts acknowledge climate change as a major threat-multiplier and one of the main drivers of conflicts and displacement today.

This is both directly through the impact on the environment, not allowing people to live any more in the areas where they were traditionally living, and as a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict, adds Antonnio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

That is why, in the 2013 environmental report, Unep Executive Director Archim Steiner calls for a concerted effort by the international community to tackle changing climate and related threats.

“There is no reason why the international community cannot avoid escalating conflicts, tensions and insecurity related to climate change if a deliberate, focused, and collective response can be catalysed that tackles the root cause, scale, potential volatility, and velocity of the challenges emerging,” says Steiner.


His views are supported by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who attributes the conflict in the Darfur region of South Sudan to the effects of climate change.

“Amid the diverse social and political causes,” says Ban, “the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

He further argues that climate change not only exacerbates threats to international peace and security, but “it is in itself a threat to security”.
According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, 31.7 million people were displaced in 2012 alone by climate and weather-related events.

This was twice the number of people displaced by similar causes in 2011. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that migration could provide a way for some people to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

“Expanding opportunities for mobility,” says IPCC, “can reduce vulnerability for such populations. Changes in migration patterns can be responses to both extreme weather events and longer-term climate variability and change, and migration can also be an effective adaptation strategy.”

Migrating or moving to safer grounds has been the trend whenever long rains set in in various counties in Kenya. Last year witnessed abnormal floods in different parts of the country, with the Red Cross Society raising the red flag over the high number of deaths attributed to floods.

By May 2013, the Red Cross reported that over 140,000 people had been displaced by floods, most of them in Rift Valley, Western, Nairobi, Mombasa, and Nyanza regions.

The EJF report recommends, among others, that the international community immediately research the relationship between climate change, human rights, and conflict, and that it consolidate political will for renewed international action on climate change.

The report also urges governments to, on the national level, deliver linked-up policies on the environment, human rights, development, migration, and peace-building.