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16 August 2013

Climate Change, Migration and Conflict

Water Tap
Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported

Water Tap

Here’s an uncommon question – What role has climate change played in the Arab Spring and how has it acted as a ‘threat multiplier’ in the Middle East? This collection of essays from the Stimson Center explains how the region’s changing climate is indeed helping exacerbate different forms of unrest.

By Max Hoffman and Michael Werz for Stimson Center

The end of the Cold War unleashed arrested development potential in emerging countries previously frozen by the superpower confrontation and ushered in a new global arrangement. The traditional strategic geometry, wherein distinct nation-states or blocs of nation-states vied for influence, has faded from significance in a rapidly changing globalized world. While state-level interaction is still central to the world order, many of the largest challenges facing the global community—from climate change and migration to terrorism, from trafficking to disease, and from resource conflicts to food security—transcend international borders.

But there is only limited understanding of this transformation among national leaders, and many still try to interpret this new reality through the dated categories of the 20th century. It is important to acknowledge that security in one place is irrevocably linked to stability in distant regions, and thus can no longer be guaranteed through military might or economic clout alone. In the 21st century, security will be defined more broadly than has been the tradition—and will be guided by the ability to compel collective action to address fundamental transnational problems within a rapidly changing environment.

A second consequence of these new global connections is that emerging societies will increasingly play a defining role in geopolitics, as well as in the international economy. The industrialized democracies that carry most of the burden for global stability and development aid will have to manage a new modus vivendi in which they are one of many major forces steering the economic and strategic dialogue. In other words, the West must revisit and restructure its security and development policies, adapting them to a new environment while coping with imminent budget austerity in order to gracefully manage the multilateral challenges we face.

The nexus between climate change, human migration, and instability constitutes just such a transcendent challenge. The conjunction of these undercurrents was most recently visible during the Arab Spring, where food availability, increasing food prices, drought, and poor access to water, as well as urbanization and international migration contributed to the pressures that underpinned the political upheaval.

[Briefly, a note on causality: It is important to emphasize that the relationship between these three factors is not a matter of direct causality or inevitable progression, but rather can be described as a complex pattern of overlapping stressors with the potential to undermine social stability or national security. It would be overly simplistic to argue that climate change caused the Arab Spring, but it is equally important to point out that important contributing causes and accelerants of unrest had their roots in climate change and human mobility.]

Half a decade ago the United Nations concluded that anthropogenic climate change was observable in shifting air and ocean temperatures, in the widespread melting of snow and ice, and in rising sea levels.[1] The major scientific indicators have not improved over the past five years. Climate change is real, it is visible and even immediate global action—a forlorn hope—could not completely mitigate its effects. As a result, much of the Middle East and North Africa will face drier winters, diminishing freshwater runoff, and dwindling groundwater resources as the century progresses.[2] Overall, approximately 250 million people in Africa are projected to suffer from water and food insecurity during the 21st century, and coastal agricultural zones around the Mediterranean will face erosion and salinization of freshwater sources. [3] These changing environmental conditions will likely increase pressure on traditional livelihoods such as farming, fishing, and herding, rendering them unsustainable in the most-affected areas.

As demonstrated in earlier chapters of this volume, these repercussions were felt extensively across the Mediterranean littoral in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. World Bank data underscore the stress caused by dwindling renewable freshwater resources and rapid population growth: In 2009, for example, Libyans had access to only 95.8 cubic meters of renewable freshwater resources per capita, and Syrians had access to just 356 cubic meters per capita. These per-capita water figures were down significantly from 2002 and were below the Arab world’s average of nearly 400 cubic meters, were well below the global average of 6,258 cubic meters, and very short of the U.N. scarcity level of 1,000 cubic meters. [4]

Moreover, as highlighted by Francesco Femia and Caitlin E. Werrell in the previous chapter of this volume, Syria suffered from devastating droughts in the decade leading up to the rebellion, with the country’s total water resources cut in half between 2002 and 2008. [5] The drier winters hit the top wheat-growing regions of the eastern Mediterranean country hardest, exacerbating the crisis.[6] Yemen, too, suffered from dwindling water resources and clashes over illicit wells.[7] The Federation of American Scientists predicted that Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a, could empty its freshwater aquifers by the end of the decade and linked water scarcity and internally displaced people to some of the violence in the country. [8] And Algeria saw repeated violent protests over soaring food prices which drew on the anger and desperation of large numbers of young unemployed urban residents— many of whom moved to cities in the wake of deteriorating agricultural conditions and the armed conflicts of the 1990s.[9]

Deteriorating environmental circumstances have historically driven people to turn to migration as an adaptive mechanism, and it is more than likely that the stresses of climate change will increase human mobility around the world going forward. Even if most climate migrants—people displaced by the slow or sudden onset of climate change—move only short distances, these shifts have the potential to alter political dynamics, increase ethnic tensions, or provoke clashes over resources.

