Climate change, water stress 'worsening conflict' in Yemen, South Sudan

Climate change, water stress 'worsening conflict' in Yemen, South Sudan
Experts say increasing water scarcity is intensifying conflict in Yemen and South Sudan.
3 min read
29 August, 2019
Water has become a 'weapon of war' in Yemen [Getty]
Local conflicts are growing worse due to tensions such as climate change and water stress, experts and officials said on Wednesday.

While social and political tensions exacerbated by climate change are yet to have started international military conflicts, experts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday that issues such as drought and water scarcity have already played a role in increasing the frequency and intensity of local conflicts.

Yemen and South Sudan are among countries particularly affected by the phenomenon, Johan Schaar of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said.

Climate change has cause a shortened and delayed rainy season in South Sudan.

With almost 80 percent of the young country's population affected by drought and floods, according to undersecretary at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Alier Oka, resource competition is increasing tribal conflict.

"Climate change has impacted resources. Rainfall variability is the key issue," he told the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.

Reduced rainfull has pushed some herders to consider moving to new areas in search of water and pasture, where they are running into problems with settled farmers.

Cattle looting and tribal conflict have increased as a result, Oka said.

Water scarcity was a key contributing factor to the beginning of tribal conflicts in Darfur.

Read more: How drinking water has become a major conflict deterrence factor in the Gulf region

Water stress has also turned deadly in Yemen, which has been in a state of civil war since 2015 that the United Nations has termed the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

With half of Yemen's population having no access to safe drinking water - already a scarce resource in the poverty-stricken country before the war broke out - water has become "weaponised", said Muna Luqman, chair of Food4Humanity, a local charity.

Both sides involved in the conflict have targeted water as a "tool of war", Luqman explained.

"[Fighters] speak about freedom and human rights... while they kill and maim women fetching water for their starving families," she said.

It's "certain that Yemen is one of the countries most affected by climate change," Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi, the Yemeni Deputy Water and Environment Minister, told The New Arab in April.

"There have been notable differences in the seasons and the quantities of rainfall – in addition to the repeated hurricanes that have hit the Yemeni coasts, the high temperatures, and other environmental issues."

Such problems are likely to spread to other countries in the world in the near future.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, more than half of the world's population is expected to live in water-scarce areas by 2050.

By then, millions of people in countries including China and India could fall victim to drought and floods.

Water stress has the potential to destabilise communities and increase conflict on the local and regional levels, experts say.

Middle Eastern nations form a majority of countries currently facing extremely high water stress, a recent report said.

According to the World Resources Institute's Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, released earlier this month, Qatar faces the highest water stress in the world, with Lebanon not far behind.

Participants at the World Economic Forum's 2019 annual meeting in Davos also ranked the threat of a water crisis as the biggest single risk facing North Africa and the Middle East.

Fellow Gulf states Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all ranked in the top ten, respectively facing the 7th, 8th and 10th highest levels of water stress.

In between Lebanon and Kuwait came Israel, Iran, Jordan and Libya.

Already conflict-stricken nations including Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were ranked among the countries facing high water stress.

Experts say rising wet bulb temperatures - an index which reflects the combined effects of heat and humidity - could render parts of the Middle East practically uninhabitable during the summer within the next 50 years.

Climate change will also put increasing stress in agriculture on the region, where the World Bank predicts water availability per capita will be halved by 2050.