In Sudan, “climate wars” are useful scapegoats for bad leaders

By Harry Verhoeven | March 11, 2024

Photo by Yiannis Mantas via Adobe.
Photo by Yiannis Mantas via Adobe.

Sudan is widely considered one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. It features consistently near the top of various vulnerability rankings—and for good reason. Not only is Sudan already among the hottest countries on Earth, it also experiences some of the highest rainfall variability in the world. This is true across much of northern, western, and central Sudan, with precipitation historically either bucketing down during short growing seasons, or not at all.

In 2013, 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023, flooding displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens, devastated harvests in almost all eighteen regional states, killing hundreds of people and thousands of livestock. This contrasts with droughts becoming more frequent and protracted—such dry spells have been linked to the advancing desert boundary, which has migrated south by hundreds of kilometers between 1958 and 2013. This creates challenges for dryland forests, which a team of conservation researchers at the University of Khartoum labelled, “a first and last line of defense against southward desertification,” making them crucial to climate adaptation strategies of local communities.

The high level of variability has led Sudanese climate scholar Sumaya Ahmed Zakieldeen to note that Sudan’s “[e]xtreme years [ … ] are more common than average years.” This complexity of the water cycle complicates planning for the vast majority of Sudanese, whose livelihoods depend on rain-fed agriculture, livestock rearing, and the resultant need for grazing pastures.

Many policymakers and journalists often attribute Sudan’s myriad bloody conflicts and the resultant immense suffering to the underlying cause of climate change and the country’s daunting ecology, which they claim incites violence over water and other scarce resources. However, the evidence that desertification or droughts explain the outbreak of violence is considerably weaker than assumed. Rather, such environmental determinism has its roots in colonial imaginations of non-European environments and is being used today by authoritarian strongmen from Sudan and beyond to distract from their own failures of governance and active role in impoverishing communities.

Correlation is not causation. The concurrence of environmental degradation, worsening climatic change, and widespread violence has underpinned a multitude of claims, mostly in public policy circles and by journalists, that these conflicts are the world’s first “climate wars.” Concerns are frequently raised over how climate change is already altering supply and demand patterns across the Nile Basin, raising anxiety in how downstream states like Egypt and Sudan perceive their security—perhaps, many speculate, someday they might confront upstream states like Ethiopia in much prophesized “water wars.” Some observers go even further to contend that the inter-ethnic killings in places like Darfur prove that this dystopian future is already here.

According to the German scholar-activist Harald Welzer, “Sudan is the first case of a war-torn country where climate change is unquestionably one cause of violence and civil war.… To look at Sudan is to look into the future.” Writing in his capacity as UN Secretary-General in 2007, Ban Ki-Moon posited that “the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change [ … ] It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought.” Indeed, pundits speculate that climate-induced conflicts in Sudan are at the heart of an “arc of instability” in the Horn of Africa and Sahelian Africa in which environmental shifts are breeding public health crises, displacement, and societal and transboundary violence.

Yet there are several problems with this narrative of “climate wars” or “water wars.” First, the empirical evidence to substantiate that declining water availability and climatic shifts are pushing various population groups to wage war with each other in Darfur—and elsewhere in Sudan—is tenuous at best. The available longitudinal meteorological data for Sudan is imperfect but what it reveals is striking. Rainfall in most of Western Sudan did not precipitously drop in the years prior to the eruption of large-scale civil war in the early 2000s—in fact, the 30-year average before then, going back to the 1970s, was essentially flat. Furthermore, there was no increase in conflict in most of Darfur during and after periods of drought. If anything, the evidence points to the opposite. As noted succinctly by Alexander de Juan, a scholar of conflict, “violence has been more likely and intense in areas that experienced increasing availability of water and vegetative resources during the [20] years prior to the civil war.” Such findings challenge the logic of scarcity-induced conflicts, whether in Sudan or elsewhere. Moreover, it corresponds with numerous in-depth studies of Syria, where the post-2011 civil war has also often been wrongly described as the result of drought and global warming.

The underwater Amazon: Kelp forests are crucial to the fight against climate change. Here's how they could be saved.

Second, today’s fixation with Sudan’s natural resources, or increasing lack thereof, forms part of an older, troubling history of environmental determinism in Africa and the Middle East. The idea that environmental factors predestine social and political outcomes—hot climates causing poverty or water scarcity explaining why non-Western societies are prone to authoritarian rule—has been challenged for decades by anthropologists, historians, and social scientists. However, this trope lives on in 21st century storylines of “climate wars.” Environmental determinism provided a pretext for imperialism in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East: The European obsession with “fragile” environments and “degraded” landscapes legitimized the resettlement and reallocation of land. Never mind the local populations and the lands they cultivated or let their animals graze on. Arguing that climate and racial biology made Africans and Arabs more violent and wasteful led to the entwining of social and environmental control under the aegis of “benevolent” colonial government.

