ICRC's call for action on climate and war

Farmer in Sofara, Mali, says extreme heat and drought followed by drenching rains destroy everything. (Samuel Turpin/ICRC)

"When Rain turns to Dust", a new ICRC report

Countries in situations of armed conflict are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, according to a major new report on Climate and War, by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The report, “When Rain turns to Dust” describes how 12 of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate disruption are also at war. The combined effects result in disrupted food production, water access, loss of livelihoods, and isolation - leading to poverty, migration and greater vulnerabilities to disease. The report calls for stronger measures to ensure that communities hit hardest get the help they need to adapt. And warns the world humanitarian organizations will be unable to address the exponentially growing level of humanitarian crises linked to unmitigated climate change. Urgent and ambitious efforts to mitigate the climate emergency by reducing carbon emissions are essential.

Why it’s important: While high-emitting societies, including Switzerland, miss their own targets and the world falls short of emissions reductions needed to keep warming below 2° C, ICRC puts a human face on the consequences of the climate crisis. Says Catherine-Lune Grayson, ICRC’s in-house climate expert and lead author:

“Climate change is cruel. While it will be felt everywhere, its most crippling effects will be borne by the world’s most vulnerable. (….) Many people convey a deep sense of loss and disorientation, as they feel that they can no longer recognize their environment or read the weather, and are simply not equipped to deal with the climate hazards that are an unending threat.”

Subsistance farming in Bria, Central African Republic, where river silt is used to fertilize arid soil

Lead author Catherine-Lune Grayson also tells us that concrete adaptation measures can effectively enhance the resilience of people in such contexts and reduce their exposure to climate shocks:

“For instance, more can be done to ensure that people do not settle in flood zones and that early warning systems are in place, so people evacuate in a timely manner, when necessary. Fairly modest interventions, such as building protective Gabion walls, can go a long way in protecting people. (…) But adapting to climate change may also require major social, cultural or economic changes. A whole agricultural system might need to change, or diseases new to a geographical area might need to be dealt with.”

For that to happen at scale, a rebalancing of climate funding must occur to reach countries in crisis. And since fragile States often lack the structures and technical know-how to design adapted programmes and manage funds, greater risks must be assumed to support those most impacted by global heating.

What the main findings are: Conducting their research in 2019 and 2020 in southern Iraq, northern Mali, and the interior of the Central African Republic (CAR), ICRC teams listened to a wide range of stakeholders, among which farmers, villagers and displaced families. In the report they share their observations on climate patterns in countries and regions where conflict is present, such as:

  • Northern Mali. Farmers have faced long droughts, followed by torrential rains that destroy their crops. Violence and insecurity have further limited their ability to cope, leaving many households with no other option than migration to cities.

  • Central African Republic, tensions between farmers and herders are increasing as herders move away from arid areas and conflict zones in search of pastures, encroaching on farm settlements. Says Grayson:

Climate change can exacerbate some stressors, such as economic risks, environmental degradation or resource scarcity, that can contribute to armed conflict, particularly when institutions are weak. When a country is already enduring conflict, climate change may also contribute to prolonging the instability by further destabilizing institutions, systems and people’s coping mechanisms.

Herder displaced by conflict to Zemio.jpg
This herder was displaced by conflict to Zemio, CAR, where he became a farmer (Florent Vergnes/ICRC)

  • Southern Iraq, up to 94% of displaced people cited water scarcity as the main reason for their displacement. Widespread environmental degradation combined with civil conflict and climate change have exacerbated the cycle of sandstorms. Between 1950 to 1990 sandstorms occurred less than 25 times a year; in 2013 there were some 300. As one Iraqi ICRC staff member says:

Before, rain was falling. Now, dust is falling.

In Fao, south of Basra, for instance, farmers blame their present-day chronic water shortages on the widespread military destruction of date palm groves during the Iran-Iraq war, groves which helped soak up rainwater and replenish aquifers. Conflict can also contribute directly to climate change. For example, wartime damage to oil installations or big industrial facilities can lead to fires and spills which release of large volumes of pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Legend: In Fao, palm trees damaged during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s have not grown back. (Mike Mustafa Khalaf / ICRC)

What needs to be done: Some 200 million people every year could need international humanitarian aid from 2050, a doubling compared to 2018 partly due to climate change (IFRC 2019). In response ICRC explicitly calls for the following:

  1. Accelerate global efforts to limit climate change.

  2. Take measures to help people and communities adapt, especially for the most vulnerable and most neglected by climate action.

  3. Increase collaboration between humanitarian organizations on climate adaptation measures in areas of conflict, anticipating risks and strengthening resilience to protect communities.

  4. Mobilize to secure climate finance for regions in crisis, ensuring balance between mitigation and adaptation efforts.

  5. Leadership by example. Limit the climate and environmental damage of humanitarian agencies and display operational resilience to extreme weather events.

One concrete opportunity. As part of the last objective, ICRC is developing a Climate and Environment Charter, along with the IFRC, which the organization will share with other humanitarian groups to build support for more adaptation activities and ensure that agencies reduce their own climate and environment footprint. Says Grayson:

“We see clearly the dramatic humanitarian consequences of a changing climate and degraded environment and we need to play our part to address this crisis. Our contribution to mitigation efforts will not make a tangible difference, but ethically, we need to limit our own emissions, because this is the right thing to do. We also need to show that this is possible and that it matters.”