Whether and how climate change drives conflict has driven considerable debate over the past decade. Yet understandings of climate-conflict remain general, and in many respects, unsettled. A recent assessment of potential future directions for climate-conflict research highlights the need to go beyond generalities and deepen insight into the contextual mechanisms that link climate change to conflict. That type of knowledge requires in-depth studies that trace climate-conflict dynamics in particular places and times. In an article recently published in Climate and Development, I examine how climate change alters conflict outcomes and vulnerability in Karamoja, Uganda. The case offers direct insight into both why the climate-conflict relationship can be so difficult to interpret and also the need to broaden conceptualizations of the climate-conflict relationship.
Karamoja is an arid region in the northeast of Uganda. Annual rainfall varies, but averages roughly 800mm/year, falling unimodally (i.e., rainfall in a single, continuous season traditionally from roughly April to October). Therefore, those living in Karamoja have historically relied on pastoralism and agropastoralism as their primary sources of livelihood. Mobility serves as a hedge to the region’s natural rainfall variability and long dry seasons.
Karamoja is also recovering from decades of intense violent conflict. This violence manifested most commonly as large-scale cattle raids between pastoralist groups of different ethnicities. There were a multitude of factors that drove this violence, including a proliferation of small arms which escalated following the fall of Idi Amin’s government in 1979, the commercialization of cattle raiding, and environmental shocks leading to high rates of cattle loss. Collectively, these led to the breakdown of traditional governance systems that had historically governed the raids and, as a result, retaliations and counter-retaliations that grew increasingly violent; at the peak of its violence, Karamoja was one of the most violent places on the planet.
Though the central government was able to quell that violence with a disarmament campaign the disarmament itself was incredibly violent with multiple accusations of human rights violations. Moreover, the disarmament was implemented as part of the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme, which further reordered socioeconomic structures by putting an emphasis on a transition from pastoralism and agropastoralism to other sedentary forms of livelihoods.
The impacts of climate change on conflict in Karamoja
The lasting vulnerabilities brought about by its violent past and rapidly changing socioeconomic structures has made Karamoja particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Both the literature describing climate change in Karamoja and those interviewed for this study detailed increasing rainfall variability, a shorter rainy season, and a longer, more intense dry season. Those impacts have, in turn, compromised livelihoods and put new pressures on socioeconomic systems. Those pressures—many of which are connected to land rights, access, and use—led one research participant to succinctly describe the situation as follows:
“Land is now the biggest gun.”
This phrasing is telling. First, it reveals how the character of conflict in Karamoja has shifted. Where conflict was once defined by armed violence and large-scale cattle raids, contemporary conflict is driven by pressures on key resources and a shifting political ecology. Research participants consistently described how increasing climatic variability and unpredictability have resulted in theft, small-scale clashes over key resources, and even intrahousehold violence.
Second, though it is easy to mistake the notion that ‘land is now the biggest gun’ as simply meaning that conflict is now over land, this turn of phrase reflects something larger. It demonstrates that climate change has come to be seen as a form of violence unto itself. Though no one discounted the sobering realities of the region’s recent past, participants often drew direct contrast between climate change and ‘the gun’ or climate change and ‘those days’—a term used to describe the years of extreme violence. For example, in reflecting on how both economic progress in the region as well as shifting rainfall patterns have altered Karamoja, a village representative and former pastoralist described frustration with the changes that have challenged his identity and his ability to utilize the skills he developed as a pastoralist. He, like many others, saw a paradox. Though his physical safety has improved, he now also faces insidious forms of insecurity that he is ill-equipped to manage.
People say there is development. I see the iron sheets. I see the tarmac. But I am pale. My muscles are thin. I don’t take milk. Those days, even when there was the gun, we were under trees and I looked healthy. I was strong. We were taking milk. We were taking meat. I had cattle; I was a rich man. Now we are vulnerable.
Better conceptualizing climate-conflict: embracing ambiguity
The relationship between climate change and conflict in Karamoja offers important insights for both practitioners and academics. First, it reveals how the lens one takes to examine climate-conflict connections can inform one’s conclusion. That is, though the data demonstrate that increasing climatic variability is contributing to localized conflict outcomes in the region, the severity of conflict has become decreased even as the impacts of climate change have become more severe. This provides clarity on why there are so many contrasting views about the climate-conflict relationship. In other words, the way one opts to measure the impact of climate change on conflict in Karamoja would greatly affect one’s interpretation of this case. That ostensible contradiction mirrors climate-conflict dynamics that are global in scale.
Second, this case further clarifies why it is so challenging to distinguish between climate change, security, and other features of a place’s political ecology. Though I purposely separated questions about climate change and questions about conflict during data collection, participants’ answers to both sets of conflicts greatly overlapped. In near-equal measure, no matter the question, people made reference to climate change, conflict, and the cascading threats that connect the two (e.g., food insecurity, theft, and resource conflict). Put simply, it was overlap and interaction, not causality, that defined participants’ experience of climate change and conflict. This conceptualization does more than offer an alternative framing for the relationship between climate change and conflict. As I will explore in a follow-on posting, it also opens up productive avenues to address climate-conflict linkages.
Daniel Abrahams is an American Association for the Academy of Sciences (AAAS) Fellow serving as the Technical Lead and Field Advisor on the Natural Climate Solutions team at USAID. Daniel Abrahams was not at USAID when the research for the current paper was conducted. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily the views and opinions of the United States Agency for International Development.
Sources: Climate and Development, Earth’s Future, Elgar Research Agendas, Feinstein International Center, International Journal of Environmental Studies, Land Use Policy, Nomadic Peoples, Progress in Human Geography, Small Arms Survey, U.S. Agency for International Development.