At face value, the source of the multiple protracted conflicts gripping Ethiopia and the larger Horn region appears to be rooted in ethnic politics, religious fundamentalism, or the standard scramble for power. These observations certainly hold true, but only to some extent.
Beneath the chaos and the violence, however, lies the often overlooked issue of resources. In particular: the scarcity of resources.
Reports from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) reveal the widening impact that climate change and other environmental problems are fueling conflicts in the region.
The Authority’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) and Climate Prediction and Applications Center (ICPAC) recently issued a report on the relationship between climate and conflict following a study conducted in all IGAD member states (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan).
Security experts from CEWARN, headquartered in Addis Ababa, and climate scientists at ICPAC (Nairobi) conducted the regression analysis based on data on conflicts and climate interruptions in the Horn between 2018 and 2022.
The report illustrates that a 0.2 increase in the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) – a metric used to quantify the health and density or ‘greenness’ – corresponds to a 12 percent decrease in the probability of physical conflict in the area the following month.
The study further discovered that an additional inch of rainfall was tied to an eight percent reduction in the likelihood of conflict the following month. A drop of rain in agricultural and pastoral areas, the study shows, could be the difference in whether the residents of these areas fall victim to conflict or not.
The study marks a significant milestone and factual establishment that could serve as the basis for conflict management and climate change mitigation in the Horn.
The study reveals significant relationships between healthier vegetation and increased rainfall – both contributing to a reduced likelihood of physical conflict, assault, and violence. Vegetation health had a significant influence on conflict outcomes in the first month, hence establishing a one-month lag between measurement of the parameters and potential impacts.
A one-month early warning or conflict outlook is therefore plausible, according to the report.
Drought is repeatedly a source of conflict in the South Omo, Borena, Afar and Somali regions of Ethiopia as pastoralists resort to violence in the search for green grazing lands for their livestock herds.
Government officials in these areas say these intense clashes often go on for weeks between neighboring Woredas where one has received rainfall and the other has not. These clashes often take place behind the mask of ethnic conflict, but the root cause is the need to access and dominate freshwater sources or lush grazing lands.
Western and southern Tigray, Metekel of Benishangul-Gumuz, and several other places that receive above-average rainfall in Ethiopia, are the stage for a scramble for fertile agricultural lands that is a major factor in the continued strife and conflict rocking the country.
The World Food Program (WFP) reports that 22 million people are acutely food insecure in the Horn of Africa as a result of drought. It is almost double the 13 million people cited at the beginning of 2022.
The WFP says it needs USD 2.4 billion to meet the urgent relief and food assistance needs of 8.8 million drought-affected people in the Horn, of which USD 728.8 million is needed to reach 3.3 million people in Ethiopia.
As drought wreaks havoc, nearly all East African states are languishing in protracted conflicts – Ethiopia is no exception. Land rights are the primary cause of conflicts between Afar and Somali, Somali and Oromia, Oromia and Amhara, and Amhara and Tigray. Tensions over disputed lands spill over into ethnic strife.
There is, however, a semblance of hope for conflict resolution.
Officials in some drought-affected parts of Ethiopia have had success in devising a proactive approach to decouple climate change and conflict.
Dida Cherkole is the head of the Borena Zone Water and Energy Bureau. Borena, a large part of the Oromia region bordering Kenya, has been an epicenter for tragedy over the last few years. The primarily pastoralist Zone famed for its cattle has seen rainfall fail for five consecutive seasons, leaving nearly 70,000 households without a means for survival as millions of heads of cattle succumbed to the heavy drought.
As neighboring regions were also struggling with drought, the residents of Borana hardly had anywhere to turn to.
Dida told The Reporter that a conflict-prevention mechanism has effectively prevented resource conflicts in Borena despite the years of drought.
“We put a communication mechanism in place because we know from experience how drought and resource clashes are correlated,” he said. “When farmers or pastoralists move in search of water or grazing lands, we communicate ahead. They are also obliged to communicate with us. They tell us how many people and livestock are moving from which area to where, and we notify residents of the host area ahead of the arrival of the incoming IDPs. This way, we managed to avoid conflict during the worst of the drought.”
Tigist Hailu is a public relations and communications officer at CEWARN/IGAD. She envisions the organization’s recent study can be used to design and implement mechanisms much like the one in Borena across the Horn.
“When rain volume drops, tensions normally increase among groups trying to access water and grazing land,” she said. “Clashes can also take place between people of neighboring countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya.”
She observes that elders of communities living in border areas have agreements about the sharing of resources in times of drought.
“They tolerate one another even at times of high migration,” said Tigist.
She argues a security apparatus can be tailored using the climate analysis and projection provided by ICPAC – IGAD’s climate arm.
“Member countries can use the climate projections and proactively avoid conflicts. Once the climate scientists establish the facts, it is simple for the security apparatus and administrators to prepare ahead and avoid clashes,” she said.
Tigist, however, notes there have been issues with coordination.
“The response capacity of member governments is low. Humanitarian catastrophe remains prevalent in the region,” she said.
Tigist calls for collaboration among climate, security, and agricultural institutions in the Horn to minimize the impacts of climate change and ensuing conflict. Collaboration is also critical to equitably and effectively use the meager funds available to the region, she said.
“Addressing climate change is addressing conflict,” says Tigist.