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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"You have to provide fodder, you need to provide feeding areas and pastureland. If there is not enough for the animals to eat, then there is no reason for people to be there, and they are going to move south."

And herders moving into areas inhabited by farmers is what has sparked many of the clashes to date.

Meanwhile, the thankless task of providing water for the 220,000 refugees – and increasingly to local communities – falls on the shoulders of the UNHCR, which oversees the running of a dozen camps as well as the half dozen sites for 120,000 Chadians displaced by a civil conflict that erupted last year in Eastern Chad.

The UN, together with other donors such as USAID, is studying possibilities for creating more sustainable water sources for the growing populations of Eastern Chad, building catchment dams to hold onto the season rains that flow through dry river beds called wadis. They are also conducting seismic mapping tests to find likely sources of deep underground aquifers.

Gabriel Salas leads a UNHCR-funded team with much more immediate goals: finding enough water to get refugees through the dry season. The place where he has found water is underneath these wadis in vast canyons carved out of sandstone by more permanent rivers from a geological period when the Sahel was a much wetter place.

Now filled with sand, these underground canyons are ideal aquifers for storing water.

It was Salas who dug a bore well in a wadi, 34 kilometers from Abéché, that supplies water for the 80,000 people of Abéché. "All the water for this town comes from one bore well, 34 kilometers from here," he says. "What does that tell you? In a radius of 34 kilometers, you cannot find groundwater unless you go to a wadi."

Salas, as a geologist, doesn't see the problem of global warming as a recent phenomenon, but as something that has been going on for thousands of years. "The attack of Rome by Hannibal happened 2,400 years ago, and he took elephants from Carthage and marched them toward Rome. Now, the fact that you had elephants in the North of Africa shows that there has been climate change and that desertification has been taking place for a long time." If there is one obstacle preventing a longer-term solution to the problem of water in Eastern Chad and Darfur, i's money. The longer that a conflict remains unresolved, and the longer that refugees stay in foreign lands, the harder it is for UN agencies, such as the UNHCR, and relief agencies, like Care and Oxfam, to raise money for their relief. Longer-term development projects, such as the provision of water for citizens, are the responsibility of governments, where World Bank and UN Development Program funded projects can take years and decades to design and put into place.

This means that local people and Sudanese refugees will continue to see each other as rivals in the constant hunt for water.

At a public well on the outskirts of Iriba, a dozen or so local men and children drop buckets 50 feet and hit mud. A lucky few managed to scrape the last few gallons off of the floor. The current rate for 140 liters is about $5. This is less than half of the amount of water the average American uses in a day (300 to 375 liters, or 80 to 100 gallons, according to the US Geological Service.)

"We have had more than five years with not much rain," says Abakar Abdullah Djibrine, a water seller at the well. "Before there was water, but now there is no water, and water is very expensive. Yes, people are angry. Life is too difficult without water."

Why a Rwandan survivor runs a Chad refugee camp

At the UNHCR compound near the Darfur border, you find the young and middle-aged, European and African and Chadian. And then there is their chief, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a Rwandan Tutsi from Kigali. In charge of three camps with a total population of 57,000, Emmanuel is part mayor, part peacemaker, and at the end of the day, a good-time Charlie with an infectious laugh.

Mr. Uwurukundo has what many would consider an impossible job. Directly responsible for three camps full of people who have lost so much, and who even now receive precious little – 5 to 10 liters of water a day, on average, a sack of wheat flour every two weeks, a can of cooking oil, a plastic sheet for cover, and blankets. Uwurukundo doesn't often get gushes of gratitude. On the week we were there, he was chased from the camp at Am Nabak after a swarm of angry women began to pelt him and his colleagues with stones for not providing enough plastic sheeting.

What makes a man like this leave a country that itself has emerged from an ethnic genocide only a few years ago to come to a conflict with many of the same characteristics?

"I was in Kigali during the genocide, hiding," he says. His wife and children, his mother-in-law, and sister-in-law still live in Kigali. Everyone else he had ever known and loved was murdered in what must have been the bloodiest month in human history.

"When you are a survivor of something like this, you have two choices," he says. "Either you come to the conclusion that life is meaningless, and for all intents and purposes, you are dead to the world, without hope. Or you think, if I am still alive, there must be a reason for it. There must be something that I can do with my experiences to make things better."

One doesn't have to undergo personal tragedies such as Uwurukundo's in order to make a difference in people's lives. But a person like Uwurukundo has a tendency to attract like-minded people, and they tend to bring out the better qualities of those around them. It was Uwurukundo's UNHCR team who put us in touch with a Chadian farmer who had given plots of his land to Sudanese refugees to farm ("Flooded with refugees, a farmer shares land," in the July 12 issue of the Monitor).

Uwurukundo recalled his own lengthy conversations with the farmer, Al-Hajj Ali Saboor Bakit. Mr. Bakit had been a refugee himself, Uwurukundo says, forced into a more peaceful Darfur when Chad itself was having a violent anti-government rebellion. Now that Darfuris are flooding across the border into a relatively peaceful Chad, Bakit could identify with the losses of the Darfuris who have now flooded Chad's sparse desert.

It was clear that Uwurukundo could see a part of himself in Bakit as well. The two men – both Africans, but one an illiterate Muslim, the other a highly educated Christian – had found common experiences of hardship and a similar outlook of what to do with their experiences.

Outsiders have a disturbing tendency of portraying Africa as a passive place, where people blame the outside world – from the former colonial rulers to the World Bank – for their problems. But these two are not quitters or blamers. They knew they could make a difference.

"My object is to get the local community and the refugees together to see how they can share traditional wells and keep things together," says Uwurukundo. He realizes that his job is to put himself out of a job, to help the refugees reach a point where they can look after themselves.

"It's a matter of dignity, a feeling that they are not begging," says Uwurukundo. "If you give 100 percent assistance to refugees, you create a dependent state, and when it comes time to repatriate them, you'll have trouble. It's only once they are capable of contributing to their own well-being that they will feel better about themselves."

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