Africa: Climate Change Can Set the Stage for Violent Conflict - Expert

14 February 2020

Cape Town — Levels of poverty, economic opportunities, and unemployment are key factors increasing the likelihood of conflict, and there has been strong agreement that climate change, is a major driver of violent conflict. Climate has affected the risk of violence within countries, and as global temperatures climb, the risk of armed conflict is expected to increase substantially. But some of the biggest uncertainties are about how and why.

AllAfrica's Jerry Chifamba spoke with Ferrial Adam, an environmental justice activist who has been in the sector for about 15 years. She is presently working on her PhD that looks at how people can use science to fight their environmental struggles.

Q: In your research and experience can you draw the link - if any - between climate change and conflict?

It's very clear that climate change is affecting the most vulnerable communities and as vulnerable communities are forced to find more water and food, that leads to violent conflict. So they'll be localised conflict but I also think that in the future we could probably see conflict between countries around water and food.

One example is when we were in north-east of Kenya, we were doing a bit of work in that area and we were driving past a man who had been fishing and had a rifle and so we stopped and asked why he needed a rifle. He said I have a gun for protection because people want to steal my fish from me. So that's some kind of conflict where people steal food from each other. If you look at the general picture of someone who's fishing, they are not working with guns and here was a guy with a rifle and he wasn't the only one. We went to interview some fishermen at the river and it was sunset and as we got there, they were all leaving and weren't interested in answering our questions. When we asked them why they were leaving, they said that it's because there are snipers from across the river who would shoot at them and then try to steal their fish. So it's actually happening right now.

So one of the things is Ethiopia wants to build a dam which is upstream from Kenya and it'll affect the water that flows into Kenya so really there's some anger rising between people in Kenya and people in Ethiopia. They make it a national issue, creating conflict between countries.

If you remember the riots that happened in Mozambique some years ago, it was also because of increased bread prices, so I think that as food becomes more expensive because of the impact of climate change, whether it's drought or floods. That definitely could lead to more unrest.

Q: How do you foresee these challenges playing out in future. In terms of government's role in managing climate change and conflict?

There's no doubt that these challenges are going to get worse, we'll probably see a lot more water wars, food wars. Which is Part of the reason for the Arab Spring was related to increase to the food prices. If we look at what Trump is doing in terms of holding other countries accountable or holding them to ransom because they won't sign a particular agreement, I think we'll find more and more of that happening.

I think that in the future, citizens will start to hold their governments accountable for the decisions that they make around climate change. So government will become more mindful of the decisions that they make because the ordinary citizen is not going to vote them in depending on what their choices are regarding the impact of climate change.

The Eastern Cape is part of South Africa that's been experiencing extreme drought. And there's conflict because of the water shortages in the sense that firstly it becomes a class issue so for the middle class, they just go walk and buy bottled water but for the poor, it's harder to do that.

And also with corruption you've got government then giving tenders to people who have water tanks to go and give water to particular areas but then people are doing it according to their friends and political party alliances. Or what they are doing is when government builds infrastructure they break it down again so that they can continue getting contracts to go out and give people water via trucks.

Even if you look at the Gift of the Givers going to drill boreholes so that people can get water, there was all that kind of conflict going, where there was an element of government corruption because they want something from you and so that caused quite a bit of a stir. The good thing is Gift of the Givers don't stand for that, and they made it quite public so I gathered that the politicians backed down a bit.

We've been telling since 2006 that they needed to go to renewable energy and government have not listened and part of the reason is, I think some of them have vested interests in coal mining. It's not just about the coal mining but the areas that they're planning to mine is the waterbed which is very important in terms of our water resources. So government has been short sighted in the sense that we don't have water forever and we need to protect the water that we do have.

The second part is that they don't seem to understand that coal is going to bring more gas emission that affects climate change as a whole; and mining the coal will pollute our water. So they obviously say one thing at an international meeting but when it comes down to action, they're doing everything opposite.

Q: Is the continent aware of climate change and it's impact now and the future?

I think people are not directly using the term climate change. They are experiencing the impact and they're putting it in different words and descriptions because they are unable to explain in detail, the impact that they are having. Whether it's a small fisher or a farmer, they'll tell you, well I used to plant on this day but now I have to change it to this month. So there's definite awareness in that regard but they have not said this is climate change. But we have a lot of work to do with regards to education and awareness on climate change.

AllAfrica's coverage of peacebuilding issues is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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