MS Risk Blog

How Climate Change Fuels Terrorism

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The Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change has warned that the impact of global warming will push immense refugee movements and that climate change, alone poses as the greatest security threat of the 21st century. The United Nations (UN), The European Union (EU), the G7 and an increasing number of states have also identified climate change as a threat to global and national security. Studies have shown that the impacts of climate change tend to create conditions in which violent non-state actors including terrorists and insurgents thrive. While it has not been established yet if climate change can be directly attributed to the cause of terrorism, it has certainly been seen as a threat multiplier. Climate change blends with other existing threats in a region and largely increases the likelihood of violent conflicts.

The effects of climate change contribute to conflicts over natural resources and security of livelihood. Terrorists, therefore, can multiply and easily operate in regions already fragile from impacts of climate change, particularly, if the state has little or no authority in those areas. The deteriorating conditions that further question the state’s legitimacy in affected regions open up opportunities for a terrorist group to act as a state by providing basic services to people. By doing so, the terrorist group gains legitimacy and secures trust and support from the local population, thus strengthening foothold in the areas.

Climate change increasingly constrains the ability of states to render services and maintain stability. Extreme effects of climate change can significantly strain the relationship between governments and populations. Even a government’s slow and poor response to managing natural disasters and recovery from effects of climate change can weaken people’s trust on the state. This makes the population more vulnerable to seek alternative support from non-state actors that may employ violence to execute their agendas against the state. Also, in contemporary politics, there is a notion to perceive terrorists in the context of war on terrorism, thus dismissing or undermining what conditions are essentially facilitating proliferation of these formidable enemies.

The conditions of the region around Lake Chad effectively portray how climate change fuels terrorism. Prolonged drought in the region has significantly shrunk Lake Chad, which happens to be the main source of livelihood for millions of dwellers in the area. The scarcity of resources and security of livelihood as a result of shrinkage have exacerbated frictions between pastoralists, famers and fishermen. The drought pushing poverty even further has given a fertile ground for the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (BH) to thrive and challenge the state authorities in the region. The desperate need for survival in the face of extreme poverty, already made worse by the impacts of climate change in the Lake Chad region has subjected young population vulnerable to recruitment by BH and illicit employments linked to armed conflict, human trafficking and also massive cross border displacements.

Lake Chad has consistently been the main source of irrigation and freshwater for livestock. The lake has also been a source of livelihoods for about 30 million people settled along its shores. With the increasing population, the demand for water has gone up. However, over the past 50 years, ineffective conservation of water and effects of climate change with rising temperature and inconsistent rainfall have shrunk the lake’s surface by 90 percent. According to United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), about 50 percent of the shrinkage is caused by climate change.

As a result of decreasing water level, natural resources in the Chad basin have also reduced, which means, less availability of fresh water, decreased fish stocks, loss of vegetation and depleted grazing lands. All these effects together with an increasing population have, therefore, compromised food security. These impacts have also changed settlements along the lake’s wetlands, which serve farmers as fallback areas for crop cultivation in times of drought. As the wetlands degrade, the local populations migrate in search of new fertile soils and better fishing grounds, thus moving closer to the shore lines for cultivation. Simultaneously, pastoralists also migrate to the shores in search of grazing grounds and water. Consequently, the strain on remaining resources and rivalry between various groups of settlers often leads to violent conflicts. In Niger, an increasing conflict between migrant fishermen and local law enforcers has been seen since the 1980s. In Nigeria, recurring clashes between nomadic herders and famers over land around Lake Chad have resulted in many casualties. Local political authorities have demonstrated little interest in resolving these farmer-herder disputes. Also, as the military and state security forces are seen as very corrupt and unable to curb the outbreak of violence, trust in the government has weakened. Conditions as such, therefore, have helped BH to mobilize support of the local population, commit acts of violence and engage in organized criminal activities.

The prolonged drought in Syria is another example that effectively suggests how climate change fuels terrorism. Syria’s water system has already been vulnerable before the country was hit by drought in 2007. An increasing population and years of ineffective conservation of water have strained the country’s water system. With the drought, excessive use of groundwater and dam projects in Turkey have reduced the availability of fresh water in Syria. In the country’s northeast, nearly 1.3 million people, dependent on agriculture, have experienced crop failure and herders have lost nearly 85 percent of their livestock. These massive losses have triggered a migration of people to the cities, which have already been overcrowded with the influx of about 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. The effects are increasing number of crimes, food price hikes and strained urban infrastructure. Also, the Syrian government has undermined the drought and failed to adopt necessary measures to address the effects of the drought. As a result, protests against the regime begin to spread across the country in Dara’a, Damascus, Hama and Aleppo. The urban populations witnessing the regime’s reluctance to support the displaced rural migrants and address the strain they put on urban infrastructure have joined the protests. The movement has quickly escalated into sectarian conflicts. In the midst of the chaos, Syrian rebel groups and terrorists such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could easily gain control over unstable territories. The Syrian regime’s failure to provide security and relief to the population affected by drought has provided opportunities for ISIS to set up social services, execute irrigation projects and provide clean water to the people in affected areas. The arrangements have also made it easier for ISIS to recruit from the local population that has felt neglected and abandoned by the state.

The key takeaways, therefore, which, surface from the above as to how climate change fuels terrorism are as follows: