The Legacy of Desertification in Violent Conflict - Legacy Week

By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Gordon Proven.

Perhaps what is most peculiar about the so-called Arab Spring is that it arguably began in Tunisia with a simple fruit vendor desperate to make some money during a record high food price spike.

Tunisian police harassed the fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, for not having a permit for selling food as cops are commonly reported doing–taking pleasure in fining, confiscating, and stealing from vendors at the fruit market. This time the merchant would stand his ground, and in return, he received the back end of a police baton for it.

When he went to complain to government officials, they ignored his pleas, encouraging him to forget the entire incident. In the face of systematic injustice, Bouazizi decided to take drastic action. He resolved to attract more attention to his plight by setting his entire body on fire. His fire sparked millions in Tunisia to rise up against authority for the sake of vendors, Bouazizi, as well as their own dignity.

It’s this precise combination of scarce resources and corrupt governance that has ignited the chain of violence that has spread across the regions of Africa, the Middle East, and now in Eastern Europe. But outside the obvious tyranny and abuse from those in power lies a more subtle, vicious ruler with an omnipotence that may prove to be more difficult to overthrow.

Climate change is a merciless tyrant that has inflicted devastation to these regions for decades. In the Sahara, a process called ‘desertification’ is taking place, transforming once fruitful agriculture into dry, arid sand and heat. Record low precipitation rates combined with rising temperatures in both the water and land has established a trend in resource scarcity along with violent eruption.

Determining climate change’s impact on human security is part of the research conducted by Marc Levy, a political scientist and deputy director at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Levy sat down with BTR to explain the legacy desertification has had on the region.

“Desertification is a complicated phenomenon,” says Levy. “There is no comprehensive measurements but, what you can observe is vegetation.”

Over the course of the ‘90s and into the 2000s, there was a steady decline in vegetation across much of the Sahel, according to Levy. The desertification of the Sahel, a thin slice of land between the Sahara Desert to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south, is driven partly by climate change and partly by the overuse of the land.

For example, the overgrazing of livestock is the largest source of desertification according to the Food and Agriculture Organization–but overgrazing alone does not cause desertification. 20 to 40 percent of the arid land in Mali and Niger are human induced. Carbon emissions, overgrazing, and deforestation are all human contributions to the degradation of these lands.

Based on research done by UNESCO, 100 to 200 million people live in arid and semi-arid areas with limited freshwater resources. It is predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of them will face serious water scarcity as population growth, agricultural production, as well as rising salinity and pollution will perpetuate desertification and overall climate change.

The poorest and most unstable of countries will be hit the hardest as water challenges grow complex and require collaboration between government and institutions. In 2013, the top 10 countries with the most political instability were all from Africa and the Middle East, Somalia being the most unstable of them all. And out of the 45 countries deemed the most water-stressed by the UN, 35 of them are in Africa.

Martin Hoerling, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, studies increasing droughts in the regions of North Africa and countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Hoerling spoke with BTR about how the low precipitation and warming water temperatures of these regions qualify them as climate change “hot spots.”

“The analysis was trying to make some sense out of the observational data,” says Hoerling. “The low precipitation in the Mediterranean region, we noticed, was a pattern in time that was consistent with the warming temperature in the water.”

These climatic changes along with the influences of human societies are the ingredients for a tragedy-stricken region.

So are these areas doomed by mother nature to be lands of turmoil?

“The evidence that the climate is changing is rock solid,” says Levy. “What is unclear is the evidence of what climate change is doing to human societies.”

Climate change is not an isolated driving factor, according to Levy, but there is a strong argument that climatic stress influences violent conflict–and one that would be detrimental to ignore.

The recent bloodshed taking place in Syria can attest to that. In 2011, the seeds of civil war were sewn when Syrian farmers in the southern village of Dara’a began demanding the right to buy and sell land near the more lush perimeter of the country without permission from the corrupt government. This protest was a build up from years of drought and crop failure since around 2001.

From 2006 to 2011, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced drought and severe crop failure. The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction stated that 2008 to 2009, nearly 75 percent of the country suffered total crop failure.

The dry heat had eroded their crops, and eventually, their social compliance with the Assad regime. Syrian farmers and herdsmen migrated from their land and began crowding into cities like Dara’a. The challenges of overpopulation provoked food riots and violent fighting that would lead to the more organized military engagements of the nation’s still-raging civil war. In a vicious cycle of corruption, empty promises at remedying these issues of essential resources in turn, fueled more migration. Many from the areas of Sahel move to Libya and then from Libya to the EU.

The backdrop isn’t all that different from the reasons why thousands of Africans are jumping onto rickety wooden boats to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. Recent reports detail that the Italian navy has saved over 4,000 people, including a newborn child, within just five days. The navy estimates that 800,000 people are currently gathering in Libya from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

The effects of climate change have had drastic consequences on life in these regions, but so has the corruption and inability of its leaders to properly adapt to environmental and social changes. Francesco Femia, co-founder and director of the Center for Climate and Security, explained to BTR that in some cases these periods of crisis can be moments of opportunity.

“These dramatic changes in government are also an opportunity to get this right and create a government that is more climate resilient,” says Femia. “The projections for what the climate will be like should be built into how you build your infrastructure.”

According to Femia, Tunisia is an example of how a revolution in government can generate positive prospects for the future. Tunisia is one of three countries on the planet that have incorporated climate change into its constitution.

Nigeria in West Africa is another country that has been experimenting with enacting climate change policies. Policies have been created such as the Clean Development Mechanism to access funding for major environmental projects.

The mitigation and adaptation measures at tackling climate change extend beyond the governance of local regions. The carbon emission and droughts across the globe continue to have an affect on these areas. The warming of the Mediterranean is influenced by the CO2 pollution world wide, while droughts in China have been known to affect bread shortages in the Middle East.

The great hazard of climate change is becoming a greater responsibility than that of any singular nation–and one that must be accommodated in ways that were previously unforseen. For instance, the US National Intelligence Council has released reports since 2007 which look at the different scales of threat that climate change has on human security.

“We are entering an unprecedented period of climatic change, so there is going to be an increasing amount of unpredictability in climate,” says Femia. “This is not just an environmental risk, it’s a human risk, it’s a national security risk, and an international security risk.”