As mentioned previously in this volume, a similar reaction was displayed in Syria, where the devastating impact of prolonged drought on agricultural livelihoods drove an estimated 50,000 Syrian families to migrate from rural areas to cities in 2010 alone. [10] In 2002 more than 30 percent of Syrians were employed in the agricultural sector; by 2010 agricultural workers represented less than 15 percent of Syria’s overall workforce.[11]

Similar trends were at work in Northern Africa. Tunisia saw its rural population begin to decline in 2010, despite growth in the overall population, and the rural population is projected to decline by nearly half a percentage point between 2010 and 2015.[12] While drought and environmental degradation are not the only contributing factors, substantial rural dislocation within such a short period of time has significant consequences.

For one, the ranks of the urban unemployed increase due to rising numbers of migrants from rural areas, which can create anger or disillusionment, particularly when food prices rise and freshwater becomes scarcer. Social and health care services can be strained and infrastructure overwhelmed by large numbers of such new arrivals. Additionally, the influx of new groups of people can potentially heighten ethnic, religious, or tribal tensions when diverse groups are thrust together in tight quarters amid dwindling resources.

The added stress of migration can develop not only within the affected countries themselves but at a regional level as well. Libya’s large immigrant population, for example—nearly 700,000 foreigners were living in the country in 2010, constituting more than 10 percent of the total population—includes many sub-Saharan and Sahelian migrants.[13] While migrants are influenced by a matrix of motivations— including economic opportunity created by Libya’s strong growth in the past decade—drought, water scarcity, desertification, or other forms of environmental degradation also contributed directly or indirectly in many migrants’ decision to relocate. Indeed, Libya stands at the end of well-established migratory routes linking sending countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali to the Mediterranean coast and Europe.

Drought and desertification across much of the Sahel—for example, northern Nigeria is losing 1,350 square miles per year to desertification—have undermined agricultural and pastoral livelihoods and have contributed to and complicated these migratory routes.[14] In the Libyan uprising, many migrants were caught up in the fighting, and the perception that Qaddafi relied on immigrants from sub-Saharan and Sahelian Africa as mercenaries led to mistreatment and reprisals by revolutionary fighters. Additionally, many sub-Saharan African migrants arrived in the oil-rich country looking for work and are seen as having “taken” jobs from the Libyans, raising tensions and weakening the social fabric. Syria’s challenges with migration have taken a different form, coping with the presence of more than 1 million Iraqi refugees residing in Syria who fled Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.[15]

Climate and environmental change as a multiplier of instability

The purpose of this chapter is not to argue that all migrants are driven by environmental conditions, nor to say that the influx of migrants is an inevitable cause of conflict. Longstanding political grievances, ethnic and sectarian mistrust, and economic marginalization were driving forces during the upheaval of the Arab Spring. But climate change contributed to high food prices and shortages, which were a central grievance. Water scarcity and illegal water use angered those on the margins. The balance of traditional rural society was upset and livelihoods were undermined— incrementally and suddenly—by drier winters, changing rainfall patterns, depleted wells and aquifers, drought, and desertification. Changing environmental conditions contributed to and accelerated migratory flows, which swelled marginalized urban populations and brought diverse tribal, ethnic, and religious groups into close contact while straining states’ capacity to cope with the needs of the populace. Northern Africa is only one of many examples where the nexus of climate change, migration, and conflict multiplies the pressure on governments in vulnerable regions around the globe. Human migration driven by environmental degradation, the social conflict caused, in part, by this migration, and competition for more scarce resources all add complexity to existing and future crisis scenarios. For this reason, it is important that governments plan to address these new threats.

Environmental degradation, the movement of people from rural areas to already-overcrowded cities, and rising food prices exacerbate the cumulative effects of long-term economic and political failures in a number of vulnerable regions of the world. Indeed, just such a complex crisis has developed in Mali over the past two years, when longstanding ethnic divides between north and south, political grievances based on historical marginalization and abandonment in the face of drought, and the return of Tuareg men with weapons and training from the Libyan conflict have combined to create a volatile situation. Understanding the nexus of climate change, migration, and security will be critical to understanding future complex crisis scenarios and developing effective policy responses.

