By Steve Brock and Deborah Loomis
The United States has made food security a key theme of its UN Security Council Presidency for the month of March, and today will chair a UNSC open debate on the links between conflict and food security. In many ways, the Council’s focus on food security is a closely-related continuation of the UK’s emphasis on climate security during its presidency last month. The World Climate and Security Report 2020 identified the deep linkages between climate change consequences and food insecurity across all regions of the globe.
According to the Global Report on Food Crises for 2020, over 135 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2019. The report characterized what it considered significant drivers of acute food insecurity as: conflict (affecting 77 million people in 22 countries), weather extremes (affecting some 34 million people in 25 countries), and economic shocks (affecting 24 million people in eight countries).
Although some may see this as semantics, we feel it is important to point out that conflict itself has root causes, because only when we understand root causes can we develop meaningful solutions. Throughout the ages, and across continents, poverty, lack of economic opportunity and yes, food insecurity, have underlain and sustained conflicts. Of course, climate change effects exacerbate these drivers of conflict as well.
In his 2019 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, then commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Thomas Waldhauser, explained that the second emerging security challenge in Africa, after the expanding reach of external actors like China and Russia, is environmental degradation (to include climate change). He explained that, “A large number of Africans make their living on the land, whether they grow crops or raise livestock, and many live at a subsistence level. Settled farmers and nomadic herdsmen are increasingly engaged in land-use disputes, which are emerging as a major driver of conflict in central Mali, through the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria, in South Sudan, and into the Central African Republic. More people are competing for less arable land, while both modern state institutions and customary institutions are failing or have failed to regulate this competition.”
In Nigeria, where Boko Haram has kept the nation gripped by conflict for a decade, the fact of the matter is that particularly in the group’s stronghold in northeast Nigeria the majority of the population survives off agriculture, and environmental degradation and a changing climate have had devastating consequences on agriculture there. The Sahara Desert is expanding every year, leaving more and more land inarable, and thus forcing populations to migrate to cities or seek other ways of making a living. Once in cities, however, a lack of formal education and skills makes it almost impossible for migrants to get jobs that pay good wages and so some turn to extremism.
South Sudan is another case in point. As then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon explained in 2007, although it is shorthand to describe the situation in Darfur as an ethnic conflict between Arab militias and black rebels, an environmental crisis contributed to the beginnings of the Darfur conflict, stemming at least partly from climate change. Specifically, he cited UN statistics showing that due to changing climate patterns average rainfall decreased by 40 percent since the early 1980s. Although farmers and nomadic herders had coexisted peacefully for centuries, suddenly, when there was no longer enough water and food to go around, fighting erupted.
The storyline is similar in Yemen. Yemen is among the most water-stressed countries in the world, brought on by regional drought, a naturally dry climate, and failed management. Before Yemen’s civil war started in 2015, the country was already dealing with long-term declines in rainfall, a growing population, increasing cultivation of water-intensive crops, and mismanagement of water resources. Together, these factors had been (and continue) causing water tables beneath Yemen’s capital to shrink by roughly three to six meters per year. Extreme drought in the midst of the conflict has further exacerbated competition amongst warring factions for control of water resources and today the population is facing famine.
Environmental degradation and climate change are actually what underlie much of the world’s food and water security issues. The most important task is to identify effective solutions that can be implemented in food insecure regions. We find inspiration in projects such as work being done in the Andhra Pradesh region of India where grassroots organizations, working in partnership with the United Nations and others, have guided over 800,000 farmers in adopting natural farming practices. These practices have not only ceased environmental pollution caused by chemical inputs, but have also restored land and water function such that farmers are now able to grow crops 365 days a year rather than leaving fields fallow for 8 months because of insufficient rain. Farmers are able to sow indigenous seeds rather than purchasing seeds, their fields are resilient to flooding and drought, and farmer profits have more than doubled. Importantly, the program proved invaluable during the COVID pandemic as farmers produced more food right in their villages, rather than relying on strained supply chains. These types of natural farming practices are not specific to India; they can be and are being applied all over the world.
There is a critical role for security institutions in assisting in the implementation of practices like these. An overarching recommendation of the World Climate Security Report 2020 was that national, regional, and international security institutions and militaries around the world acknowledge climate security risks and advance climate resilience, especially water and food security and their associated effects on stability, conflict and displacement, in their primary mission sets or lines of effort. Hence, we recommend that conversations at the UNSC on the links between food security and conflict must include a discussion of climate change as well, to ensure that root causes of problems are fully addressed.