Desertification as a Source of Conflict in Darfur

In Sudan’s Darfur region, brutal scorched-earth tactics by nomadic militias and government army units have killed at least 200,000 people and forced 2.5 million out of their homes since 2003. Stopping the mass violence has become a rallying cry for many who argue that there is a need for “humanitarian intervention.” The ENOUGH Project, for instance, calls for an approach that mixes peacemaking, protection, and punishment of perpetrators of mass violence. In contrast to such sweeping demands, however, negotiations have focused on shoring up a weak African Union mission by deploying a “hybrid” African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force.

While Darfur shows the limits of current peacekeeping and humanitarian policy, it is also becoming clear that the roots of conflict are not found in the often-repeated claim of simplistic “ethnic hatreds.” To a considerable extent, the conflict there is the result of a slow-onset disaster—creeping desertification and severe droughts that have led to food insecurity and sporadic famine, as well as growing competition for land and water. The "Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment"—a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)—argues that severe environmental degradation is among the root causes of the conflict. The 354–page study includes the following findings:

  • Deserts have spread southwards by an average of 100 kilometers over the past four decades.
  • Land degradation is linked with overgrazing of fragile soils. The number of livestock has exploded from close to 27 million animals to around 135 million.
  • A "deforestation crisis" has led to a loss of almost 12 percent of Sudan's forest cover in just 15 years, and some areas may lose their remaining forest cover within the next decade.
  • Declining and highly irregular patterns of rainfall in parts of the country—particularly in Kordofan and Darfur states—provides mounting evidence of long-term regional climate change. In Northern Darfur, precipitation has fallen by a third in the past 80 years.

Achim Steiner, the agency’s Executive Director, warns that “Sudan’s tragedy is not just the tragedy of one country in Africa – it is a window to a wider world underlining how issues such as uncontrolled depletion of natural resources like soils and forests allied to impacts like climate change can destabilize communities, even entire nations.”

Along similar lines, the Sudan Environment Conservation Society says that average annual rainfall in El Fasher in northern Darfur has dropped nearly in half since data was first gathered in 1917. Meanwhile, Darfur’s population—and with its, pressure on the land—has grown six-fold over the past four decades, to about 6.5 million.

Resource challenges might have spurred cooperation between Darfurs’s farming and nomadic communities. The two populations have both a history of competing for scarce water and fertile land, but also a record of economic interdependence and a tradition of seeking negotiated solutions. But encroaching deserts have pushed nomads further south and into growing conflict with farming communities. Increasing scarcity has led to rising tribal antagonism over the past 20 years.

Darfur has also experienced increased banditry and lawlessness, and it has played involuntary host to insurgent groups from neighboring Chad. Decades of economic and political neglect by the central government in Khartoum finally led to rebellion in February 2003. The Sudanese government responded by playing up ethnic distinctions and arming the so-called Janjaweed nomadic militias.

Both environmental restoration and reconciliation between different communities are key. And those driven off their land by the conflict need to be either allowed back home or resettled in sustainable communities. Refugee camps in Sudan and neighboring Chad themselves are contributing to additional environmental degradation: the displaced have little choice but to cut down trees for firewood, or to deplete the little underground water there is.