Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
July 11, 2008

Climate Change Conflicts

BenIAM in comments points to a report on Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment in Sudan by the United Nations Environment Programme. Chapter 4 (pdf), recommendable also for its pictures, says:

The scale of historical climate change as recorded in Northern Darfur is almost unprecedented: the reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The impact of climate change is considered to be directly related to the conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move south to find pasture.

That seems to be the central point of what the conflict in Darfur and neighboring Chad is about. Millions of people are moving away from land that turned to desert and conflict naturally arises when they 'invade' other people's land. Economic shocks caused by a lack of a rainfall are the major cause (pdf) of civil wars in sub- Saharan Africa.

The world has seen large scale population movements before. The Migration Period or Völkerwanderung in 300 to 700 A.D. in Europe was likely also the result of climate change. Desertification in western Asia and a cold period in northern Europe compelled people to move. Some equestrian pastoral people, 'Barbarians' or Huns were the Janjaweed of their times. They moved west and people living there were pushed further west themselves invading other people's land.

Governments can not do much about such conflicts and pressure. One reason the roman empire finally broke down were these mass migrations. If people get hungry because their lands are overpopulated and/or desertify, they will move.

I therefore find it a bit callous when the 'west' cries about 'genocide' in Darfur and wants to charge Sudan's president in front of the International Criminal Court. Omar Hassan al-Bashir may not be a good man but there is little he or anybody can do about migrating populations in a country with little infrastructure when one part of the people has no other chance of survival than to press into the land of another part of the people.

The 'intentional community' and so called peacekeepers are helpless in such situations too. There are no clearly identifiable sides in such conflicts. There are no good versus evil people in this only needs.

Yesterday seven peacekeepers in Darfur were killed when a gang of some 200 raided their convoy. Nobody is even sure who the attackers were or why the attack happened. Indeed peacekeepers can make the situation worse not because they fight but simply because of their additional catastrophic impact on scarce local resources and infrastructure. David Axe reports from eastern Chad were peacekeepers are supposed to protect camps with refugees from Darfur:

Arid eastern Chad has always suffered water shortages. In 2004, a quarter-million Darfuri refugees settled in the region, placing further strain on local water sources. Intensive labor by a wide range of aid groups -- drilling new wells, building dams to catch rainwater, opening up channels to feed rain into underground reservoirs -- has alleviated but not eliminated the problem.

Now EUFOR is deploying thousands of soldiers and tonnes of equipment, all requiring tens of thousands of liters of water per day -- and water shortages have become a water crisis.

EUFOR flies in bottled water from Europe for its peacekeeping troops in Chad but this only creates different problems:

The water these French convoys bring in does not come from Chadian sources -- it is shipped in from foreign sources, so in one sense it’s harmless to parched eastern towns. But the trucks must travel on roads never intended for such heavy use in order to deliver the water.

These roads are especially fragile where they cross the country’s thousands of dry river beds, or wadis. During Chad’s long rainy season, from roughly June to October, the Chadian government sets up roadblocks to prevent vehicles from crossing the wadis and damaging the roads. Those that absolutely must cross pay a fee.

But French army Staff Sergeant Alexandre Barbet, whose job it is to escort the convoys, says the French drive right on through without paying. "What are they going to do?" he asks rhetorically. EUFOR considers the fees bribes.

With such a behavior the 'peacekeepers' will soon be in violent conflict with the local people.

Are there solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

There seem to be three thing we could do:

  • Limit the effects of industrial living on global warming. I have little hope for that to happen at a scale that would have real effect.
  • Find peaceful ways to settle people impacted like in Darfur in other lands. Refugee camps that get set up and protected are only short term solutions creating more problems. The people in such camps will never be able to go back where they came from. They also can not live in these forever. Eventually they have to settle somewhere where they can make a living. Where?
  • Find technical solutions to prevent flooding of coast lands and desertification of inner lands. Can big projects like Lybi's Great Man-Made River be an example? Could huge desalination plants at Sudan's cost, probably powered by nuclear energy, create sweet water that could be piped into Darfur? Would that solve problems or create more?

Peacekeepers and ICC indictments are not solutions to the problems mass-migration caused by climate change and desertification creates. Humanity needs to come up with better ideas.

Posted by b on July 11, 2008 at 16:54 UTC | Permalink


Sage advice, but findig villains has always been easier than finding solutions. While this might be my North American myopia, looking to find villainy seems to have been far more prevalent in U.S. than elsewhere, at least in recent years. Even relevant stuff like climate warming problems have all too often--at least in American context--has turned into mechanism for defining who's on which side--and who are the villains. Personally, I think this lies behind the problems of hypocritical American politicos and their enablers among the public: it's not whether the argument or the policy itself has merits, but who their advocates happen to be--whether it's the "good guys" or the "bad guys" who happen to be supporting it. In foreign policy terms, the idea that there are real problems behind conflicts--independent of who's at fault--strikes too many Americans as inconceivable.

Posted by: kao-hsien-chih | Jul 11 2008 17:27 utc | 1

Sudan's al-Bashir is charged by the ICC - the first time that a sitting head of state is being charged (Africa is always full of surprises huh?). The ICC moves had been preceded by an earlier round of charges. Sudan Ignores ICC

The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced on February 27 that he filed charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Ahmed Mohamed Haroun the Sudanese minister for Humanitarian Affairs and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kosheib.

At the time the principals meeting of the GOS decided that since Sudan had not ratified the Rome Statue and was not a signatory of the ICC – the GOS determined that Sudan was not going to cooperate with the ICC and in the event of being charged the arrest warrants would not be executable. As to be expected The APress reported this response today.

Sudan says ICC Report a Psych Op Come to Fruition?

"Moreno-Ocampo's report depends on verbal testimony of rebel leaders and organizations that work under a humanitarian cover but in fact are branches of the intelligence apparatuses of other countries," Badry told The Associated Press.

A blog on Darfur has a continuing discussion on this topic in which the moderator – Alex de Waal – a regional expert and now at the Human Security Project at Harvard has been calling for such an action and just today commented that “Moreno Ocampo is taking a bold and momentous step for global human rights and for Sudan.” There are a few provocative contributions including Stephen Ellis’s post on how the ICC charge would constitute a “Political Act”.

Looking at the reported charges themselves “genocide and crimes against humanity” brings us full circle to earlier discussions about the nature of the war(s) in Darfur and the manner in which they have been named or represented as “genocide” and finally the criteria by which the regime of al-Bashir has been prioritized.

The nature of the wars in Darfur and their relationship to the 30 plus years of war in the South of Sudan particularly with respect to problems of economic marginalization of the areas outside Greater Khartoum and along the Nile and the capture of the state by a few are well known. Yet, the analysis of the wars in Darfur that is closely associated with Western liberal ‘civic’ organizations has been the notion that what is happening in Darfur is genocide. The well crafted arguments of Mahmood Mamdani in his LRB article The Politics of Naming and his (3-part Democracy Now!) interview on the same subjectWho Says its Genocide and Why - are important reminders of the political motivations behind such a representation.

The criteria by which al-Bashir has been singled is opaque except for the charge that the wars in Darfur are acts of genocide – that is a charge which differentiates this on again and off again conflict which exploded dramatically since 2003 from other conflicts raging in Africa, Somalia and Congo-DRC are notable, and indeed around the world, one word - Iraq. Even if one was to bypass the problem of genocide and treat Darfur as a massive crime against humanity then how is the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and Iraq silenced into thin air?

Somalia Crisis Worse than Darfur, says UN

The broader implication of the ICCs political actions will be the selective application of justice according to political considerations of the most powerful state actors for the purposes of promoting and institutionalizing their interests, not some abstract notion of justice.

Climate Chnage to Conflict: No Consensus

As for the climate induced war scenario – perhaps the most interesting approach that I have read indicates that social and political factors mediate and are crucial to wars due to climate change induced environmental degradation and desertification. In Darfur’s case the war between farmers and herders ( both Muslim but falling into a ‘Black’/’African’ and ‘Arab’ loose identification) is not necessarily uncontainable since they have been happening periodically but were generally locally resolved but it is in the context of the economic impoverishment of Sudan in general and Darfur, the most underdeveloped, in particular that the crisis has interacted with environmental changes to explode.

Yet the problem of violent conflicts in Darfur and other places in the 3rd world and the tipping point effect of climate change are best grasped, again, by Mamdani’s narrative on what structural forces condition the wars in Darfur.

State Formation and Conquest - Video

After Mamdani’s analysis on the crucial issues that propel constant violent struggles and in certain contexts - act as oil to a fire - I would agree with b that the ICC actions are politically self serving and cosmetic and do not move towards solving the political problems of Sudan.

Posted by: BenIAM | Jul 11 2008 19:12 utc | 2

The pointing out of 'big picture' geopolitical issues like this, is my favorite part of MoA.

As far as Great Man Made Rivers,
"an enormous, long-term undertaking to supply the country's needs by drawing water from aquifers beneath the Sahara"
Doesn't sound like a good idea to me, considering that desert aquifers once tapped tend to encourage irrigation, population that ought not to be there ... as is definitely the case in the North American Great Basin where I live.

Humane population reduction, i.e. contraception, is the only sound course I can see. As much as I and others worry about echos of eugenicism — the only alternative is population reduction by war & famine.

Posted by: Cloud | Jul 11 2008 20:18 utc | 3

What I mean is that the drainage of the aquifers will exceed their replenishment. Leaving the population, which meanwhile has grown, in crisis once again.

