Climate Change makes the Weaponization of Resources more effective than ever before

The danger that governments or opposition groups use resources as target or weapon is a real one. Existing evidence of the practice in several states demonstrate clear links between climate change, resource scarcity and human security.

Water point at a protection of civilians site in Juba, South Sudan. (UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis)

Till date, the relationship between climate change and peace, security and conflict has remained highly contested. While straightforward and universally valid links among these natural and social conditions will possibly never be found, the impacts of climate change are already clearly visible and require timely analysis and responses. Climatic events, water-, energy- and food scarcity, local acts of climate-related violence and displacement are realities of today. Such climate-related impacts on human security are likely to increase, probably exponentially, with mounting climate change and a continued lack of commitment to curb global warming at 1.5 C° by the member states of the Paris Climate Agreement.

It is important to note, that human insecurity, conflict and peace rarely can be attributed to any single cause. Instead, it emerges from the interaction of multiple factors impacting individuals, households and societies, with climate change being just one important factor. In this context, disentangling the use of resources as a target, weapon and tool is a promising approach to advance the highly contested debate on climate change and security.

Weaponization of resources increases 

The weaponization of resources is broadly known as environmental terrorism – the co-optation of resources to serve as both a target and instrument of armed conflict – however, recent evidence shows that this form of violence is used by different political actors and that it is not confined to armed conflict. For instance, during the war in Yemen aerial bombing from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates repeatedly targeted and destroyed Yemen’s civilian infrastructure, including water treatment and sanitation systems. In Syria and Iraq various attacks on water systems and power plants by government troops and opposition forces were reported by the media, including the bombing of water resources in 2017 by the Syrian government in Damascus that cut off water supply for 5.5 million people.

The Islamic State (IS) appropriated dams, canals and reservoirs as weapons in order to deny water to regions outside of their territories and flooded the route of approaching enemy armies. In the city of Raqqah, the IS exhausted water reserves and disrupted distribution networks, forcing residents to use untreated water, which led to the spread of waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis A and Typhoid. Moreover, they used their partial control over the country's energy infrastructure as a bargaining chip to demand payment for utility services and reportedly collected $20 every two months from business owners in exchange for electricity, water and security. Many more such examples have been reported from IS. Targeting and weaponizing resources is an integral part of the group’s strategy to monopolize power and establish a caliphate.

Populations in drought-stressed regions are particularly vulnerable

Rising climate change and a growing global population is putting significant stress on resources. Today, with the level of scarcity and vulnerability of resources becoming more pronounced, the use of resources as a target, weapon and tool can cause far more deaths, political chaos, induce larger migration flows and other adverse effects compared to previous decades. The recently published World Climate and Security Report 2020 highlights how climate change exacerbates water insecurity and represents a significant driver of instability and risk to global security. Water can be considered the most precious resource, as there exists no substitute for it. Any disruption or control thereof has the potential for causing great physical hardship, and ecological or economic damage on the impacted population and environment. The availability of water is moreover vital for food security in form of irrigation systems needed to support the agriculture sector and hydropower facilities on rivers critical for maintaining energy security. 

In effect, during conflict it has become more strategic to capture a water dam, than an oil well. Moreover, existing research highlights that populations in drought-stressed regions are particularly vulnerable to the use of resources as target, weapon and tool. It is therefore likely that climate-related impacts and environmental change will increasingly become an integral part of perpetrators’ strategies to achieve their goals. To contain such threats understanding needs to be fostered in specific contexts, including particularly climate-fragile regions and with individual case studies that analyse the concrete interplay of environmental, political, social and economic variables.


With mounting pressure on resources, responses by states are urgent

The legal norms put in place by the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) have not been effective on perpetrators misusing resources. Existing examples show persistent violations of the principles of protecting civilians and securing civilian infrastructure. Till date, only one attempt exists by the International Criminal Court to penalize the violation of the IHL in this context: Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, former president of the Republic of the Sudan was indicted, with a first warrant issued in 2009 for crimes against humanity. The charges include the use of water as a weapon via the intentional contamination of wells and water pumps by forces under his control during the Sudanese civil war. However, as of this writing, Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir has not been brought to justice.

Having access to clean water and sanitation close to home is a human right recognized through Resolution 64/292 by the United Nations General Assembly. Among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) the SDG 6 calling for clean water and sanitation at least mentions the use of water as a target, weapon and tool. Moreover, the phenomenon was discussed during an Arria-Formula meeting of the UN Security Council among UN members in October 2018. However, in light of mounting pressure on resources the existing efforts are clearly insufficient to tackle the risks and the realities of a weaponization of resources. The Climate Security Mechanism, a UN capacity to address the linkages between climate change, peace and security, supported by the Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks could serve as institutional focal point, to rapidly develop effective strategies of intervention in this field. Starting from context specific knowledge generation, preventive measures must be installed in fragile regions. Building international awareness within the UN and beyond is a first step only.

Dr. Christina Kohler, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt / Hessische Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung

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