A new approach to security

Given the shape of these challenges, a new approach is necessary. The United States, its allies, and the global community must de-emphasize traditional notions of hard security more suited to the Cold War, and should focus on more appropriate concepts such as human security, livelihood protection, and sustainable development. These new approaches offer cost-effective and proactive means to reduce the risks of conflict and improve global security. Particularly in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa, where the United States is often mistrusted, focusing on basic human security offers a constructive, unthreatening, and smart way to interact strategically with new and existing governments, improve lives, and help protect American interests along with democratic livelihoods. Many of the traditional tools of international policy built up over the past half-century, however, are ill-suited to these tasks. Military force and existing modes of security cooperation are blunt instruments with which to address the complex problems facing a newly decentralized world. The traditional institutional divisions between defense, diplomacy, and development make it difficult to find practical solutions to problems that require cohesive responses. But understanding of these shortcomings is improving, and institutional reforms are underway—for instance, through the implementation of the U.S. State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.[16] This path for reforming institutional arrangements and broadening the so-called toolbox for U.S. foreign engagement should be supported and expanded. Managing the complex consequences of this intersection is daunting, but the United States and its allies should use this as an opportunity to formulate a blueprint for collective action and 21st century foreign policy.

Domestic and international obstacles

The ability of the United States to address these issues and provide the necessary international leadership is complicated by domestic climate-change skeptics, particularly in Congress, who reject the overwhelming consensus of the global scientific community and policymakers in virtually every country in the world. This doubt, in the face of all evidence, has not prevented the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Defense from moving forward with initiatives to address the effects of climate change, from preparing for impacts to facilities, and from forecasting likely crisis scenarios. But the lack of serious support from Congress will affect funding for these priorities and cannot be circumvented indefinitely. On the international level, political differences between nations weaken the ability of multilateral organizations such as the World Bank or regional development banks to focus on the nexus of climate change, migration, and conflict in an effective way. The United Nations is poorly equipped to take collective action outside of a case-by-case basis where consensus among specific members has been achieved. Expecting the organization to tackle the nexus of climate change, migration, and conflict is therefore unrealistic. This is particularly true given the likelihood that future conflicts are unlikely to be clearly defined as being caused by climate change or migration. Concerted action by the G-20 is not much more realistic due to its focus on economic and financial issues, compounded by the diversity of member-states’ interests, which prevents the development of effective political measures.

Conclusion: A blueprint for sustainable security in the region

Yet the response to the nexus of climate change, migration, and security—particularly in the Middle East and North Africa—offers a test case, an opportunity to form a blueprint for sustainable security. Managing these issues in conjunction with the nascent governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya could provide for a new context within which regional civilian institutions could work on these issues with support from military alliances, if necessary. In addition, there are opportunities for emerging democratic powers, including Brazil, Turkey, or South Africa, to lead a rethinking of global policy and foster the creation of sustainable security apparatuses capable of mitigating, adapting, and reacting to the increasingly challenging effects of climate change and human migration.

Within the United States, a more forward-looking understanding of security could allow for a badly needed rebalancing of the division of resources between the military and nonmilitary instruments of international policy. The challenges presented by transnational problems and new geopolitical arrangements provide an opportunity for a fresh progressive approach to global interaction.

[1] U .N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report” (2007), available at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] World Bank, “Renewable internal freshwater resources per capita (cubic meters),” available at (last accessed May 2012).

[5] Worth, “Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived.”

[6] Erian, Katlan, and Babah, “Drought vulnerability in the Arab region.”

[7] See, for example: Thomas L. Friedman, “The Other Arab Spring,” The New York Times, April 7, 2012, available at; Tom Finn, “Yemenis take to the streets calling for President Saleh to step down,” The Guardian, January 27, 2011, available at .

[8] Lindsay Marburger, “Security in Yemen: Thinking Beyond Terrorism,” FAS in a Nutshell, October 14, 2010, available at .

[9] BBC News, “Fresh rioting breaks out in Algerian capital Algiers,” January 7, 2011, available at

[10] Worth, “Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived.”

[11] World Bank, “World Development Indicators – Employment in agriculture (% of total employment),” available at (last accessed April 2012).

[12] U.N. Statistics Division, “Tunisia Country Profile,” available at (last accessed May 2012); U.N.Population Division, “Urbanization Prospects, Country Profile: Tunisia,” available at (last accessed May 2012).

[13] Dilip Ratha, Sanket Mohapatra, and Ani Silwal,“The Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011:Libya,” (World Bank, 2011), available at /Resources /334934-1199807908806/Libya.pdf

[14] For more on these patterns and the environmental stresses which contribute to and complicate the migratory flows, see: Michael Werz and Laura Conley, “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa: Rising Dangers and Policy Options Across the Arc of Tension,” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2012), available at

[15] UNHCR, “2012 UNHCR country operations profile –Syrian Arab Republic” (2012), available at

[16] U.S. Department of State/USAID, “The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review: Leading Through Civilian Power” (2010), available at

Max Hoffman is a Research Associate on the National Security & International Policy team at American Progress, focusing on the U.S. defense budget and the intersection of climate change, human migration, and security concerns.

Dr. Michael Werz is Adjunct Professor at the BMW Center for German & European Studies and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. He works as Senior Fellow at the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC.

Editor's note:

This is Chapter Four of The Arab Spring and Climate Change, originally published by the Stimson Center in February 2013. It is also available in the ISN Digital Library.


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