ISS: Climate change is feeding armed conflict in Somalia


The blast that killed over 350 people and the double car bombing in Mogadishu last October have frustrated Somalia’s efforts to build stability. For almost 30 years, the country has been tackling a combination of civil war, famine, desertification, piracy, political fragmentation and terrorism.

Although the conflict has many underlying causes, one factor that remains poorly understood is climate change. In a country where, alongside war, six million people face starvation, understanding the role of climate change and its impact on patterns of drought – and developing innovative responses – is urgent.

Since the resilience to climate consequences by government and society is limited, the ability of around 70% of Somalis to meet their basic needs depends heavily on a regular climate pattern. However, over the past decade climate change-related desertification has expanded in Somalia, making the local population even more vulnerable.

Climate change feeds armed conflict in Somalia in three ways: by exacerbating tensions between clans; boosting the ranks and role of terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab; and increasing migration.

First, climate change sharpens disputes over already-scarce resources between warlords. While al-Shabaab has conquered large pieces of the country’s territory, clan elders still wield considerable power, dominating the political system. In this sense, the severe droughts cause disruptions to water access, high rates of malnutrition, disease outbreaks and food insecurity. This leads to tension and even open disputes between clans. In a country facing such challenges, resources like food and water are not only a basic need, but also a source of power.

Second, the relationship between the proliferation of illegal armed groups and the severe droughts in Somalia is evident in the case of al-Shabaab. The group has been successful in attracting young people who are affected by famine and food insecurity and who face no job prospects. Those youth end up joining al-Shabaab in a bid to survive, finding no other option than to get involved with the extremist group.

Third, migration has become more complex due to climate change. In 2016, at least one million Somalis were internally displaced, exposed to protection risks, discrimination and gender-based violence. Making the situation even worse, around 300 000 Somali refugees living in the Dadaab refugee complex – the world’s largest refugee camp, located in neighbouring Kenya – have faced heightened uncertainty since Kenya announced the compound will close.

Although desertification perpetuates and expands the levels of violence in Somalia – with possible spill-overs into neighbouring states, as is already the case in Kenya – climate change has received relatively little attention when compared to anti-terrorism and security sector reform. Global and regional powers and international organisations have focused on fighting terrorism and piracy in the Horn of Africa.

Most of the international community recognises the influence of human activity on the climate system and its severe consequences. These include shifts in rain patterns, increasing desertification, higher frequency and severity in tornados and hurricanes, temperature disturbance and frequent heat waves.

But neither the Paris Agreement nor last November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, have addressed the links between climate change and armed conflicts. They also haven’t offered recommendations on how to build resilience in this area in fragile states. This is particularly worrisome because even a slight change in the global temperature is enough to provoke a set of weather calamities.

Many developing and developed countries are implementing public policies to prevent, mitigate and adapt to climate change consequences. In most cases, governments and other stakeholders are able to tap into technical expertise, new technology, and relatively or highly stable societies.

But conflict-affected countries, which are socially, politically and economically vulnerable, encounter considerable obstacles in addressing the effects of climate change. Instability, low state capacity and prioritising more immediate goals tend to sideline climate change issues. This is despite the fact that climate change exacerbates existing problems and intensifies violence, as in Somalia’s case.

Given these obstacles, initiatives to adapt and mitigate consequences of climate change in fragile countries must be incorporated into approaches to prevent armed conflicts. These include the G7+ group of ‘fragile states’ and its effort to promote the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 in conflict-affected states, including through implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16. This goal is dedicated to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all, and building accountable and effective institutions at all levels.

A partnership between Somalia’s government, the UN Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility represents a promising yet somewhat isolated example. The goal of this partnership – the Enhancing Climate Resilience of the Vulnerable Communities and Ecosystems in Somalia initiative (2014-2019) – is to implement ecosystem-based drought and flood preparedness to adapt to extreme climate events.

For example the project currently works with small-scale farmers in parts of Somalia, such as Puntland. Although the initiative is local, if it succeeds, efforts to scale up the response should be considered.

International actors should also consider responses such as the transfer of agricultural technology capacity, whether through aid or south-south cooperation, to help farmers avoid losing their crops and livestock. Microcredit should be offered in order to help farmers keep productive land.

Most African countries don’t have strong measures in place to adapt to climate change. Environmental initiatives must be taken into account in conflict prevention in Africa, as such initiatives could help decrease violence, as well as promote food security and development. While climate change requires a global response, local efforts are also needed in order to build resilience and improve living conditions in conflict-affected states.

Written by Giovanna Kuele, Research Assistant, Igarapé Institute and Ana Cristina Miola, environmental lawyer and student, Natural Resources Management and Development Programme, University of Applied Sciences of Cologne, Germany

This article was first published by the Igarapé Institute: Somalia: the Role of Climate Change in Recurring Violence. It was republished on ISS Africa and can be found here.