How does vulnerability play when it comes to climate-disasters?

Mali, Philippines, Pakistan, Syria. These are all vulnerable countries in their own way. And all of them are exposed to the great threat multiplier of our time: climate change. As climate impacts strike vulnerable countries have a harder time with mitigation and adaptation programs. Sometimes, the situation degrades, sparking armed conflicts.

Syria is, arguably, one such case. For some, the civil war that has ravaged the country since 2015 could be tagged as a “climate war”, as the violence followed a prolonged drought that increased food insecurity and increased migration from the countryside to the cities.

In Syria, the vulnerability was determined by the drought event itself – its severity and how long it lasted, among others – but also by how people and the government adapted to the situation,” said Lina Eklund, Post Doctoral Researcher in Physical Geography/Middle Eastern Studies from Lund University. Vulnerability, as defined by Eklund, “is a concept that incorporates exposure to risk – often climate-related – as well as the adaptive capacity of affected people.”

The 2007-2009 drought happened during a period of land degradation and water issues relating to, among others, unsustainable use of water resources. According to Eklund, “there was already environmental stress, but not only due to drought. The political and socio-economic context, such as increasing unemployment and poverty levels, corruption, repression and police brutality, a growing rural-urban divide, and a lack of political freedom: all add to a very complex situation where causality is impossible to disentangle.”

But Syria is not alone. Dr Tobias Ide, from the University of Melbourne, lead author of a recently published study, states that a concrete example of this would be a severe drought in Mali that appeared in May, June, July 2009.” Ide’s research tries to shed light into how climate disasters might be increasing the risk of armed conflict in vulnerable countries. “Quite a few people lost their livelihood and were marginalized by the state and Al Qaeda, which mostly operates in South Algeria. They took the opportunity to recruit fighters in Mali and expand its sphere of influence mostly because the state was unable to support the drought victims and they were really angry,” adds Ide.

Credit: AFP/Philippe Desmazes

Vulnerable states and local institutions seem to be unfit to manage both the impacts of disasters and deal with conflict even before they escalate in violence. In the midst of a global pandemic and failed climate negotiations, the adaptation and mitigation strategies proposed by nation-states are not always realistic. Ultimately these plans aim towards creating a safer environment and livelihood for everyone, but they are not enough and an endless cycle of climate disasters and violence might ramp up if action is not taken.

One thing that worries me”, says Ide,  “is that climate change is not the main driver of conflict but increases risks. If we fail to mitigate climate change and if we don’t provide enough adaptation there might be more conflicts which would put a double burden on the exposed populations because they would suffer from both climate change and armed conflicts.”

According to Ide, vulnerability to disasters undermines the capacity of local communities to face the impacts of climate disasters, with armed conflict multiplying the problems ahead including displacement. Long term investments, food production infrastructures, renewables systems, they are all part of mitigation and adaptation efforts. These often end up being eroded by the inability to properly take vulnerability into account in these programmes.