Afghanistan and Iran came dangerously close to war some weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with political ideologies or ancient rivalries; it had to do with a river and how much water each country is allowed to draw from it.
The waters of the Helmand River are shared by both countries and an agreement was drawn up in 1973 enshrining how much water each country gets. While it’s never been officially ratified, both countries had it figured out — until some weeks ago. Droughts and dams built in Afghanistan have decreased the flow of water into the region, causing shortages and agricultural issues, especially on the Iranian side. This created tensions that boiled over into both sides briefly shooting at each other, and while there were some casualties, cooler heads prevailed.
Over in Somalia, while sitting in a camp for displaced persons outside of Mogadishu, Nurata Hassan Ebow said, “We had to leave because of the drought and the conflict.”
The conflict she’s referring to is ongoing fighting between what is passing as government forces and the group al-Shabab. She is one of many who have been displaced by drought, historic flooding and the conflict – a struggle for resources that are becoming increasingly scarce. This has put many parts of Somalia at the edge of famine and, according to Mohamed Abdi, Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director in Somalia, has driven more than one million people from their homes.
As climate change progresses, more of these scenarios will play out. Floods and droughts will lead to lands becoming uninhabitable, triggering mass migrations of people, much like we’re seeing in the Horn of Africa. In other cases, we’ll see countries getting ready to fight, not for oil or territory but for control over water or arable land. These are the conflicts of the future. The European Commission is seeing this on the horizon. It feels that climate change worsens conflict risks in fragile areas, and destructive weather harming crop yields exacerbates food insecurity. In the Sahel in western Africa, migrations risk unleashing decades of armed conflict and displacement, according to the UN.
The problem isn’t limited to developing or fragile areas of the world. The people displaced from western Africa or Somalia or Bangladesh all need to go somewhere, and they go to countries that seemingly have means — Europe, China, the U.S. and other places less affected or perceived as safer. The stress that mass migrations put on receiving countries is huge and creates a new set of problems.
Ahmadou Aly Mbaye and Landre Signe, both Fellows at the Bookings Institute in Washington, D.C., underscore this. In their economic study of the Sahel, they found that poverty, instability and communal violence are already on the rise because of poor economic performance and deteriorating climate conditions. For populations dependent on natural resources for their livelihood, climate change reinforces long-existing rivalries as groups fight over what resources are left.
The European Union is worried about spillover effects from climate-driven conflicts. In a draft paper published a few weeks ago, the EU stated that these spillover effects “can arise through increased demand for aid, the disruption of supply chains or with people fleeing from uninhabitable areas or severe adverse conditions at home, with the potential of internal displacement and increased irregular migration.”
This is essentially what is happening in both eastern and western Africa, and to some degree along the U.S. southern border. Conflict itself is also a catalyst, not just a result. Had the skirmish between Afghanistan and Iran turned more serious, it would have launched a destabilizing regional war that could have drawn in others.
Climate change is not abstract. It’s not just a hot summer in Europe or forest fires in Canada. It’s the destruction of arable land and fights over key resources for life — water and land to grow food.
While the West has the capacity to absorb any internal climate issues, Somalia, Niger, Bangladesh and other developing countries do not, and the inevitable conflicts and ensuing migrations will affect us all.
Tony Alexiou is the founder and principal at The Minotaur Group, a Washington D.C. firm focused on providing geopolitical risk analysis.