Worldwatch Perspective: Will Water Discovery Douse a Genocidal Conflict?

Women at a well
Women draw water at one of the few wells in Darfur.
Photo by David Haberlah

News last month that researchers at Boston University had discovered a huge underground aquifer in western Sudan’s Darfur region set off feverish speculations. Would development of this vast water resource help quell the vicious conflict raging in one of the world’s most arid regions?

Mass atrocities over the past four years, including the killings of at least 200,000 people and the uprooting of more than 2.5 million, have triggered a flurry of so far unsuccessful efforts to end the fighting in Darfur. In June 2004, the African Union dispatched a mission that now totals some 7,000 troops, but has proved unable to halt the carnage. A May 2006 peace agreement between the Sudanese government and one of the rebel groups also made no difference on the ground, in part because the rebel movement splintered.

Earlier this week, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to create a “hybrid” African Union/United Nations force of 26,000 military and police peacekeepers; it remains to be seen whether the Sudanese government will stonewall this mission as it has done with earlier efforts. Meanwhile, the European Union is considering a possible 3,000-strong peacekeeping mission to neighboring eastern Chad, where some 170,000 Darfuris have sought refuge.

Media reports tend to portray the Darfur conflict as an ethnic one, in which Arab pastoralist militias known as the Janjaweed victimize “Black African” farming communities. But in much of the region, the different population groups are not all that easily distinguished by ethnic background, complexion, or even livelihood. Many communities in Darfur practice a mixture of crop growing and animal-rearing. Rather than simply ethnic divisions, a complex mix of social, economic, and environmental issues, as well as power interests, is behind the conflict.

The Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, published in June by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), bolstered the argument that environmental degradation has been a contributing factor, noting the “very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur.” In recent decades, conflicts in various parts of Sudan have been linked both to resource wealth—competition over oil and gas, Nile waters, and hardwood timber—and to resource scarcity, including tensions over rangeland and rain-fed arable land.

Since the 1930s, the boundary between semi-desert and desert has shifted southward by an estimated 50 to 200 kilometers. Desertification has been driven by natural processes (there is mounting evidence of long-term regional climate change) as well as by human actions such as deforestation, overgrazing, and inappropriate cultivation (in particular the conversion of dry and fragile rangelands into croplands). Human population growth has added to the stress, as has the explosion in livestock herds, which have increased more than 400 percent in northern and central Sudan since 1961.

But these aren’t the only factors. With the support of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, successive governments have promoted large-scale irrigation schemes and mechanized farm projects since the 1960s. Millions of small farmers and nomads were driven off large stretches of farmland, water points, and herding routes. These projects also proved environmentally destructive, causing massive deforestation and exhausting Sudan’s fragile soils. Yet they continue to this day: in the country’s far north, for instance, construction of two hydroelectric dams, including the Merowe, has displaced and angered local communities.

Sudan has suffered repeated droughts, soil exhaustion, growing food insecurity, and sporadic famine. UNEP notes that northern Darfur has witnessed a 30 percent drop in rainfall over the past 80 years. In the future, rainfall is projected to become ever more scarce and less reliable, particularly in the Sahel belt, which includes parts of Darfur, Northern Kordofan, Khartoum, and Kassala states. Encroaching deserts have compromised pastoralists’ livelihoods, and their coping strategies—such as moving livestock farther south, claiming croplands for pasture, and forcing agricultural communities out of formerly shared lands—have brought them into growing conflict with farmers.

Resource challenges might have spurred cooperation between Darfur’s farmers and nomads. Both population groups have a history of competing for scarce water and fertile land, but also a record of negotiated local solutions. But, as UNEP points out, legal changes by the central government have destroyed traditional mediation structures. And the influx of small arms has led to an increasing reliance on the use of deadly force and banditry over the past 20 years or so.

But these factors alone would not have triggered the large-scale atrocities of the last few years. The cataclysm cannot be understood without reference to politics and power interests. Once a proud Sultanate, Darfur has been marginalized by the central government in Khartoum since the 1980s. Decades of economic and political neglect played a big role in driving the region to full-fledged rebellion in 2003.

The Sudanese government responded harshly, playing up ethnic distinctions, arming the Janjaweed, and adopting brutal scorched-earth tactics. The realization that Darfur may be home to large quantities of oil is likely a motivating factor in the expulsions and land grabs of the last few years. This shadows developments in southern Sudan during the 1983–2005 civil war, when Khartoum was eager to clear oil-rich areas of unwanted populations.

Stopping the mass violence—which some say amounts to genocide—has become a rallying cry for a coalition of human rights and religious organizations calling for humanitarian intervention. They are concerned that paying too much attention to the environmental origins of the conflict distract from the real culprit—the ruthless use of violence in pursuit of power and profit.

There is no question that meaningful international action to stop the violence and protect human rights is overdue. Still, any intervention that ignores the environmental and resource challenges would leave the door open to future cycles of resource-linked strife.

So where does this leave the newly discovered aquifer in Darfur? It is tempting to think that greater water availability could help defuse a conflict fueled partly by competition over water. Yet given the degree to which resources and power politics are intertwined, that seems an unlikely outcome. As Sudan expert Alex de Waal argues: “If the government acts true to form and tries to create some sort of oasis in the desert and control who settles there, that would simply be an extension of the crisis, not a solution.” Without a more equitable distribution of water and other resources—and a far more representative and accountable government—there is little hope of lasting conflict resolution.

Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

Note: This article was updated on July 27, 2007.