Climate change and conflict: major threats to the poorest and most vulnerable worldwide

Written by Chiara Mariotti, CPAN Research Officer. 

This October in London there was much discussion on the implications for development of human and naturally induced disasters. Firstly, ODI launched its new flagship publication ‘The geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes in 2030’. The report warns that the foreseeable increase in extreme weather events and natural disasters as a consequence of climate change could both become a major cause of impoverishment, and cancel the progress achieved in poverty reduction. The report also recommends that Disaster Risk Management takes livelihood and impoverishment effects into account, in addition to focusing on preventing loss of life and damage to property.     

A week later, the charity War Child marked its 20th anniversary with a High Level Policy Forum and the launch of the report 'The Next Generation: The Future of War and its Impact on Children'. The report explores the trends likely to characterise conflicts over the next three decades, and how these will impact civilians - particularly children. It also sends the alarming prediction that the number of children killed and injured in conflicts will increase over the next 20 years. The prediction is dramatic not only for the toll in terms of children’s death, maiming and psychological damage, but also for the long term consequences on development.                       

As argued in ODI’s report on natural disasters, wars can also undermine national and international efforts to reduce poverty and prevent impoverishment. Involvement of children and young people in conflicts puts further strain on the poverty reduction strategies of countries because it erodes their present and future human capital and human development base. According to UNESCO, 28 million children worldwide are deprived of an education because of conflicts, which expose them to widespread sexual violence, targeted attacks on schools and other abuses. Children and young people who are put out of school because of the war, and who experience physical and psychological trauma, will be less able to positively contribute to the post-conflict recovery.

The prediction made by the report is justified by the interplay of a number of factors. First, if the trend of the last 60 years persists, the number of wars fought in the future will decline, but their length, intensity and damage will rise, and they will be fought primarily within countries[i]. In these intrastate conflicts, children will be more likely to be targeted for strategic reasons – for instance to control communities through fear, and to be recruited as combatants. According to the report, currently there are 300,000 children associated with armed forces and armed groups; this number is bound to increase because prolonged wars drastically reduce the opportunity cost of fighting for young people and children, destroying livelihoods, eroding the labour market and decreasing returns to education.

Second, the interplay between climate change and population growth will make conflicts linked to competition for natural resources more likely in the future, and humanitarian crisis resulting from natural disasters more prone to spiral into fragility, violence and even war.

The combination of environmental disasters and conflicts is particularly damaging for children for at least two reasons. First, because it increases the risk of future crisis descending into impoverishment. Second, because conflicts revolving around erosion of the resource base undermines the resilience of communities - the ability of people to cope with crisis in the short term, and to recover from them in the long term. Children are disproportionally affected because both their present and their future are compromised.

While depicting this disheartening scenario, War Child’s forum provided antidotes to it. The first reason for not despairing, War Child’s Chief Executive Rob Williams said, is the resilience demonstrated by children worldwide. This resilience must be fostered by reaching out to children in conflicts, in the first place limiting the disruption to their education. This is done for example by making sure that children in refugee camps go to school. A CPRC working paper arrived at a similar conclusion, showing that in Northern Uganda, people with education demonstrated greater resilience than those without during and following periods of conflict and insecurity.

Yet, War Child reported, in 2012 donors funded only 28% of the amount requested by the UN to respond to child education in emergencies, while education accounts for just 2% of humanitarian aid. As a first action to improve the situation of war children, the forum’s recommendation was that donors should increase their commitment to humanitarian assistance for education.

In conclusion, the forum reminded that taking positive action now is a key part of seeking solutions to the conflicts of the next thirty years. Two set of actions were urged in particular. First, understanding the causes of future conflicts, so as to implement better prevention and mitigation systems. Second, directly investing in children and young people, as the best avenue for reducing intergenerational cycles of violence, creating conditions for stable peace and promoting human and economic development. 

[i]{C}  96% of the conflicts active in 2012 were fought within states.