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Editor’s Note: Climate change stresses the politics of many countries, and this pressure is particularly pronounced for countries in conflict. Tobias Ide of Murdoch University in Australia examines how floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters—the numbers of which will grow due to climate change—can increase violence in countries already afflicted by civil war but also at times offers opportunities for negotiations.
Climate-related disasters are a recurring feature of our time. In the future, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme weather events are set to become more frequent and intense due to climate change, urbanization, and persistent inequality. Hurricanes Katrina in 2005, Harvey in 2017, and Ian in 2022 provide an idea of what a climate-changed future might look like.
Disasters matter for foreign policy in several ways. They can affect military infrastructure both overseas and at home, and they put a heavy burden on a country’s economy. Furthermore, states may want to deliver aid to or help with relief efforts in other countries devastated by a disaster. The United States frequently provides support to countries hit by earthquakes, droughts, and storms in Central America and the Caribbean, as do other countries around the world. Finally, disasters can result in political instability, for instance by fueling anti-state grievances or improving opportunities for rebel groups to recruit disaster survivors with scarce resources.
With climate-related disasters on the rise and a high number of armed conflicts worldwide, such disasters are more and more likely to strike conflict-affected areas. This is particularly the case because countries with a history of armed violence are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, for instance, because health, rescue, and early-warning infrastructure has been destroyed by fighting. The major floods in Nigeria and Pakistan in 2022 are recent examples of this. As a result, disasters are key to debates about climate change and security, as illustrated by various UN Security Council debates on the topic. However, up until now, our knowledge of what happens when a climate-related disaster strikes an armed conflict zone remains fairly limited.
In a recently published study, I address this knowledge gap by conducting an in-depth, comparative analysis of armed conflict dynamics after climate-related disasters. The research tracks the intensity of fighting in civil wars between rebels and government forces in 21 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. My analysis of this data resulted in two key insights, both of which are highly relevant for foreign policy practitioners.
First, climate-related disasters affect the dynamics of armed conflicts in about 60 percent of cases. Those cases are all located in countries that are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change (even when compared with other developing countries), mostly because of very high poverty rates and a strong economic dependence on agriculture. When policymakers consider the security implications of climate-related disasters, they should look at those places where agricultural economies are very sensitive to disruptions from extreme weather and where poor populations have little capacity to adapt.
Second, climate-related disasters can facilitate both the escalation and de-escalation of armed conflicts. Both outcomes are almost equally frequent, with de-escalation (33 percent of all cases) being slightly more likely than escalation (29 percent). Whether disasters amplify or reduce conflict intensity in a vulnerable region depends on their impact on the balance of power between the conflict parties.
If a disaster changes this balance in favor of one conflict party (usually the rebels), the latter will exploit this advantage by increasing its fighting activities. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), for instance, was fighting a fierce struggle for independence against the government of India from 1979 until the early 2010s, mostly recruiting from the poor and those opposed to the state authorities. In 1998, massive floods hit Assam, resulting in almost 2,000 casualties and widespread destruction. As a consequence, poverty rates increased, as did grievances about the Indian government, which did not deliver sufficient disaster prevention and recovery funds. This enabled the ULFA to recruit new members and scale up its attacks even as the government responded by increasing its own operations against the rebel group. In other cases, rebels were able to exploit government forces’ preoccupation with the disaster response to launch additional attacks, as was the case with Naxalite insurgents after a strong cyclone hit India in 1999.
By contrast, if the disaster weakens both conflict parties, armed conflicts tend to de-escalate. The same is true if one conflict party is too weak to exploit the adverse impacts a disaster has on its opponent. A case in point is the heavy flooding that hit Somalia in 1997, causing the loss of more than 2,000 lives. Both major conflict parties, the Mahdi and the Aideed factions of the United Somali Congress (USC), suffered severely from the floods. Their revenues declined due to a collapse of export agriculture in the south, while they had to pay much higher prices to feed their fighters. Large, flooded areas also undermined the logistics of the fighting parties. As a result, both USC factions had to scale down their fighting activities.
Recent evidence suggests that these insights also apply to other disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunamis. In terms of foreign policy, two implications stand out.
First, if climate-related disasters give one civil war party a relative advantage over the other party, governments should prepare for an escalation of fighting by the benefiting group. Such preparations could include the negotiation of cease-fires and safe-access corridors to ensure the security of aid workers. Allied governments committed to democratic values might also require additional support when climate disasters strike, for instance when Boko Haram aims to exploit droughts in the Lake Chad region.
Second, when climate-related disasters reduce the fighting capabilities of the warring parties (or one party is unable to exploit the weakness of the other), fighting is likely to de-escalate. This could provide a window of opportunity for peace negotiations because conflict actors that could spoil talks are less active. There is evidence that conflict mediation tends to be more successful during phases of low conflict intensity and after disasters. The weeks after climate-related disasters could be a good time to renew or intensify conflict mediation and peacemaking efforts.
A textbook example for this is the civil war that ravaged the Indonesian province of Aceh from 1976 to 2005. Multiple efforts to achieve a negotiated solution failed, but the situation changed when a tsunami hit the region in 2004, killing at least 165,000 people. Both government and rebel forces suffered tremendous losses from the tsunami, providing a strategic argument (as the tsunami weakened both sides’ military capabilities) and moral high ground (because public sentiment favored cooperation to end the suffering in Aceh) for those in favor of negotiations. Huge demand for aid also meant international mediators from donor states gained political influence and could apply pressure to reach a settlement. Less than nine months after the tsunami, a peace agreement was concluded, and the civil war has not resurfaced since.
International efforts should be scaled up to mitigate the causes of climate change and to reduce disaster vulnerabilities. But with Earth’s climate already changing and the frequency of major disasters on the rise, decision-makers will also need to better prepare for disaster impacts. Understanding the effects these have on armed conflicts can help policymakers recognize opportunities to de-escalate and resolve these conflicts.