Climate change is an undeniable conflict threat multiplier that is already increasing food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition while disrupting livelihoods. It is spurring migration through urbanisation, for example, small farm holdings no-longer remain viable following droughts or disasters. Additionally, issues relating to land degradation and grabbing, and over exploitation of the environment create conflicts within communities that may lead to violence. Climate change has the effect of escalating social, political and economic tensions in fragile and conflict-affected settings and has the potential to spark new conflicts in Africa. Diverging interests and values among various stakeholders give rise to climate conflicts (also known as environmental conflicts) over issues like, public land use and preservations, private land development, water quality or quantity, air quality, habitat for species, waste disposal, natural resource use and management and environmental hazards.
These conflicting interests and values related to natural resources and ecosystem services lead to conflict and mass insecurity in various parts of the African continent. For example, in South Sudan, unprecedented floods have affected large parts of the country and have led to the displacement of thousands of people. Between 2021 and 2022, over half a million people were displaced internally. The flooding has led to the exacerbation of conflict far to the south, in the country’s Equatoria region. Displaced herders, as well as those who migrated with them, are fighting with long-time resident farmers over land. Dozens have died in fighting over the past year and, unless conflict drivers are addressed, tensions could increase.
Although women on the continent are pushing their way forward into decision-making spaces, their involvement remains fragmented because of a lack of access to resources, expertise and opportunitiesTweet
From the South Sudan example, it is clear that climate conflicts are emerging as a key issue that will require immediate intervention at local, regional, national and global security levels. Climate conflicts in Africa are becoming widespread and increasing rapidly. As climate change affects conflict across the world, women and girls face increased vulnerabilities to all forms of gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking, child marriage, and other forms of violence. Although women and girls are highly affected by climate conflicts, African women have played a fundamental role in strengthening and enabling the mitigation of climate related conflicts at community level through responsive plans and programmes. They are the environmental defenders who protect the environment and protest against unjust and unsustainable resource uses because of social and environmental reasons.
Climate related conflicts force women to organise themselves to safeguard basic necessities and to carry out activities related to, for example, education and healthcare. Women are also the central caretakers of families and everyone is affected when they are excluded from peacebuilding during climate related conflicts. Women are also advocates for peace, as peacekeepers, relief workers and mediators. Women have played prominent roles in peace processes in Africa such as Sudan and Burundi, where they have contributed as observers of peacebuilding mediation processes. For example, South Sudanese women have contributed to peacebuilding during the floods by contributing to the leadership, education, social support and other care services, while Burundi women have performed important roles as peace negotiators and peace educators in both families and society in conflict across the country.
Although women on the continent are pushing their way forward into decision-making spaces, their involvement remains fragmented because of a lack of access to resources, expertise and opportunities. There needs to be greater intentional investment in including women in decision making. Women possess unique knowledge, innovation and local experiences that could shape critical decision-making that is effective to combat climate related conflicts. Their participation is crucial and, if neglected, will amount to inequitable climate action to mitigate climate related conflicts in Africa. According to UN Women, “Women are crucial partners in economic recovery, social cohesion, and political legitimacy, and women’s participation in a mediation process can help ensure that more and diverse members of the community become engaged in peacemaking. This, in turn, can build the credibility of the process and increase local ownership of the process and its results. An inclusive mediation process brings a fuller understanding of the deep-rooted causes of conflict and the different experiences during conflict, as well as facilitates creative and holistic solutions to conflict.”
In light of the inclusion barriers, the important question is ‘how should African countries include women in their climate action processes for the purpose of mitigating climate related conflicts?’ African governments and multilateral institutions need to make political and financial commitments to support the contributions and substantive inclusion of women at all levels. For example, policies and national adaptation strategies need to be developed with women (not just in consultation), strict women quotas need to be set for every decision-making body at all levels and procurement processes need to give preference to women-owned entities that mitigate conflict. This holds the governments accountable to achieve gender parity in environmental decision-making institutions.
The African Union, Regional Economic Communities such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and national governments must implement a climate action fund, which provides funding for formal and informal projects on mitigation of climate conflicts proposed by women’s organisations, formations or NGOs that work with women. This should be coupled with technical skills support, partnership and collaborations and capacity building in conflict mediation and resolution.
Working together with learning institutions, African countries need to develop climate change and climate conflict educational programmes and knowledge resources for marginalised groups to be capacitated on climate conflictsTweet
Working together with learning institutions, African countries need to develop climate change and climate conflict educational programmes and knowledge resources for marginalised groups to be capacitated on climate conflicts. Capacity-building, environmental awareness and information exchange, with a vision to foster a generation of environmentally conscious environmental defenders capable of positive action is important. Climate education, including technical environmental training, can increase their resilience and build their capacity to work with climate information and lead climate solutions during climate conflicts. African institutions and governments need to avoid women tokenism, where young people and women have little or no substantial influence in decision-making and the design and implementation of programmes and policies. Investing in women creates a ripple effect that yields multiple benefits, not only for individual women, but also for families, neighbourhoods and countries.
Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner with Re4m Envoy and Conflict Check focusing on intersectional human rights protection, effective implementation of international law and peace-building.