When Two Elephants Fight: Climate Change and Militant Groups Across Africa


Climate Change and Health
As continued effects of degradation of the environment reach across many aspects of health and development, the impacts of climate change on human health are still being understood. While climate change is a global phenomenon mostly perpetuated by rich nations, it is usually the poorer nations who bear the brunt of the burdens. For instance, eight of the ten most affected countries on the Global Climate Risk Index were developing countries in the low-income or lower-middle income country groups 1. While climate change is occurring across a shared planet, those with already unequal access to resources and unstable social and political environments may face a perfect storm to security when climate change effects push against an already fragile situation. Climate change interacts with humans through a variety of mechanisms; namely, natural disasters, sea level rise, and decreasing availability of resources needed for survival2.  One manifestation of climate change is increased risk of prolonged droughts in many areas. Beyond the proximal effects this has on food and water supply, a study by von Uexkull3 found a strong correlation between drought in rain-dependent areas and armed civil conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Using spatial mapping technology, it was discovered that areas dependent on rain-fed-agriculture were also more vulnerable to civil conflict and that people residing in such areas had less community coping mechanisms. Given the severity of hunger and poverty, it is not unreasonable to see how individuals could turn to rebellion as a solution to economic and social disparities.

The effects of climate change on armed conflict and violence in developing countries pose a growing concern that requires further study. The relationship between climate change and armed conflict is neither a simple relationship nor a unidirectional one: loss of resources can lead to power struggles, while resulting armed conflicts weaken communities’ abilities to prevent and respond to effects of climate change. While there are many places that have a history of armed conflicts, some countries in have seen an unique intersection of environmental degradation and conflict, including recruitment of child soldiers and mass sexual violence.

Africa has a long and complicated history of rebel groups and armed militias. Before colonialism, many diverse tribes and ethnic groups competed for control of land, goods, and peoples. After the arrival of the first colonists, many ethnic and cultural tensions were tightened as the new rulers distributed benefits and burdens as they saw fit; new boundaries were drawn, new religions were introduced, new systems of social strata were enforced, all while entire cultures were toppled.  Now, as many nations have been released from the colonial clutches of their masters, violence from multiple players has erupted in response to the systems of inequalities that were established and allowed to flourish under white rule. A complete history of rebel groups across a continent as vast as Africa is beyond the scope of this article; however, the changing tactics of civil conflict within the last century is a significant departure from typical wars fought on the battlefields of Western history. The last 100 years has seen a change of focus to directed violence at innocents, as 85 – 90% of all casualties of recent conflicts have been civilians4.

Some of the most notorious groups terrorizing sections of Africa are the LRA, al-Shabaab, The Janjaweed, and Boko Haram. While some of these groups have evolved as responses to corruption in government or rebellions to establish separate religious states (caliphates), all share similar tactics of directing violence at civilians and/or destroying resources that ensure human wellbeing. The LRA, or ‘Lord’s Resistance Army,’ has been one of the longest running militia groups and is known for its use of child soldiers. In the year 2011 alone, over 465,000 people were displaced across three countries directly due to the LRA threat5. The current genocide being carried out in Darfur has largely been a battle among many militant groups, one of the most notable being the Janjaweed. In an examination of medical records from a local hospital, a majority of victims had been attacked by Janjaweed rebels in proximity to refugee camps across 23 different areas6. Some of the most brutal recent terrorist atrocities have been committed in Nigeria and Kenya by members of the militant extremist groups Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, with the former group infamously kidnapping 200 schoolgirls in an attack on a Christian town.

But behind many such stories of human atrocities committed by militant groups, is an even more dramatic narrative of environmental degradation and resource loss. Globally, Africa is experiencing the most dramatic land degradation – a large part of which can be attributed to climate change 7. As a continent in which a large percentage of the population depends on the land for survival, the implications of this loss are severe. The entire continent is showing a trend of global warming, that has especially accelerated over the last two decades8. Extreme temperature fluctuations are expected to continue, as some areas will experience too much rainfall (i.e. flood), while other will experience too little (drought). Degradation of the environment remains a complicated process as Western countries continue to demand goods for low costs and free market policies place economic control in the private sector. It appears that many countries have been released from colonial control only to fall into their previous masters’ economic control.

Order Effects and Health Implications
While violence experienced from rebel groups can seem sudden, their threats to human health are often the result of a long interaction between the inhabitants of a given region and the environment. To fully understand this complex relationship, one can refer to the World Health Organization 2004 DPSEEA Model in Figure 1 9.


Meagan Climate Change
Figure 1


The model, and overarching issues, begin with driving forces. As humans continue to use up natural resources, such as precious metals and oil, the growing demand for such limited goods is driving industries to previously untouched areas. Africa, a continent rich in natural resources, has become the new battleground to meet the growing demands of consumerism in a market economy. In a continent where many subsist on less than $1 per day, exploitation of the environment becomes a live or die occupation and responsible practices are not a priority. These effects become even more inflated when combined with climate change. Drastic changes in weather patterns, including rainfall, are highly correlated with civil unrest and violent conflict in Africa10. As the environment becomes more unpredictable, essential resources such as water and healthy soil become more of a commodity. These driving forces cause a state characterized by dwindling resources, extreme weather conditions, and unequal distribution of burdens and benefits. All of these factors create an impact on human health as populations are exposed to an environment that has been stressed past its carrying capacity.  Human exposure to environmental stressors and the resulting state occur across various countries in the continent as individuals struggle to produce enough food to eat, entire families are forced to migrate from traditional lands, young men join rebel groups as an only option for survival, or when civilians are caught in the crossfire of rebel violence.