Unsurprisingly, the environmental determinism of the “climate wars” sort has also appealed to many post-colonial African regimes, including in Sudan. Blaming the climate for water scarcity, land degradation, and rural poverty conveniently deflects scrutiny from how governments pursue exclusionary policies that favor urban constituencies, privilege access to water and land for well-connected agro-businesses, and underinvest in rural communities. The military-Islamist “Al-Ingaz” regime that ruled Sudan between 1989 and 2019 eagerly reinforced tropes about Darfur as an environmental conflict in which hapless victims of global climate change fought each other. The regime used the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council (ESPAC), a UK-based organization run by David Hoile, to insist this was an ecologically driven resource war between Darfurians: “[T]here is no doubt that climate change and directly related environmental degradation have served to underpin the politics of conflict in Darfur.” ESPAC accused the U.S. and Western NGOs of seeking to balkanize Sudan and was widely believed to be funded by the Sudanese government to promote the climate war narrative and generally absolve the regime of wrongdoing through propaganda.

These tropes—that the Darfur conflict reflects ancient tribal hatreds reinvigorated by drought—were also referenced by Al-Ingaz leaders as they were investigated, and later charged, by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Pointing to the “apolitical” climate as causing the massacres in western Sudan was intended to shield an authoritarian government from accountability for its own divide-and-rule policies. Similar invocations of global warming to distract from the political failures that render marginalized people prone to hazards can be observed across the world.

Not a poor country. A more nuanced analysis of political violence and vulnerability to climate impacts in Sudan therefore concentrates on what both these phenomena share as a common cause: execrable governance. Decades of exclusionary and extractive government policies have contributed to an agrarian crisis that is tearing apart communities, rendering them and the country susceptible to various shocks such as  flash foods, political turmoil in Khartoum, and the spillover of conflict from Sudan’s neighbors.

Sudan is not a poor country. Rather, it is a country with an extraordinary amount of very poor people—most of them with rural livelihoods that directly depend on livestock or harvests. While the country’s elite has deep global ties and benefited from an oil bonanza worth tens of billions of dollars in the 2000s, even during times of relative peace, before the latest civil war erupted, almost 12 million Sudanese were estimated to be in food crisis or worse during the lean season. After the 2022-2023 harvest, nearly eight million remained acutely food insecure. Today, Sudan is once more on the verge of full-blown famine. This is despite the fact that almost every international report dealing with Sudan’s natural resources opens with the observation that, potentially, this could be one of the world’s granaries—that it ought to not only be feeding itself, but arguably its neighbors, too.

At the heart of Sudan’s vulnerability to both climate impacts and conflict sits a broken developmental model that has been pursued for a century and is couched in the stereotypes of environmental determinism. Political power in Sudan is concentrated in Khartoum and the supposedly “naturally fertile” riverain core of the state, with its millennia of connections to the “Nile-given” bounty of ancient Egyptian civilization. Successive elites have consolidated their authority at the center while seeking to extend control over the peripheries, where pauperism and hunger have always been explained as the result of climate, culture, and mismanagement. What such stereotyping has long veiled is how critical coercive resource extraction—of slaves, gold, cattle, cotton, oil, and much else—from these regions to the areas adjacent to the Nile has been to the building of the Sudanese state, the enrichment of its elites, and the objectives of their foreign allies.

Sudan’s bountiful resources are mostly situated in the hinterland beyond the Nile. Starting under Anglo-Egyptian colonialism and continuing after independence, government policy has typically buttressed a perverse redistribution from the poor to the privileged. This has been evident in how different regimes have massively favored irrigated and mechanized agriculture through lavish subsidies, tax exemptions, and infrastructural investments at the expense of Sudan’s so-called “traditional sector,” which comprises the vast majority of subsistence farmers in the peripheries. With the stroke of a pen, presidents have expropriated vast tracts of land for capital-intensive irrigated and mechanized production, for hydro-electric dams, and for foreign investments into cattle ranches and the growing of fodder for animals in the Middle East. Sudan’s financial institutions—most of them either government-owned or closely aligned with the ruling regime—have underpinned these ventures with extensive loans, while largely denying small-scale farmers meaningful access to credit. These processes are at the heart of the country’s deep agrarian crisis: they have shrunken rural Sudan’s commons, destroyed tightly-knit communities, and fomented conflict between pastoralists and farmers.

The underwater Amazon: Kelp forests are crucial to the fight against climate change. Here's how they could be saved.

The latter is a direct result of the fact that nomadic corridors have been diverted and forced pastoralists to herd their animals over or graze on the remaining land of farmers, not least in Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Indeed, as Sudanese governments have struggled to service their debts and to access international capital, they have turned to Gulf economies like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Soaring Sudanese livestock exports to these markets have been facilitated by “militarized livestock production” and the ruthless large-scale land clearance and capture of boreholes, prying these away from weaker pastoralist groups and sedentary farming communities.

Reconsidering violence and climate interactions. Today’s civil war is chiefly a dogfight between SAF and the RSF, both of whom have institutionally profited from their growing involvement in these exploitative production processes and have been among the major beneficiaries of the political struggles that have kept Sudan’s broken development model going. But underlying this recent conflict is the dispossession of millions of rural citizens, whose resources are confiscated and whose poverty helps elucidate why so many Western Sudanese men nonetheless enlist in armies that have enforced their marginality. It is that same agrarian crisis that explains why the resilience of farmers and pastoralists to increasingly frequent droughts is weakened and why flooding has had such devastating impacts. Rural Sudan is not war-torn because of a changing climate. Rather, it is acutely vulnerable to a changing climate because of violence and mismanagement by Sudanese elites—with the language of climate wars and environmental determinism serving to obscure their manifest crimes and failures.

Maps by Erik English. Map data from Copernicus Climate Atlas (O'Neill et al. 2016CDS catalogue).

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