Darfur: The First Climate War

Global warming is driving violent conflicts in Darfur and around the globe. 

First aircraft would come over a village, as if smelling the target, and then return to release their bombs. The raids were carried out by Russian-built four-engine Antonov An-12s, which are not bombers but transports. They have no bomb bays or aiming mechanisms, and the ‘bombs’ they dropped were old oil drums stuffed with a mixture of explosives and metallic debris. These were rolled on the floor of the transport and dropped out of the rear ramp which was kept open during the flight. The result was primitive free-falling cluster bombs, which were completely useless from a military point of view since they could not be aimed but had a deadly efficiency against fixed civilian targets. As any combatant with a minimum of training could easily duck them, they were terror weapons aimed solely at civilians. After the Antonovs had finished their grisly job, combat helicopters and/or MiG fighter-bombers would come, machine-gunning and firing rockets at targets such as a school or a warehouse which might still be standing. Utter destruction was clearly programmed.

a horse or a camel’. ‘Officers – i.e. those who could read or who were tribal amir – could get as much as $233.’ Their weapons are provided to them.

As in Rwanda ten years earlier, then, these were by no means men who killed spontaneously out of hatred or revenge, but rather ‘organized, politicized and militarized groups’. At the time of writing, between 200,000 and 500,000 inhabitants of Darfur have died as a result of their work. There had been massacres in the earlier period too, but at least since 1984, when a disastrous famine hit the country, the history of violence has been closely bound up with ecological problems.

There have been conflicts for seventy years or more between Darfur’s settled farmers (‘Africans’) and nomadic herdsmen (‘Arabs’), but they have become increasingly severe as a result of soil erosion and greater livestock numbers. Elements of modernization and judicial dispute resolution, which were introduced in more peaceful times thirty or so years ago, swept away traditional strategies for problem-solving or reconciliation without establishing new or functioning forms of regulation. Instead, during the last thirty years, there has been a tendency for weapons to be used straightaway even in small local conflicts.

In the disastrous drought of 1984, the sedentary farmers tried to protect their meagre harvests by blocking access to their fields by ‘Arabs’ whose pastureland had dried up. As a result, the nomads were unable to use their traditional marahil, or herding routes and feeding places. ‘In their eagerness to push towards the still wet south, they started to fight their way through the blocked off marahil. Farmers carrying out their age-old practices of burning unwanted wild grass were attacked because what for them were bad weeds had become the last fodder for

 the desperate nomads’ depleted flocks.’

Here we see quite clearly that climate-induced changes were the starting point for the conflict. The lack of rainfall – in many parts of Darfur it declined by more than a third for a whole decade – meant that the northern regions were no longer suitable for livestock and that the herdsmen had to tear up their roots there and move south as full nomads. Furthermore, the drought produced large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who were accommodated in newly built camps; as many as 80,000 starving people were on the move trying to reach one. The government’s first reaction was to declare them all ‘Chadian refugees’ and to order their deportation en masse, in an operation known as ‘Operation Glorious Return’.

At the same time, a dramatic rise in population figures, averaging 2.6 per cent a year, led to overuse of pasture and other land and added to the anyway high potential for conflict. Whereas disputes over land and water had traditionally been settled at conciliation meetings chaired by a third party with government support, a different policy came into operation after General Al-Bashir’s military putsch in 1989. Now government-backed militias increasingly intervened, making the conflicts sharper and more likely to end in violence.

Today’s conflicts are between government troops or militias and the twenty rebel organizations, so that an overview is as impossible for the participants as it is for outside observers. The largest rebel group – the Darfur Liberation Front (DLF), formed in February 2003 – initially campaigned for the independence of Darfur, but soon decided to go for a country-wide solution and renamed itself the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/SLA). In addition there is now a Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which also seeks to weaken the government in Khartoum.

The war in Darfur began when SLA guerrillas attacked the airport at El Fasher, and the government retaliated with the raids on villages described earlier. Nomadic Arab tribesmen then used these as an opportunity to appropriate farmland and animals. ‘As the clashes intensified, the government in Khartoum dismissed the governors of northern and western Darfur, who had come out in favour of a negotiated solution.’ Government aircraft continued to bomb villages indiscriminately and deployed the Janjaweed to fight against the rebels.

These have since engaged in a genocide interrupted only by periodic attempts to achieve a ceasefire. Violence has become a permanent feature of the situation. Neither the rebels nor the government are capable of a decisive victory, and nothing suggests that the opposing sides are genuinely interested in peace. Moreover, not only the Janjaweed but also the regular army and rebel troops have been inflicting violence on civilians.

The high toll of the brutal fighting in Darfur has all the characteristics of a climate war; it also represents a new type of simmering warfare to be found in African societies in fragile or broken states. One of the main differences between the civil wars of today or tomorrow and classical interstate wars is that the parties have no interest in ending the conflict and many political and financial interests in keeping it alive. Violence markets and violence economies have come into being – non-state areas in which business is done with weapons, raw materials, hostages, international aid, and so on. Obviously, no trader in violence is keen to see his business come to an end; he will therefore regard any attempt to restore peace as an unwelcome disturbance.

A study published in June 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) summed up the situation as follows. In Darfur environmental problems, combined with excessive population growth, have created the framework for violent conflicts along ethnic lines – between ‘Africans’ and ‘Arabs’. So, conflicts that have ecological causes are perceived as ethnic conflicts, including by the protagonists themselves. The social decline is triggered by ecological collapse, but this is not seen by most of the actors. What they do see are armed attacks, robberies and deadly violence – hence the hostility of ‘them’ to ‘us’. 

The UNEP soberly noted that lasting peace will not be possible in Sudan so long as environmental and living conditions remain as they are today. But those conditions are now marked by shortages that pose a threat to survival (because of drought, desertification, deficient rainfall), and which are further exacerbated by global warming. The road from ecological problems to social conflicts is not one way.


Reprinted with permission from Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed for In the 21st Century, by Harald Welzer, published by Polity Press. (c) 2012 Polity Press. All rights reserved.