Could Climate Change Have Caused Violence in Africa and the Middle East?

A recent report has dismissed a link between climate change and violence in some areas of the world.

Several scientists and experts have endorsed the idea that droughts, lack of water, food and grazing land could be underlying factors that trigger violence in some cases.

However, research published in Nature Climate Change earlier in February argued that evidence that supports this view is "flawed " and "biased" as researchers tend to look for a climate change-violence link only where they are likely to find it.

Researchers analyzed previous reports on the subject and statistical data. They concluded that "research on climate change and violent conflict suffers from a streetlight effect [research bias].

"Further, studies which focus on a small number of cases in particular are strongly informed by cases where there has been conflict, do not sample on the independent variables (climate impact or risk), and hence tend to find some association between these two variables," the paper continued.

"These biases mean that research on climate change and conflict primarily focuses on a few accessible regions, overstates the links between both phenomena and cannot explain peaceful outcomes from climate change. This could result in maladaptive responses in those places that are stigmatized as being inherently more prone to climate-induced violence."

Responding to the report, however, some said the research failed to build its own case to disprove the existence of a link between climate change and conflict.

"I can't see what the authors are trying to accomplish with this article," Elizabeth Chalecki, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told The Atlantic.

There is not a definitive answer on whether adverse weather conditions, droughts and lack of resources have caused some of the most recent conflicts and the scientific community is still divided over the issue of so-called "climate conflicts".

In light of the latest paper wading into the thorny area, Newsweek looks at some of the ongoing conflicts and insurgencies that have been linked to climate change.

Fulani herdsmen - Nigeria

One of the most recent examples is increasing violence in central and norhern Nigeria between herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group and farmers, who fight over control of grazing lands. Desertification and climate change in the Sahel and the Chad Basin have exacerbated the crisis in recent years.

Violence has been so rampant that the Global Terrorism Index named the Fulani herdsmen as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world in 2015, after Boko Haram, the Islamic State and Al-Shabaab.

Fulani herdsmen
People take pictures with cellphone of photographs of people who died following clashes between Fulani herdsmen and natives of Guma and Logo districts during a funeral service at Ibrahim Babanginda Square in the Benue State capital Makurdi, on January 11, 2018. Violence between the mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers has claimed thousands of lives across Nigeria's central states over the past few decades. The conflict is being driven by an increasing need for resources -- primarily land and water -- and is often exacerbated by ethnic and sectarian grievances. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

"Local Fulani herders are prepared to take a 'Do It Yourself' deadly action against cattle rustlers and local farmers when they and/or their cattle are under threat or attack," counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.

"As Fulani nomadic pastoralists migrate to escape desertification and droughts in search of fresh grazing land for their cattle, they arm themselves or [hire] mercenaries who carry sophisticated weapons for protection."

He added that terror group Boko Haram, based in Nigeria's northeast, could exploit the situation by leveraging herdsmen's grievances to recruit them into its ranks.

Tuareg rebellion - Mali

Otto cited another example, involving the nomadic Tuareg population in Mali, affected by increasing desertification that resulted in less grazing lands and deaths of their cattle. Their growing frustration has led some to join local rebel groups.

"Vulnerable, angry, socially excluded and dislocated young Tuareg nomads became easily enticed to the security, financial and ideological benefits of belonging to jihadist groups like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Ansar Ed- Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)," he said.

"The violent narrative of the MNLA Jihadists would not have gone down as easy as it did without the devastating life-threatening impact of climate change on the direct livelihood of these local Tuareg nomads and the failure of the government to do something meaningful."

Tuareg rebellion
A Tuareg man waves the flag of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA) during a demonstration in support of the MLNA on July 28, 2013 in Kidal, northern Mali. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Recurring violence - Kenya

Last year, analysts and international observers linked a spate of violence in Kenya's drought-hit Lakipia region to an ongoing drought in East Africa. Lack of rains for two consecutive seasons has depleted harvests and reduced grazing lands available for cattle and at least 23 million people lack food, water and medicines.

Fighting over grazing lands has resulted in the death of dozens of people in Laikipia, where armed cattle herders invaded private properties in search of grazing lands for their animals.

Drought in Kenya
A dead animals lies in the sun near Lokitaung in northern Kenya's Turkana county where a biting drought has ravaged livestock population on March 21, 2017. In just a few years water, oil and money would flow. Roads, schools and hospitals would follow. Turkana's generations of poverty and neglect in Kenya's arid north would end. But it was not to be: five years after the discovery of oil, and four since a giant aquifer was found, drought has struck again, shattering the dreams of a different future for Turkana, a bone dry region of dust and stone, home to mostly semi-nomadic livestock herders and lacking the most basic trappings of modernity. TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

The 2017 attacks followed violence in the North Rift and North Eastern regions over natural resources. In 2011, fighting between the Turkana and the Merille tribes over grazing lands and water culminated in the "Todonyang massacre", which saw the death of dozens of people, including women and children, and the displacement of as many as 40,000 people.

"These instances are evidence of increasing local conflicts directly impacted by adverse weather conditions," Otto said.

Drought and mass displacement - Syria

Drought in Syria
Syrians cool of with water from a public fountain 18 July 2000 in Damascus. A severe drought that has plagued Syria for the past two years has forced the authorities to take stringent measures, including water rationing for up to 13 hours daily in the capital and four days in the countryside. The crisis was exacerbated by a record heatwave that swept most of the Middle East this month and insignificant rainfall during the winter rainy season. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists have also referred to the Syrian civil war as an example of how climate change could exacerbate violence. Some have claimed that a drought in the country triggered an internal mass-migration and contributed to socio-political changes that sparked the conflict in 2011. The war, still ongoing, has killed more than 450,000 people and displaced millions.

"This massive exodus to the urban cities created pressure for the Bashar al-Assad regime as unemployment and poverty increased," Otto explained.

"Jihadist extremists groups found it comparatively easy to win the hearts and minds of Syrians and massive support from a mixture of those who had migrated from the rural areas as a result of the drought and those in the cities directly impacted by the internal migration and wanted the government out of the way for failing to intervene."

However, other papers have claimed that there is no strong evidence to prove such link. A study by European and American researchers published last year dismissed the claims.

"There is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war," University of Sussex Professor Jan Selby, one of the study's co-authors, said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

"It is extraordinary that this claim has been so widely accepted when the scientific evidence is so thin."