puzzling pieces together
Reflections on the situation in Sudan
While poverty, a long history of oppression, inequality, power struggles, greed of military leaders and poor governance are the main causes of conflict in Sudan, and the mechanisms of the longstanding crisis in Darfur are also lingering, there is in addition an environmental dimension to the war that should not be forgotten. Although the link between climate change and conflict in the current crisis in Sudan is small compared to the main causes, the situation will further weaken particularly vulnerable communities in the country's periphery, making it difficult for them to adapt to the changing landscape and continue environmentally sensitive economic activities in a harsh climate.

Author: Anne van Leeuwen, Hudara

Another conflict in Sudan

It is now over a month ago that an armed conflict erupted in Sudan and the violence shows little sign of diminishing. Those who had the financial means to flee have mostly done so, while those left behind are facing a severe humanitarian crisis, especially those located in the capital Khartoum, where people are locked up in their houses with scarce access to food, water, and medical care.

Flashbacks to the Darfur crisis

The current conflict has strong ties to another recent armed confrontation in Sudan, the war in Darfur, which lasted from about 2003 to 2011 and has resulted in regular violence in the area to this day. There are two current warring factions: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The latter is rooted in the notorious Janjaweed paramilitary group, which was commissioned by former president Omar al-Bashir to quash the rebellion, in the process wreaking havoc on the villages of Darfur and committing massive violence.

Was climate change one of the causes?

The war in Darfur has been called “the first climate change conflict”, but as Verhoeven (2011) suggests, this narrative needs nuance. It is true that Darfur’s harsh climate has a limited water supply that both tribes of nomadic pastoralists and sedentary agriculturalists depend on, while rainfall has dropped significantly over the last decades. The expansion of the Sahara Desert southward by nearly a mile per year and the 15-30% decline in average annual rainfall, began long before the outbreak of war in Darfur in 2003, and forced farmers to change their practices. While Arab pastoralists and sedentary farmers in the past maintained a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and nomadic activities, the effects of climate change made this much more difficult. Sedentary farmers started to claim control over previously shared assets such as land and water. This denied pastoralists more and more access to traditional grazing areas and undermined the long-standing interdependence between the two groups (Kamen, 2021). However, this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A history of colonialism and national power struggles

Sudan has a complex history of violence rooted in colonialism, but one constant runs as a thread through the last two centuries: a string of consecutive regimes – whether foreign occupiers or local political elites – based in the Nile valley around Khartoum, that exploit and marginalise communities in the outer provinces, while at the same time blocking economic development. In Darfur, this has meant a divide-and-rule tactic and manipulation of land use, benefiting some at the expense of others. For the nomadic tribes, it was the loss of access to land, and thereby water for their cattle, rather than land degradation caused by climate change, that led them to eventually pick up weapons against the regime.

In the years in-between wars some efforts were made for climate change adaptation

Since signing the peace agreement to the Darfur war in Doha in 2011, small but hopeful steps have been taken in rebuilding trust among different communities, while at the same time making the local populations more resilient to climate change. One such example is a project in Wadi el-Ku in Northern Darfur, where people from both pastoralist and agriculturalist communities have come together to build small scale weirs in the seasonal river, thereby slowing down its flow and allowing the water to seep into the land, making it more fertile for agriculture. Tellingly, one community member is quoted as saying: “The government fuelled us to fight against each other, but we have realised we were being misused. We got sick of the conflict. Now we want to live in peace. Our fathers and grandfathers used to live in peace” (Carrington, 2019).

What will the future bring?

The tragedy is, of course, that the current violence in Sudan will force people to flee from their land, leading to the destruction of fragile community ties, as well as the loss of a wealth of local climatic knowledge and traditional land use practices among different communities, passed on for generations. It can only be hoped that the current conflict will soon end, putting a stop to the bloodshed and suffering, because it is up to the local communities to address the effects of the climate catastrophe that is building up. Without peace and functioning governance structures, conservation and equitable access to resources becomes increasingly challenging, and the region is put in higher danger of climate disasters and further conflict (Buhaug, 2022).



Buhaug, H. (2022). Armed conflict and climate change: how these two threats play out in Africa. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/armed-conflict-and-climate-change-how-these-two-threats-play-out-in-africa-193865

Carrington, D. (2019).How water is helping to end ‘the first climate change war’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/18/how-water-is-helping-to-end-the-first-climate-change-war

Kamen, S. (2021). The World’s First Climate Change Conflict Continues. Darfur is now on its own, fighting a forgotten war compounded by climate change. Think Global Health. https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/worlds-first-climate-change-conflict-continues

Verhoeven, H. (2011): “Climate Change, Conflict and Development in Sudan: Global Neo-Malthusian Narratives and Local Power Struggles.” Development and Change, 42(3): 679-707.