Posted by: Cloud | Jul 11 2008 20:26 utc | 4

As posted 60% of the times I post, what we'll see is population reduction by coastal destruction when inevitable stronger earthquakes occur under Greenland and West Antarctica and possibly sympathetic earthquakes under East Antarctica, possibly followed by released diseases, allowed famines and many killings. Population will drop.

Posted by: plushtown | Jul 11 2008 20:43 utc | 5

Well, population reduction this century is a given; it's what happened when the great invasions occurred and the Western empire collapsed (in fact, it happened as early as the end of 2th century, in Rome as in China, partly due to climate change and a slight cooling of the N. hemisphere), it's what happened in the 14th when once again experienced a serious climate change (cooling once again). That said, a huge warming that would top by far what we've seen these last millennia would have just as serious and deadly consequences, because the warming would be so quick it would mean desertification, not better yields.

Posted by: CluelessJoe | Jul 11 2008 23:31 utc | 6

there was also serious climate change worldwide in the 6th century, as expressed>in first cartoon after the line drawings here. (click on to increase size, it's my wordiest). We block serious things, are brilliant about the trivial.

Posted by: plushtown | Jul 12 2008 1:06 utc | 7

Oh Mythical Sky Daddy We Beseech You:*Please lower our Gas Prices.

I didn't catch the location nor could I find a local story, but the local news today said there was going to be a Prayer at the Pumps somewhere around town today.

*But God answers in abundance in other areas eh? iphone Porn Overload: People, calm the fuck down!

The Nerd/Geek Bloggosphere is creaming in it's collective jeans for the new iphone G3. Unfortunately it's spilling over into nearly every blog on my reader: "Look the new white box! The very first owner! The lines! How to unwrap and open your iphone." Sure it's cool, but it's driving me batty.

I think everyone needs to calm the fuck down and watch: The Story of Stuff

What is the Story of Stuff? - Similar videos can be found at From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It'll teach you something, it'll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever

Posted by: Uncle $cam | Jul 12 2008 4:19 utc | 8

Excellent insight. The constant vituperation and sanctimonious explanations wear thin.
Agree completely that contraception is a must but I notice that if there are few youths and a lot of elderly the necessity of culling the elderly becomes mandatory otherwise the balance of life is tilted towards the unproductive and ruinous.

Posted by: jlcg | Jul 12 2008 7:15 utc | 9

Can big projects like Lybi's Great Man-Made River be an example?

You haven't understood, nor Cloud in #2, that the Lybian Great Man-Made River draws on fossil water under the Sahara. That is water laid down in aquifers under a different climate, 25000 years ago, and is not being replaced at all. It's a finite resource, like oil. It's going to last 30-50 years, I think.

Posted by: alex | Jul 12 2008 8:39 utc | 10

Images taken by its Envisat remote-sensing satellite show that Wilkins Ice Shelf is "hanging by its last thread" to Charcot Island, one of the plate's key anchors to the Antarctic peninsula, ESA said in a press release.

Couldn't agree more with first link @7

Posted by: jcairo | Jul 12 2008 10:04 utc | 11

The Story of Stuff, very interesting thanks.

As I was told once, it is a nice philosophy and I think/talk this way because I had toys as a kid, not that I disagree with the premise of the video, just sayin

Video didn't mention burgeoning population as an issue when talking of a different way

But, as has been mentioned, the universe has a way of handling populations in addition to our own

Posted by: jcairo | Jul 12 2008 10:36 utc | 12

Umn, b. you are maybe jesting when suggesting nuke fired power plants to provide the energy?

Reverse osmosis is the dominant technique at the moment, followed by various forms of distillation lead by multi-stage flash disillation (whatever that is!).

The problem with desalination as in all tech solutions is the often hidden footprint. Obviously, highly saline water is a result of desalination, which has to be led somewhere. In the case of most distillation methods, the water will be hot. If a nuke-fired plant is providing the energy, there will be hot water from the plant itself which will have to go somewhere.

Things being equal, which they are not likely to ever be, I'd prefer forms of decetralized energy sources as well as water production. Cetralization of resources in general leads to the concentratrion of power and the concentration of power leads to various forms of authoritarianism has always been my intuition

Posted by: Chuck Cliff | Jul 12 2008 11:31 utc | 13

Let nature take her course. The expanding (and contracting) desert is what the desert does. We can't change that. For thousands of years those who live in the sahal (an Arabic word meaning "shore" that describes the populated fringes of the desert) build villages when the desert contracts to be closest to the caravan trade and move outwards as the desert expands to get to water. You can plot the natural expansion and contraction of the desert by an archaeological analysis of occupied and unoccupied strata of sahal villages. There's a pattern of the desert expanding and contracting for centuries. See Desert Frontier: Ecological and Economic Change Along the Western Sahel, 1600-1850 by James L. A. Webb Jr.

