When conflict meets climate change, in Gaza and beyond

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People living on the front lines of conflict often find themselves on the front lines of the climate crisis as well. Many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change – including Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen – are also experiencing instability that leaves them ill-equipped to adapt to its challenges. And some are warning that the Gaza Strip will soon also be tied up in a Gordian knot where the climate crisis meets armed conflict.  


In what might seem a cruel twist of fate, countries in conflict are also among those most vulnerable to climate change. Of the 25 countries ranked most vulnerable to climate change on the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-Gain) Index in 2021, 14 are currently experiencing armed violence, including Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While there is not a direct correlation between climate change and conflict, countries at war are less able to cope with the effects of climate change because their ability to adapt is undermined by internal divisions or ongoing violence.  

Climate change can also inflame existing tensions over access to diminishing necessities.

“One exacerbates the other,” says Yvonne Su, an expert in international development and an assistant professor at York University. “If a place is climate vulnerable, people could be fighting over resources.”

Now that violence has erupted in the Gaza Strip once again, experts say its population is more vulnerable than ever. 

‘Far-reaching repercussions’

Climate change and conflict can both trigger large-scale displacement, which also places a strain on resources and can exacerbate existing tensions.

A 2020 report published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found that the ripple effects of conflict and climate change can trigger far-reaching devastation, especially with regards to land issues and resources. In an interview with the ICRC in February 2021, the former head of the organisation’s economic security programme Ibrahima Bah cited the Central African Republic as “a stark example of how far-reaching the repercussions of climate change and armed conflict can be”.

Instability in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions has pushed many cattle herders and farmers to flock to the Central African Republic in search of greener pastures for their livestock. But in a country that has been struggling with instability for more than 60 years and where food insecurity is rampant, this adds a new layer of tension. Herders no longer follow traditional migratory routes due to armed violence in the region and end up settling close to villages or fields, where they compete with locals for space and resources. Authorities who typically helped settle disputes have withdrawn from certain areas due to security concerns, and clashes have erupted as a result.

“With money to be made from the situation, we’re increasingly seeing armed groups weighing in on the violence,” Bah said in his interview.  

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Somalia, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, has suffered decades of conflict. Years of violence have been magnified by a series of severe droughts, adding pressure to the country’s state-building process but also displacing more and more people.

In July 2023, the UN reported that over 3.8 million people are displaced in Somalia due to conflict, drought and floods. Land issues and disputes resulting from this mass displacement has aggravated tensions further, according to a report by the World Bank. In South-Central Somalia for example, land occupation is a prevalent issue. Upon return, people who have been displaced internally for a long time often find their land occupied by others, leading to clashes. 

According to the UN, armed conflict and climate change are the two main drivers for food insecurity. Conflict can have drastic spill-over effects, especially when countries involved are key producers or exporters of basic goods. As Europe’s breadbasket, Ukraine accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s wheat production. Russia and Ukraine combined account for 80 percent of the world’s sunflower production. The war created a shortage of both, helping to drive up food prices across the globe.

Armed conflict can also wreak havoc on a country’s natural environment. Over 80 percent of conflicts take place in biodiversity hotspots, which support half of the world’s plants and rare species, according to the ICRC. Environmental degradation triggers a vicious cycle, not only contributing to climate change but reducing a population’s capacity to adapt to it. The proliferation of industrial sites and the destruction of green areas like forests releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while curtailing the planet’s ability to reabsorb them. 

“In general, the way in which climate change and conflict overlap has a lot to do with displacement and fighting over resources,” explains Su. “It’s like a perfect storm.”  

“And Gaza is an example of a really resource-poor situation.”  

‘No place to run’ from climate or conflict in Gaza

International organisations had been warning of the dire lack of infrastructure and sanitation in the Gaza Strip long before the war between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. Home to 2.2 million people, the strip is only 41km long and 10km wide, roughly twice the size of Washington, DC, making it one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Inhabitants systematically face shortages of food, water, electricity and health services. 

But the strip also faces rising temperatures, declining precipitation, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events, all of which are brought on by climate change, according to a June 2022 publication by the Institute for National Security Studies. 

“The primary driver of vulnerability in Gaza is conflict. And growing climate risks are exacerbating people’s vulnerability,” says Catherine-Lune Grayson, head of policy at the ICRC, who leads its work on climate issues. 

In January 2022, intense floods in Gaza damaged hundreds of buildings and put entire drainage systems out of commission, forcing people out of their homes. Were an extreme weather event to hit the area now, when access to basic needs is impossibly restricted, its local population would not have the means to cope.   

“Long-lasting occupation and blockade mean people in Gaza have more limited means than in other environments. One adaptation strategy is to move, for example, in search or more fertile land or water. That is not an option for people in Gaza,” explains Grayson.

Su adds that the impact of an extreme weather event brought on by climate change in the territory would be “immediate and horrible”. 

“There is no place to run … Where would people go to get higher ground? Where to rebuild after a disaster?”  

According to the INFORM Risk index published by the European Commission, the Palestinian Territories are among the 25 regions most vulnerable to climate change.  

Conflict shifts priorities 

Even under the best of circumstances, adapting to climate change requires a major social, economic and cultural overhaul. Entire agricultural systems may need to change to find more resistant crops to cultivate, for example, or illnesses that prop up as a result of warmer temperatures may need to be dealt with. In conflict, authorities are too focused on security to prioritise these challenges. 

“The countries ranked lowest are not only the most vulnerable to climate change but also the least ready to adapt. They could be less directly exposed [to climate change], but so unprepared to deal with any type of stressors that it can become extremely vulnerable to any type of risk,” says Grayson.  

“The consequences of conflict go beyond what we see, like death and the destruction of infrastructure. It impacts institutions themselves,” she explains. “Essential services like access to water, school and health centres can be destroyed, which will affect the economy, which will impact social cohesion, meaning there is a weakened society less able to cope with any shocks. And climate-related shocks are increasing due to climate change.” 

According to the ICRC, there is also a gap in funding for climate action between stable and fragile countries to take into account. Despite being among the most vulnerable to climate change, many countries are financially neglected.

“The reason why climate finance hardly reaches countries in conflict is because of conflict. They are environments whose institutions are not necessarily strong and easily able to channel funding, or even apply for funding,” says Grayson. “A country in conflict tends to be extremely focused, with valid reason, on restoring security on its territory … It may not be looking at the long-term impacts of climate risks.”  

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But this comes with a very important caveat, the ICRC’s head of policy points out: “Even stable countries like France or Switzerland currently struggle to adapt to a changing climate,” says Grayson. 

An additional protocol was added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 to lay out rules of war that ensure the protection of nature. International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on objects that are indispensable to the survival of civilians like agricultural areas and drinking water infrastructure.  

The ICRC is currently working on how to strengthen Gaza’s resilience in the face of current challenges. “We’re looking at, for example, how to ensure a water point can continue to function even if there is an impact on electricity production,” says Grayson.  

“We need to build resilience to shocks resulting from conflict, but also to shocks resulting from climate change.”  

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