The resulting human health effects are dynamic, including psychological, physical, emotional, occupational, and spiritual injury. Over 239 million people in sub Saharan Africa are suffering from extreme hunger11 and this figure will continue to rise as extreme weather conditions affect the amount, quality and access to food produced. Distal effects of fluctuating climates can be seen through the effects of resulting armed groups’ interactions with civilians.  Janjaweed militia use a variety of methods to induce harm, the most common being beatings, gunshot wounds, destruction/theft of property, involuntary detainment, and being bound with rope; additionally, rape and sexual assault have been reported by both male and female victims12. Intentional infection by diseases, such as HIV, has been a tactic employed by militant groups in Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo13.

Populations Most Impacted
The populations most affected by these climatic and civil events are usually the most vulnerable. Children, women, those who live in areas under exploitation, those in poverty, and those who depend on rain fed agriculture are most at-risk and are also the most ill-equipped to recover and deal with such issues. In addition to managing a tenuous relationship with the environment, vulnerable populations are re-victimized by resulting conflict. As rape continues to grow as a weapon of war, girls and women in areas prone to conflict remain the unseen victims of resource induced-conflict. Children  not only suffer from high rates of malnutrition and food instability, they also are used as soldiers; between the years of 1986 and 2005 alone, over 66,000 children and youth had been abducted by the LRA14. For those whose entire survival depends on rain fed agriculture, when a crop harvest fails it might become a feasible option to join a militant group, as food is often used for incentives to join.

The Role of Public Health
Public Health has a very large role to play in mitigating the relationship between the environment and growing conflict in Africa. Utilizing the three levels of prevention, public health practitioners can begin by recognizing that climate change occurring in Africa is largely a problem originating from developed nations. Broader approaches to this issue, such as regulating carbon emissions, are solutions that have appeared widely in the media. Initiatives, such as limiting access to guns, has been recognized as best practices in violence prevention in conflict areas15. However, many of these broader actions must occur through international organizations and negotiations, and policy decisions made by developed nations. Because the health impacts of climate-related conflict have a wide range of health effects, efforts to curb or reduce these will require a collaboration of partners across multiple areas, including industry, local governments, mental health practitioners, etc. Recovery efforts will be varied and time-consuming across a variety of organizations and stakeholders; in a world already fragmented by conflict, it is uncertain if the necessary players, such as the United States, will step up in time.

Some more direct actions that public health practitioners can and are addressing occur at the individual and community levels. This includes creating economic alternatives for those who are at-risk for joining armed groups, and creating opportunities for rehabilitation for those who have participated in or experienced conflict. A secondary prevention strategy is to better equip communities suffering from resource scarcity to adopt preparation plans to build resilience and adaptive capacity. For example, improving water supply sources (from individual to public) and improving the reliability of these sources (i.e. maintaining water pumps) are effective strategies for drought-prone communities in Africa16. Perhaps the best way to look at the current climate situation is through a tertiary prevention lens – extensive damage to the globe has already occurred and current efforts should focus on rehabilitating and mitigation. Community-based development holds promise for areas that have already experienced conflict and those who are at-risk. Establishing small farms, educational programs, and protected environmental areas for local initiatives have all been strategies employed in post-conflict settings such as the Philippines17, 18. Although civil conflict and climate change are massive issue that will require a number of actions across multiple settings, public health practitioners must not hesitate to initiate action on this issue, while remaining vocal for broader international commitments.

There is an old African adage that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. When militant groups wage war and governments fight for power, it is the most innocent and vulnerable that suffer. This is even more true when one expands one’s perspective to consider that globally dominant nations are fighting over resources and power, while still developing countries within Africa are trampled underneath. The relationship between resource availability, climate change, and armed civil conflict is worth examining. Potential explanations for these correlations are based on survival; those who live in poverty and have limited access to the resources needed for survival are more likely to turn to rebellion as a means of coping. Similarly, those who are victimized by resulting violence are usually just as vulnerable to primary effects of climate change and may be less resilient when faced by such tremendous harms. The global security concerns surrounding armed conflict in developing nations cannot be solved without considering the environment and the limitless toll Western nations continue to exert on a limited environment.



Meagan Cain is a recent MPH graduate from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Northern Colorado. Meagan’s focus, Community Health, has enabled her to explore issues in gender violence and development in post-conflict settings around the world. She has spoken at conferences around the U.S. on gender and health and most recently finished her Capstone project based on her experiences with vulnerable populations in Nepal following the 2015 earthquakes. Meagan has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the 2015 Lauren M. Johnson International Human Rights Award and the 2015 Society of Public Health Education Student Award.

IMAGE: “Mauritania Village Struck by Drought” by United Nations Photo/John Isaac. CC 2.0 



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