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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.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2007

Iriba, Chad

With Darfur refugee women waiting up to two days for their chance to fill buckets at a communal water point, it's only a matter of time before bickering turns into a full-fledged fight.

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In the 115-degree F. heat of the Touloum refugee camp, just across Sudan's border in eastern Chad, the stakes are high. Refugees receive only 4.5 liters, on average, per family member – just enough for drinking and cooking. A family that misses its day or gets shoved aside at the water pump may not survive.

On this day, a younger woman has been caught cutting in line. She and an older woman wrestle each other to the ground.

"I have been waiting here two days for my turn, and if the water finishes I will have to ask for water from other people," says Khadija Musa, the elderly woman. "Sometimes I have to borrow water to cook. Our clothes are filthy, we cannot wash without water." She rubs her shoulder and sighs. "The only thing left is to die."

Competition for water – in refugee camps, between farmers and herders, and between countries – has long sparked conflict in the arid region and forms one of the main causes of the war in Sudan's Darfur region. But the trouble is only beginning, as it becomes clear that dramatic climate change will have its sharpest effects in Africa, leading to rising hardship, massive population displacement, and, in some cases, all-out war.

Yet a growing number of aid workers here say that the same issue that pits communities against each other can also bring them together. Solving common problems – improving access to water for farmers and herders alike – could be the first step toward reconciliation, and lasting peace.

"In a way, water can be a divider or it can bring people together," says Caroline Saint-Mleux, head of Care International's office in Iriba, Chad, which manages two refugee camps in the Iriba area.

"Is [water] the only cause of the problem?" she asks. "Obviously, everyone knows it's a very complex conflict. But at the same time, you can use [water] to bring the communities back together.... You have to have [the warring parties] talk about a common need, and after that you might have them talk about something else that would start giving other solutions to the conflict."

Just what set off the conflict in Darfur – and subsequent spillover conflicts here in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic – remains a topic of vigorous debate. In Darfur, local perceptions of neglect by the Sudanese government led members of the non-Arabic speaking Fur and Zaghawa tribes to take up arms in protest in 2003.

The government, having few soldiers on the ground, turned to nomadic Arab tribes, allegedly arming them and promising them whatever property they could take from the rebellious black tribes.

UN agencies estimate that at least 200,000 civilians were killed in the following several years, with 2.5 million forced from their homes into refugee camps.

But many experts say that the underlying tensions between mostly nomadic Arabs and sedentary black farmers – both of whom are Muslim – is their centuries-long competition for water and land, a competition that has been exacerbated by decades of drought. Lake Chad, which forms part of the border between Chad, Nigeria, and Niger, has dropped to 10 percent of its original size.

Sudanese and Chadian officials estimate that rainfall has dropped nearly 40 percent over the past 50 years. Less rain trickles into underground aquifers, and water tables have been dropping.

Arab nomads, both in Chad and Darfur, must now take their herds of camels, goats, donkeys, and sheep farther and farther south to the wetter zones occupied by black farmers to find grazing pasture.