Climate change escalates Darfur crisis
Less rainfall on the fringes of the Sahara Desert is putting more of a strain on resources than ever before.
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And as water becomes more scarce, these nomads are finding the old open pastures fenced off, the water wells available only for a fee. Age-old agreements between nomads and farmers are being rewritten.Skip to next paragraph
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Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a war began in Darfur. Khartoum merely supplied the arms to take the fighting to a genocidal scale.
A growing number of Western officials see the Darfur conflict as much larger and more complex than the simple story of genocide of black tribes by Arab militias.
British Home Secretary John Reid pointed to global warming as a key factor behind the conflict in Darfur. "The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur," he said. "We should see this as a warning sign."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also joined the climate-change bandwagon, writing in a Washington Post opinion page column, "The Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change."
Activists in the Save Darfur Coalition and others say the climate-change argument is an attempt to absolve Sudan's government of its well-documented recruiting, arming, and directing of Arab janjaweed militias against black villages.
Khartoum has long minimized its own role in the fighting, calling Darfur "a local conflict." It has also minimized the death toll, citing only 9,000 deaths compared with UN estimates of 200,000.
In the refugee camps scattered across the parched deserts of Eastern Chad, where refugees receive only 4.5 to 10 liters of water a day and where refugee women are often beaten or raped when they venture into local communities in search of firewood or water from local wells, climate change is not a theoretical issue. It is a crushing fact of life.
Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of the field office of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Iriba, says that water has now become the chief concern of aid organizations, and a growing source of tension between the local population and Sudanese refugees.
"It's a big competition for water; it's a big competition of firewood in the zone; it's a big competition of raising land in the zone, and it's not very easy for us," he says.
The problem is even more stark up north in the town of Bahai, says Tim Burroughs, the environmental health officer for International Rescue Committee, which runs a refugee camp for 26,000 Darfuris in the area.
"Bahai is a terrible place for a camp," says Mr. Burroughs. "It's where the Sahara begins. There are plenty of dunes, you see houses overtaken by sand, you see villages abandoned."
In 50 years, Bahai will no longer be able to sustain life, he says, but at present, "there's no where else to put the refugees," because of language and local prejudice. The local people of Bahai speak Zaghawa, and so do the refugees. Further south, where there is more water, Zaghawas are the unwelcome minority.
Recent good news from Darfur, about a newly discovered deep-underground aquifer containing enough water to fill Lake Erie, may provide some temporary relief from the effects of climate change, as scientists hope to start drilling wells as soon as possible. But water experts say that aquifers and borewells only delay the inevitable fact – that desertification will eventually dry out the land, and push people and their animals further and further south.
"It's not just bringing water to people that matters, we also have to think of their animals," says Burroughs.