The key is to allow the traditional free movement of people to find water and sustenance. If you do not allow this, you are knowingly committing genocide. No one from the area is unaware of the the desert's natural rhythm. The problem is complicated by the creation of the idea of permanence for towns and villages since the imperial period and political and religious conflicts. The idea of drawing water from Sahara aquifers is patently absurd if it is to be used for large scale farming. As for watering flocks and providing water for Beduoin communities, every oasis already taps into the Sahara aquifers. But if water is pumped out in fantastic quantities, it could lower the water table and destroy thousands of oases and even more could die. The only humane solution is to allow the free movement of people and to allow them to re-established their communities at the edge of the sahal.

Is this a result of global warning? Possibly. It could start a cycle of desert expansion outside of the expected pattern or make the desert reach deeper into the sahal displacing more communities than usual. But the expansion is usually at a pace where communities can keep ahead of it. Political instability, an expanded, sedentary population, and religious tensions are complicating a normal and expected time of migration. Add to that the establishment of western settlement patterns and ideology that seeks permanence and you have compounded misery.

Posted by: Diogenes | Jul 12 2008 12:23 utc | 14

That is water laid down in aquifers under a different climate, 25000 years ago, and is not being replaced at all.

Then with certainty, "the drainage of the aquifers will exceed their replenishment."
: )

Excellent post by Diogenes.

Posted by: Cloud | Jul 12 2008 14:21 utc | 15

Here's a pretty little Kansas quilt, water turned to corn and soy, turned to beef or biofuel.

What do you suppose this chart of the Ogallala Aquifer would look like if you compared data from 1865, when the Midwest was first settled, farmed, ranched?

The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic meters (420 billion ft3 or 9,729,000 acre feet) per year, amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers. Some estimates say it will dry up in as little as 25 years.

Posted by: catlady | Jul 12 2008 15:40 utc | 16

@alex You haven't understood, nor Cloud in #2, that the Lybian Great Man-Made River draws on fossil water under the Sahara.

Of course I understood that. I am well aware of that project. I used it as an example for a very controversial one. The same way I used the example of an also controversial nuclear plant for desalination. I would not favor it. Still it is one of the likely answers.

Desalination of seawater is not troublesome with regard to salt levels. There is simply too much water to make a difference.

The problem is to provide an energy source that could deliver enough power without making things worse.

Are there better solutions? Let me know.

@Diogenes - thanks, good food for thought.

Posted by: b | Jul 12 2008 16:53 utc | 17

Desalination of seawater is not troublesome with regard to salt levels. There is simply too much water to make a difference.

Intuitively, that would seem be so, as the oceans are so large -- but it might not be so locally, as the salt being pumped out locally would not necessarily be rapidly diluted. A lot would depend on the ecosystems in the area as well as ocean currents.

What I meant to say is that it is a factor that should be to be considered. An we are seeing today, ecology can be affected by seeminngly small changes in temperature -- and it might be the same with rising the level of salinity.

The Saudis are presently producing a quarter of the world's desalinated water and the largest desalination plant in the world is in the United Emirates, apparently from the Gulf, which they assume this is an unlimited resource. Time will tell if they are correct in this assumption.

As for nuke-fired power plants, it looks like we are going to get them whatever we may think about it being a good idea. So, as with the EU, we'll have to make the best of a lousy situation.

Posted by: Chuck Cliff | Jul 12 2008 19:00 utc | 18

Climate change, AIDs, malaria, ebola, ethnic strife (so labelled), drought, desertification, etc. hit Africa. Yes.

Climate change, and Aids, have hit Switz. *very* hard. The Swiss Gvmt. (no victims here!) and the MSM have no interest in touting this flash news about.

Aids has been dealt with by new expensive therapies, upping health insurance, etc. Agri failures lead to more imports. Smashed villages - relocation, payment for loss, a new life, anywhere, it is not a problem, even rather exciting. Not even on the nightly news, or only for 3 minutes.

No more snow? White gold poof-gone? Well long term plans, artificial snow, upping the tourist industry in other ways - spas, beauty and med. stuff, rock concerts, green tourism, gastro from the terroir, etc. will see ‘us’ through a spin down, slow is cooler than fast.

Time to retrain: >> textile, flavor, watch, micro-mechanic, Pharma -for a few-, maybe even design, and building industry, computer skills... Banking is looking iffy!

A rich country can take the shock(s).. Africa, pardon the generalization, cannot.

The lack or resilience, impact of disasters etc. is an outcome of rapine and neo-colonialism: cause, and consequence.

Posted by: Tangerine | Jul 13 2008 17:27 utc | 19

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