Turning up the heat: conflict and climate change

man standing in field of ruined crop

Farmer in drought field, Elazig, Turkey | Photograph Prometheus/Shutterstock


Climate change presents both challenges and opportunities to the global community. Rising sea levels, increased instances of severe weather and drought are all significant obstacles that fill policy makers’ agendas. But the effects of climate change run much deeper than we perceive them to and are spilling over into the realm of security and creating new challenges for environmentalists and policy makers alike.

Of all the consequences of increasing global temperatures, the one most likely to have a significant impact on security in a global context is the decreasing level of available water in many of the world’s drier regions. With levels of evapotranspiration (the transfer of water from land to the atmosphere via the evaporation and transpiration of plants) rising, there is an increasing rate of drought in drier areas, as well as an expansion of the land touched by severe drought. This in turn is leading to significantly lower levels of both available drinking water and water for the purposes of agricultural irrigation.

States within regions struggling to cope with the effects of climate change are seeing significant increases in conflict. One place in particular where climate change is having a direct effect on the security of a population is Sub-Saharan Africa. Research published by Professor Marshall Burke of Stanford University found that for every percent increase in temperature, there has been a 4.5% increase in the occurrence of civil war on the African continent. An alarming statistic – that ultimately leads to a 54% increase in the rate of regional conflicts by 2030. In this instance, climate change is going to be an extreme destabilizing force for the entire continent.

Further research into the effects of climate change on global security points to drought as one of the possible causes of the Syrian civil war, as well as a catalyst for further tensions within the region.  Between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, which holds a significant amount of the water used by Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, lost a total of 117 million acre-feet of freshwater, an amount that could nearly fill the Dead Sea.

The political implications of this began to appear following a 2006 drought that heavily impacted agricultural production in Syria. With the flow of freshwater significantly reduced, many rural farmers in the region lost the ability to properly irrigate their crops, and were forced to move inward towards larger population centers. This contributed to an increased level of civil unrest, and may have helped fuel the fire that to date has taken the lives of more than 400,000 people.

Tensions in the region could continue to mount. The Southeast Anatolia Project has allowed for the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants across Turkey. By the time of completion, the project is expected to reduce available levels of water by 80 percent in Iraq, and 40 percent in Syria. This, in concert with an already decreasing supply of water in the basin has led to increased diplomatic hostilities –  such as Iraq threatening to attack Turkish dams – and could spell further conflict in the future.

With increasing levels of evaporation and drought and access to food and drinking water declining as a result, climate change presents us with severe security concerns for the individual, as well as the state, as groups struggle to obtain whatever water stores remain. By addressing climate change and alleviating environmental damage, we will be able not only to make our planet safer, but also reduce conflict over our natural resources, and improve the safety of those living in at-risk regions.

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Thumbnail image | Illustration John David/Shutterstock


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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