| | Opinion

'People in wars are among the most neglected by climate action. We must reverse this trend.' 

Malian repatriated refugees move around the village of Koygouma where the wind quickly turns into a sand storm (2019) Nicolas Remene / EPA/ Keystone

People living in wars are disproportionately impacted by the consequences of climate change. Of the 20 countries considered the most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to climate change by the ND-Gain Index, 12 are in a situation of armed conflict. This does not point to a direct correlation between climate change and conflict. Rather, this vulnerability stems from the limited adaptive capacity of societies enduring conflict. 

Why? Because in addition to causing deaths and injuries, conflicts profoundly disrupt the social, political and economic foundations of societies. They weaken institutions and erode development. They create new vulnerabilities and increase existing ones. All this dents people’s capacity to cope with growing climate variability and extremes.

For over a year, we conducted research to better understand how climate and environment-related risks materialise in the lives of the communities we work with and reflected on ways to better support them. This is intrinsic to ICRC’s bid to ensure its response factors in the multiplicity of challenges faced by people in conflict zones.

In short, combined climate risks and conflict disrupt all spheres of people’s lives, from their safety to their health, to their food, water, and economic security. Effects can also be far-reaching. Along with other megatrends, such as demographic growth or rapid urbanisation, they can shape migration or access to resources on a continental scale.

In northern Mali, we saw how the coping mechanisms of herders during a bad season are curtailed by conflict, as insecurity prevents them from traveling longer distances with their livestock to search for grazing land and water. In the Central African Republic, people asked for help in managing tensions arising from changes in the seasonal movements of herders and their livestock that are, in part, caused by the situation in the Sahel, where environmental degradation, climate risks, and insecurity has pushed pastoralists towards greener and safer areas. They also asked for support to recover from floods and chart changes in agricultural calendars that are no longer reliable. In southern Iraq, problems related to water quality and scarcity were further exacerbated by the limited capacity of institutions to maintain water-related infrastructure and negotiate water-sharing with neighbouring countries.

People in wars are not only at the forefront of climate change, they are also among the most neglected by climate action. We must reverse this trend.

Major global efforts are essential to limit climate change and avoid the most disastrous consequences for people and their environment. But such efforts will only limit, not halt, the climate crisis. We therefore need to find ways to help people cope and adapt.

To state the obvious, we must fine tune our understanding of short and longer-term risks and reinforce our capacity to develop programmes addressing them, learning from people themselves, the experience of others, and science and technology. We must also join forces, across the humanitarian sector and beyond, as no single organisation can address these challenges alone. Collectively, we need to focus on limiting people's exposure by reducing risks and strengthening their resilience to shocks. Once people, systems and their environment have experienced major losses, recovery is harder. And this is particularly true in times of conflict. This calls for investing in disaster prevention and early warning systems, ensuring access to hazard-resilient essential services and helping people secure livelihoods and shelters that stand in the face of climate risks – and it also calls for improving the implementation of IHL rules protecting the natural environment during armed conflict, as greater respect for these rules can limit environmental degradation and in doing so, reduce the vulnerability to climate change of communities. Finally, we need to mobilise those who are best placed to ensure that climate action and finance reach communities enduring conflict – from State governments to local authorities, international financial institutions, and the private sector.

The challenges related to working in places affected by conflicts are no excuse for inaction.

Catherine-Lune Grayson is a policy adviser at International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), where she focuses on the experience of populations affected by armed conflict and violence and humanitarian practices, notably in the context of migration, internal displacement, and the climate crisis. She has previously worked in East and Central Africa for several years for the Danish Refugee Council, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She is trained in political science (Sciences Po, Paris) and international law (Université de Montreal), and holds a Ph.D in anthropology (Université de Montreal).

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